What greater joy in life is there but to stand on a cricket pitch with a lump of wood in your hands waiting for a cricket ball to be hurled at your head at 150 kmph?
This is what one famous son of Bridgetown was very good at.
Len Pascoe, the third pillar of the Australian fast bowling team of the World Series Cricket phenomenon in the 1970s, whose first and second pillars were Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, was born in Bridgetown.
Len’s parents were Macedonian immigrants and Len came into the world as Leonard Stephen Durtanovich. He changed his name to Pascoe, his grandfather’s name, at 15.
His passion for cricket started early.
“I was only a young fella’, playing cricket with my cousins on my Dad’s farm and I also remember when we moved into Bridgetown itself and there was a bit of a park or paddock, we’d play cricket down there,” he said.
“The first ball I had was a rock. We got rags and wrapped it around the rock and stitched it up. That was my first ball and for a football, we used the bladder of a pig. You blow it up and then you tie it off and let it dry. That was our ball.”
His family settled in Bridgetown with an ambition to farm. This failed and the bread-winner was forced back onto his former pursuit of brick-carting, which was lucrative during the housing boom of that time. But the boom receded, as booms always do, and demand for bricks dried up, so the Pascoes broke camp and headed off to the big smoke of Sydney.
His early memories are the drive to Sydney across the Nullarbor at the age of six in search of work for his father, a brick-carter, but prior to that wetting his pants in primary school and having his cousin clean him up and put him back in class.
His father was an early influence on his cricket career.
“He was a brick carter, four loads a day, 2000 on, 2000 off by hand, and every school holiday he’d have us on the brick truck,” Len said.
“When I was barely able to reach the top of the truck to put a brick on, I might put 10 or 20 on, then it’d become a couple hundred, by the time I was 19 I was loading a side and a half.”
“And my father, he had a look at my exam results and felt that I had a real career in brick carting.
“But, that was a pretty big influence – keep playing cricket, let me get out of brick carting.”
He credits his upper-body strength to loading and off-loading those bricks, which served him well in his coming career.
The Pascoes came to rest in Sydenham, in what is now the inner west of Sydney, but was on its outskirts at that time. You can still see the Lie’n’Tile brick factory there with high smokestacks to discharge the fumes generated from roasting bricks.
Bill O’Reilly was director of this company and encouraged young Len to become a fast-bowler.
“He used to say to me all the time: ‘keep working on that back son, you’re going to need it one day.’
“And, you know, he gave me a little bit of advice. One day he said, ‘what sort of a bowler are you?’ And I said, ‘I do this this and this,’ and he said, ‘from what you’ve just told me I could find a thousand of those around Moore Park.’
“He said ‘you’ve got this ability to bowl fast, just hit the gloves as hard as you can, keep that seam up and let the ball do whatever it wants.’
“It was really good advice because that’s all I ever did. It worked. It worked really well. Some came out faster than others. Some hit the seam, and some didn’t. Some bent this way, some that way. Sometimes you were at a little bit of an angle and the ball would cut away,” he said.
Len never made a conscious decision to play cricket, he says, though having Jeff Thomson as a classmate at Punchbowl Boys High School would have been persuasive.
Riding the wave
“It was just something like you’re in a rip and the rip is taking you somewhere,” he said
“You either fight the rip and drown, or you ride the rip and use it to get back to shore, and if grade cricket recognises that you have a certain talent, the rest takes over.
“You get selected in this; you get selected in that. Next thing you know it’s another one and another one and one day you get a call. Kerry Packer wants you for World Series Cricket. So you do that.
“Next thing you know you’re at Lords opening the bowling in the Jubilee Test and, then you’re opening the bowling with Dennis Lillee in the Centenary Test.
“It’s just a wave you’re on and you ride it until the day you come off it. But I was very, very lucky.
“I sent a message to Ian Chappell the other day. I said ‘I don’t know what I enjoyed more. Playing with you or against you.’ That’s the way it was. Same thing with Greg Chappell, and Thommo, and Marshee, and Lillee, and a lot of the West Indians.
“You just don’t know whether you enjoy playing with them or against them. You know, you enjoy them both.”
The stand-alone highlight of his career was watching Ian Davis bat in the 1977-78 World Series Cricket season, but his contribution to the invention of batting helmets also sticks in his mind. They started as off-the-shelf horse-riding helmets but have since been modified.
In the era of fast-bowling Len was the third pillar in Australia’s attack triumvirate. The Lillee/Thomson/Pascoe team was unstoppable. What distinguishes Pascoe was his innate ability to smell fear in the batsmen and home in on it.
Of Macedonian lineage, with birth name Leonard Stephen Durtanovich, Pascoe was always at risk of sledging in the racially charged Australia of the seventies.
“The sledging, it wasn’t nasty, it was funny. And it was often a tension-breaker. Or it could be an un-settler,” Len said.
“One day there was a fella called Geoff Attenborough and he had a sports store and he came out with his own version of a helmet.
“And I said to Peter Toohey, ‘You watch this second ball test to see what the helmet’s like.’ Yeah, fair enough, second ball comes up and smashed the ball into his helmet and the next five minutes everybody’s looking for the nuts and bolts and screws that held the helmet together and then finally the ball came back to me and I said to the umpire, ‘That’s it! I’m appealing against his head. Look what it’s done to my ball.’ There was this big gouge out of the ball.”
One match featured a spectator yelling “give the wog a bowl”, which was chanted ad nauseum by the crowd for ten minutes.
“The more he yelled the faster I got, to the point where Greg Ritchie stopped me in the run-up, trotted down to the fence and told the guy to shut-up and then came back because he was bumping me up too much,” he said.
He thinks World Series Cricket was the greatest cricket ever played.
“The standard – you could take any one of those matches we played in the WSC and put it in the modern game, it wouldn’t be out of place, and in fact it would show up the real standard of what cricket is today,” he said
“When you’ve got the likes of the Viv Richards, the Clive Lloyds, the Desmond Haynes, the Joel Garners, the Michael Holdings, the Andy Roberts and Colin Crofts and India: Sunil Gavaskar and Capil Dev and you go across to Pakistan: Imran Khan, and over to England you’ve got John Snow coming in.
“It was the toughest competition ever and the standard of cricket payed was so high that the modern game can’t even get close.”
He has little time for today’s cricketers, except for Mitchell Starc.
“Finest bowler I’ve seen is Mitchell Starc. And Warner – he couldn’t face Broad in England, don’t tell me he could have faced Joel Garner. Comparing Steve Smith to Greg Chappell is a joke,” he said.
These days Len spends his time in Ulladulla, NSW, coaching cricket in Victoria, public speaking, and organising entertainment events, all of which are banned under the pandemic restrictions.
Now in his 70th year, he was hospitalised in 2017 for three weeks with a crypto-bacterial infection, which nearly took his life, and has required triple bypass surgery on his heart. But today he’s feeling good.
And three-and-a-half years ago he was back where it all began, in Bridgetown to do a sports function with old mate Jeff Thomson.
“It was a really nice night. Interesting seeing the town. It hadn’t changed much from what I remember when I was a kid,” he said.