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Mike Whitney – The Boy From The [South] East

By Dan Hutton on November 3, 2012 in People

Photo: Andrew Goldie

During the month The Beast caught up with former Australian Test cricketer and host of Channel 7’s Sydney Weekender, Mike Whitney…

Where are you originally from?

Born and raised in Matraville. My family’s lived in Matraville now for 53 years,\; my mum still lives there. It was a fun place to grow up; I went to Matraville Public School and South Sydney Boys High in Maroubra so I can pretty much say that I’ve lived the majority of my life in Matraville and Maroubra. I’ve lived in a couple of other suburbs, Bronte and Clovelly and Coogee, but only for a small number of years, For the majority of my life, I’m a Matto boy who has moved towards the beach.

Apparently your grandma, who lived in Paddington, had an interesting reaction to your mother’s decision to move to Matraville?

Apparently she went, “Matraville? Matraville? You wouldn’t go there for your holidays; that’s the end of the line.” Apparently at that time the trams and the buses only went to Maroubra Junction and Pagewood, so you had to walk over the sand dunes or along sandy Bunnerong Road to get to Matraville. Even my memories of growing up in Matraville, it was rural. There was horse paddocks and Chinese gardens everywhere, the Pearson’s used to grow their flowers there, right at the end of my street, and there was a duck farm up near Hillsdale. That whole area was very rural and then it became increasingly industrial.

Where are you living these days?

I live in Maroubra, down near the army barracks on Garden Street. I’ve lived there for 15 years and I really love it there. I live in a semi; it’s not very big but I live on my own and my kids come and stay every now and again. They’ve got a bit older now – they’re 18 my triplets. My son Fergus loves coming over because he lives with his mum and two sisters and a female dog during the week so I think he’s pretty keen to get to Dad’s bachelor pad on the weekend. That’s really good for him and me.

How is his cricketing ability? Is he following in your footsteps?

He played until he was about 12 and then he retired but made a comeback when he was about 15 or 16 when a few of his mates at school got a team together. He was a good cricketer. He was a better batsman at 12 than I was in my Test career and he can bowl leg spin but he always loved his Aussie Rules as well, and that was always more important to him. I always said to him that he didn’t have to do anything that I’ve done if he didn’t want to.

What about your daughters, are they into sport?

Madeleine and Juliet, they’ve always been dancers. They love their dancing. They started at Randwick Girls High and wanted to go there because of Rock Eisteddfod ford but they also applied to Newtown School of Performing Arts and in Year 9 Juliet got an opportunity to go there. We were wondering how that was going to work out, because one went and one didn’t and Newtown is a very special place for creative kids. But Madeleine dealt with it really well and this year, in Year 12, she was one of the principal dancers in their performing arts thing that was held at NIDA and she won the show performer of the year. So even though her and Juliet were at different schools, Madeleine really embraced what she could do at Randwick Girls High.

What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs (or the south east if you want to get picky)?

I’ve always said I’m an Eastern Suburbs boy but those who know me know I also preface that with the South Sydney end of the Eastern Suburbs. Look, growing up in Matraville was fantastic and there was a lot of sport around and a lot of wide-open places. There was still a lot of bush around when I was growing up and the beach was obviously there and once I was allowed to go down the beach on my own, which for me was about 13 or 14 when my mum finally relented, it just exposed me to this other amazing culture, the surfing culture. I really got sucked into that lifestyle and I loved it and I loved being down the beach. Then I found that I was a pretty good rugby league player and a good cricketer and I went the cricket way and had to forget about rugby league but I never ever forgot about the surf and the beach and how much I love Maroubra. All my friends lived around there, I loved the school I went to, I just loved the place. I call it the hub of the universe.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs these days?

I love all the coastal aspects. Botany Bay is a big part of my life. All of the beaches – Maroubra, Coogee, Clovelly, Bronte, Tamarama, Bondi – that whole strip will always be a really huge part of my life, but even more so places like La Perouse, Little Bay, Yarra Bay, Chifley and Malabar. And I love that even after spending over 50 years in the area there are still areas where you can go that are quiet. You can go out to the headlands of Malabar or out past St Michael’s Golf Course and NSW Golf Course right out to Cape Banks, the north head of Botany Bay – that’s just like unbelievable. And that chain of four golf courses, they’re just diamonds. I also love that work now is here at Redfern instead of Epping because it only takes me 15 minutes to get there from Maroubra instead of an hour to get to Epping. I love that multicultural side of the area too. I love the fact that you can go to 500 different restaurants and not ever come to an end of that trail. And I love the vibrancy of the place; there’s always something happening.

Is there anything you don’t like about the east?

The traffic, and in some places the level of violence, which always really disappoints me. I don’t understand why we’ve got to be violent, and I know a lot of it’s got to do with abuse of alcohol and I don’t want to be a hypocrite – I don’t drink much now but I drank enough for 35 lifetimes when I was growing up with the cricket and all that – but I really don’t understand why we can’t do anything about it. And I hate paying for parking.

At what age did you start playing cricket?

At school, Matto Public, probably about Under 10s or something like that. Then I went to play at Botany United until I was about Under 16s and then I got asked to go to Randwick at 17.

When did you realise that you had a bit of talent?

Pretty much as soon as I arrived at grade cricket. My first two seasons were in fourth grade, so that was probably 1976/77 and 1977/78. To be a left arm fast bowler was quite rare. I burst on the fourth grade scene and just carved up and we won the competition the first year that I played and the second year I played. It obviously wasn’t only me but I took something like 45 wickets and 51 wickets or something like that in those two seasons. It was then that I realised that I was a bit faster than what I actually thought. I was hitting blokes and I actually broke a couple of arms. After that I played one third grade game and then they elevated me straight into second grade. We won the second grade competition that year and I took another 45 wickets, then the season after that, 1979/80, I played about six or seven games in second grade then they elevated me into first grade and I took 40-something wickets in 10 games including a 9 for at Manly Oval. The following season I found myself in the NSW squad and playing in the first game there. It was amazing.

Were you nervous or did you just get out there and play?

I was more nervous about the fact that Doug Walters, my cricketing hero was sitting in the same dressing room and I was actually going to go out and play a game with Doug because he was my absolute bloody idol. I’d idolised him from a little boy and there I was sitting at the Gabba lacing my boots up and looking across the room going “Shit!”

How old were you when you first played for Australia?

Well, that’s the end of this amazing fairytale. During that first year playing for NSW, 1980/81, I decided I was going to go to England and play league cricket in Fleetwood, Lancashire in the off-season. I had a pretty good year but only played four games for NSW and the other games I was 12th man, so I was around the team all year and learned a lot. I got to Fleetwood, started the season well, then I got a phone call about six weeks into the season from a mate of mine, Greg Geise, who was on a scholarship at Gloucestershire. A couple of the Gloucestershire county bowlers had broken down and they were looking for someone to fill in mid-week and I was only playing on the weekends so I asked my club if I could I go down and fill in and they said yes. Next moment I’m opening the bowling for Gloucestershire playing against absolute legends. About a month after that I’m sitting on the balcony of Cheltenham Cricket Ground, we’re playing Hampshire at Cheltenham, Malcolm Marshall’s got 4/20 and I’m batting last but we’re all padded up because he’s going to go through us on this dicey wicket. He had hit two blokes in the head and one was in hospital. It’s bloody awesome watching this from the grandstand but you don’t want to go out there and bat. All of a sudden a phone call comes in and it’s for me. The voice in the other end goes, “Mike, this is Fred Bennett, the manager of the Australian cricket team. You’ve been selected to pay play for Australia,” who were there touring on the 1981 Ashes tour. “Get out of those f**king pads now, get in your car and drive to Manchester; I’m in room 241 at the Grand Hotel, I’ll see you in three hours.” So I drove up to Manchester and the next day I made my Test debut – in my seventh first class match.

And you didn’t have to face Malcolm Marshall…

I didn’t have to face Malcolm Marshall, I had to face Ian Botham and Bob Willis and a couple of others instead.

How did you go in that first Test?

I took 2/52 and 2/74. David Gower was my first Test wicket and I also got Ian Botham and Chris Tavare.

Do you have a career highlight from your cricket days?

I’ve got to think about that on three levels because if it wasn’t for Randwick Cricket Club and the people down there who encouraged me and made me believe that I could play and pulled me up when I was carrying on like a goose – like when I turned up pissed to the second day of a second grade game – I wouldn’t have got where I did. So look, for Randwick, some of first grade premierships we won, to celebrate that with my team mates down there, that’s equally as satisfying as winning Sheffield Shields, and the Sheffield Shield is the hardest domestic competition in the world. I was lucky enough to play in five Sheffield Shield winning teams. You know, up until I’d retired Allan Border hadn’t won the Sheffield Shield and he played before me and after me and I always used to say to him “Yeah, Test record for most runs and all that but no Sheffield Shield.” And, of course, to play and win a Test series, even just to win a Test, is a big deal. I contributed to a Test win in Perth when I took the seven-for and also won the man of the match in that Test match, you know, how would you ever forget that moment? That was my only ten-wicket match in any form of cricket. If you asked me if there was one day where I thought that I was operating on a higher level of consciousness it was that day at the WACA. It was like a dream sequence. There was a couple of deliveries I actually saw in my head before I bowled it and it went exactly as I’d seen it in my head walking back to the mark.

Who was the biggest wicket you ever took?

I bowled Lara a couple of times. He was my last two Test wickets. I got him in the first and second innings of my last Test. They’re big wickets. But it’s funny, the older you get and the longer that time goes on, some things take on a lot more significance than what they originally did when they happened. Last year when India arrived in Australia, a guy from The Melbourne Age called me and said, “The first Test against India in 1991/92…” and I went, “Yeah, I played in that Test in Brisbane.” Then he said, “That’s right. Do you remember your first wicket in that Test match?” And I went, “Yes, I bowled Sachin Tendulkar with an in-swinging yorker.” Then he said, “You’re the first Test bowler to dismiss him in a Test on Australian soil.” I’d never actually thought about that. I knocked over Sachin a couple of times but I never thought about the fact that I was the first player to knock him over in a Test on Australian soil. So now that wicket in my mind becomes a lot more significant. He’s undoubtedly one of the top handful of players that has ever played the game.

Did you ever hit the winning runs in a match for Australia?

No, I was pretty lucky actually, in that I didn’t have to bat too often, except when we played the West Indies. When we played the West Indies everyone got to bat, which was uncomfortable. I played through 10 years of their 15 year reign and they were scary years. Blokes were physically sick before they went out to bat.

You’re involved with the Randwick Petersham Cricket Club; what’s your role there?

I’m the president there. Randwick merged with Petersham Marrickville 12 seasons ago and it was a really big thing for both clubs, but the merge has been seamless and I was asked by the presidents of the two merging clubs if I would be the president of the new amalgamation. I said I would do it for two years so the club could settle in and get some new roots down and just make sure everything was right. It’s now been 12 years and I’m still the president. I’ve love it. There are a couple of things that I’ve done that I’m really proud of. Simon Katich was moving to NSW going into our second year and I asked him to join our club because we needed a marquee player. I cannot say enough words to thank that bloke for what he has done for the club. And the year after that Nathan Hauritz was coming down from Queensland to NSW and we managed to secure his services too.

How long do you reckon you will stay on as president?

A few more years, I reckon. Ex-cricketers are always stats people, so I’m looking to round it off at 15 years.

You’re a life member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs; do you reckon they can win the premiership next year?

Yes. Without a doubt.

Are you going to stake some money on it?

I’m not a gambler but if I was I would.

These days you’re best known as the host of Sydney Weekender; what do you love about that gig?

First of all it was a show to train people up so I really took hold of the fact that I was getting some fantastic training and working with a lot of really good people on the show and working out how television fitted together. After about seven or eight years I started to realise that everywhere I went in NSW I got this free education about an absolute myriad of subjects from wine making, to cattle, to all different sorts of farms, to trying to find gold, to sheep, to you name it. It’s just this unbelievable wealth of information. And about that time I realised what a great job I’ve got. I learn all this stuff every week and do these amazing things that people don’t get an opportunity to do and I go and see places that people only go toon their holidays. I realised then that I wanted to hang around for a while and now it’s been 18 years and 760 episodes and I don’t have a problem getting out of bed to go to work. It’s great; I love it.

What does your perfect weekend involve?

Probably going up to the far Northern Rivers. I’m a bit of a Ballina/Byron/Wardell/Alstonville/Lismore man. I’ve spent a lot of time up there. I’ve got great friends that live up there and people that I grew up with moved up there 20 and 25 years ago. In saying that, my sister lives down at Berry on the south coast. She’s been there for 25 years and that’s just such a beautiful place as well. For me a good weekend is to really get away from everything, try not to turn my phone on, try not to turn the computer on, not wear any shoes, don’t shave, don’t do my hair, try and grow a three day dreadlock and just really rest up.

Do you support any charities?

For twenty years I was involved with the Sydney Children’s Hospital and I sort of stepped down from that about a decade ago but I still support them. I try to spread my fingers deep and wide. If Glenn McGrath rings me up and asks if can I do something for the McGrath Foundation I say yes. Steve Waugh Foundation – yep. I’ve done campaigns for Beyond Blue for men’s mental health. I try to get involved where I can.

Will you be growing a moustache this November to support Movember?

I can’t because if I do it appears on the show next January. I’d like to though.

Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to make a career out of sport or television?

Bruce Lee, the kung fu dude, made a lot of great statements. One of them was this: “To will is not enough, we must do.” A lot of people say I’d really like to do that, well just bloody do it. You’ve got to go through the heartache, the pain, the anger; a lot of people get depressed in this industry. It’s a tough gig but you follow your dreams and eventually you can make them come true.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Mike Whitney?

That’s a very good question because you start to ask yourself questions at 53 and a half, like how long is this Sydney Weekender dream going to last? I’d like to do another four or five years. I know there’s some really good-looking boy or girl who’s chomping at the bit, wanting to be the new host of that show but I’d love to do it for at least another few years. After that you probably won’t find me. I will have a place in Sydney and I think I will have a place up the far Northern Rivers. I’ll have dreadlocks, I’ll grow organic vegetables that I’ll live on, and I’ll try not to be connected too much to the outside world. You’ve got to have a computer and a phone but my life’s been public now for 32 years and I’ve spoken more words than most people could speak in 50 lifetimes. So when I finally hang the boots up I’ll just get back to nature. I will grow dreadlocks and I won’t wear shoes for a year and I’ll go down and walk along the sand and collect a few shells and make some artwork out of that and walk in the bush and feel the sand and the earth under my feet and look at the stars. That’s what I want to do. And I’ll obviously look after my children too. They will have my address and they will be probably three of the twenty people that will get an invite to my place and no one else will be allowed there.