Craig Hillgrove might not be one of the best known overseas player in the history of the Bradford League but his two year spell was certainly eventful.
When researching the Salts Cricket Club history I noticed an overseas player named Craig Hillgrove who had rather a good season in 1996. Although the club could only finish ninth that year in the old Second Division, Craig scored 730 runs and took 40 wickets.
The following year he played First Division cricket at Idle and finished sixth in the league’s batting averages with 841 runs at 46.72 and recorded a top score of 133 not out.
Another Aussie, Clint Perrin of Windhill, who became his friend, finished one place lower in the batting averages that season with 573 runs at 44.08.
I decided to trace Hillgrove and within minutes was communicating with him in Australia. He was glad to talk about his days in the Bradford League.
Craig said: “Salts were a great club with great people and, I stayed with Peter Fazackerly and his family. James Atkinson became my closest friend and I am still in contact with him today.
“Salts got me work at Salts Mill working on satellite receivers with PACE technologies. I was not paid to play cricket at Salts but got full board and work.
“I come from Geelong, Victoria Australia, about an hour south of Melbourne on the surf coast. l was a fast/medium right arm bowler and right-hand bat, and I mostly opened the batting and bowling at Salts but would come in at three or four at times”.
“Salts was my second year in UK after my first season at Thirsk who played in the York Senior league. Tony Jones the Salts first team captain recruited me.
“Each year Salts played a pre-season practice match against Thirsk. Tony has family connections there. l did ok in that match against Salts with a vague memory of hitting Tony for six over long off/extra cover. It was over Bells wall outside the ground. For those that do not know, Bells wall at Thirsk is a bit of a legend story, and not many have hit it that far. Thirsk cricket ground is inside Thirsk racecourse.
.“He must have kept an eye on me at Thirsk, and l had a great all-round season there batting four and bowling. “I also l played at Leake in the North Allerton Evening League that season, and I believe l still hold the league record with a 126ish batting average after twice scoring 141 off 39 & 41 balls, respectively.
“Like at Salts, I wasn't paid to play cricket at Thirsk, but again I got full board and worked as a gardener on a huge mansion estate.
“The Salts season itself was a reasonable crack, we didn't win any titles but were really competitive throughout. Salts were in Division Two, so no real media coverage and in the 90s no smart phones etc. I was not big on that type of attention- I just played hard, and enjoyed the game leaving nothing on the ground.
“l recall putting the ball over the river several times, the ball somehow getting through the trees, but usually thrown back to the Salts ground. It was a short boundary straight, and I was quite an aggressive opener for that period in the 90s”.
“After the game I would get around enjoying the company and making efforts to talk with the opposition (particularly if l was getting at an opposition player - typical Aussie one could say!)”.
Craig could never understand the reasoning behind the old points’ system. He added: “l could never get my head around winning and losing draws. I found this produced mediocrity at times in results and competition.”
Craig and Andrea on their wedding day in 1997
While at Salts, Craig met his first wife Andrea and cemented his relationship with her at the Boat House across from Roberts Park.
“We met outside Salts Mill and headed to the Boathouse for dinner and drinks, and unbeknown to me her parents were there a few tables away checking me out.
“We became an item, and by the end of season we were living together at her parents place in Heaton, and eventually a house rental in Baildon”.
“Andrea and l worked all out, and we married at Bradford register office in April 1997. On June 15, my daughter Carly was born at Bradford Royal Infirmary, and that weekend, l played in Idle 2nd team to be close to the hospital, as the firsts were playing away. Idle got special league permission for this.
“Prior to leaving back to Australia in 1996, I was recruited by Scott Crosby at Salts presentation night to play for Idle the following year in 1997”.
“The First Division was the main attraction, competing in the best league in Yorkshire. As a club cricketer I wanted to test myself against the county’s best league players. That was the real attraction”.
Craig’s 841 runs were commendable in the circumstances of Idle’s relegation. He had little support with no other team member making the league averages that season.
However, there was some salvation in the cup when Idle defied the odds to reach the Priestley Cup semi-finals. They were drawn to meet Bowling Old Lane; the champions elect of the Second Division, in the quarter-finals and edged through in a thriller.
Matt Garside, who is one of only five wicketkeepers in the league’s history to have scored over 5,000 runs and taken 500 victims, was a team-mate of Craig’s that season at Idle.
Matt said: “Craig was the ideal overseas player for the club at that time, playing it hard both on and off the field. He was a consistent, and yet destructive batsman who was also a useful fast/medium seamer.
“He could deliver a ‘heavy’ ball that surprised a few very good players. I can speak from experience that he hit the gloves hard when he bent his back. He also had a deceptive slower ball and his changes of pace got him a lot of his wickets.
“Craig was (and probably still is!) a great bloke to have around the dressing room and bar. On one hand he was a typical Aussie cricketer. confident and bullish/aggressive on the field - without over-stepping the mark I must add - and yet had a softer side”.
“I recall after a particularly heavy night out - the following morning we heard the news about Princess Dianna’s death, and he was absolutely distraught. To sum up he was a really good guy all round”.
Two pictures of Craig Hillgrove in the thick of the action against Bowling Old Lane
Regarding the Bowling Old Lane game, Garside remembers: “I cannot remember what Craig did, but I remember being 97 not out, and needing four to win. Simon Curry blazed a cover drive to win the game - the best shot I ever saw the big man play!!!!!
Things did not turn out well for Craig after that season. He recalls: “At the end of that season, l was recruited by our Idle captain Mark Wakefield to play for Ashton under Lyne where he was supposed to be going to. I ended up going, he did not, and I was not happy.
“I'd have stayed in Bradford - another club was chasing hard and l remember if they just paid £10 more per game and £1 per run after 300 runs, I would've signed. But we could not meet at the negotiating table.
“Thirsk was also an option as l really missed that lifestyle. I would not have been paid there, but that would have been ok.
“During my last season in the UK in 1998 at Ashton, l damaged my shoulder in mid season and returned home early and pretty much never bowled again nor could I throw a ball. I played out my career as a batter retiring in 2010.
“It was never my intention to play for four clubs in four seasons it was just the way it worked out. The best players I played with or against in England, excluding first class cricketers, were seam bowler Barry Petty (Thirsk), by a mile, and fast bowlers Ian Dewhurst (Idle), Richard Chandler (Thirsk) and. Richard McCarthy (Bradford & Bingley).
“As far as the batters were concerned, I would go for: Mark “Gilly” Gilliver (Undercliffe) and Richard Robinson (Baildon) and the best keeper was Matt Garside (Idle).”
He added: “Clinton Perren played at Windhill the same year as l at Idle. He played First Class for Queensland and won a Sheffield Shield title and made the Australia B squad.
“He still lives in the UK, in Lancashire, I believe, He made his home with Littleborough, and is married with kids over there.”
“He was a very classy batter, very much in the style of Mark Waugh. He was elegant and appears to have all the time in the world. He is still a friend of mine.
“I revisited Salts in 2015, above, but found it dissolved and another club had taken over the ground”.
Back in Australia, Hillgrove explains, “I have spent last 15+ years working in Maximum Security Prison as a Prison Officer, now a Senior Officer. This impacted on cricket as we play two-day cricket over two Saturdays”.
“I retired from first team cricket in 2010 and walked away completely in 2014. Between 2010 and 2014 l only played a handful of games. My last full season was the 2010/11 summer when l coached and captained my club Newcomb & District. Also, I coached them in 2000/01 summer which makes it 10 years at that club.”
Hillgrove’s peak years as a cricketer in Australia were in 1992/93 when he was the first team coach/captain role with Torquay. His highest first team score was 198 not out, in a game he also took 5-100 with the ball.
Asked about his time at Torquay, Hillgrove said: “In hindsight I was probably a bit young and lacked leadership skills, but I learned a lot. This was a losing side, so I have bittersweet memories.
“I only made one other century that year, with numerous fifties. The side just missed out on making the top four and the finals series. I represented the league team whilst I was there”.
Craig Hillgrove pictured in a preview to a cup final fro Newcomb
“In 2000/01, l went to Newcomb & District Cricket Club where l played until l retired in 2010/11. I coached and captained the first team that year and again in my last season
“Over my career l did win numerous individual batting and bowling trophies. l did not retain these, as l did not collect the individual trophies. I do however keep the premiership medallions as they are team awards.
“Stats wise, l don't have much recorded, but I got four or five tons, heaps of 50s, and between 2005 and 2010, l was playing first and second grade cricket”.
Asked about how close he was to first class level, he said:” As far as first-class level is concerned, I just wasn't good enough, never came close to that standard. It’s got to be said that first class in Australia is State Cricket, and only six states compete”
Craig ends on a sobering note, “I would like to offer a `call out’ to all cricketers over 45 to get a heart health check. l had a heart attack three days before my 50th birthday and had a stent inserted. I'm a recovery heart disease patient, having had quadruple heart bypass surgery 10 months ago”.
Craig Hillgrove in hospital after his quadruple bypass operation
“I was a dead man walking. If l dropped, I was never going to get up. I had a check, and a few extra tests and they found 4 x 85% blockages, one being the known "widow maker blockage.
“I’m happy to report, I'm now fit and health, 20KG lighter back at playing weight of 88Kg. I eat better, don't drink alcohol, in fact not since 2015 when l revisited UK and caught up with a few lads. I never smoked or used drugs.
“My condition was hereditary but lifestyle contributed without a doubt too. I played hard on and off the field. Lastly, since 2012 I've had six back surgeries - it all catches up over time. My back gave way at work one day and I now have a spinal cord implant”.
Craig concludes. “I remarried to Narelle whom l met in 2004. I have a stepson James who is the same age as Chloe. We have set up a great life with my girls and son living with us. The kids are all grown up now, young adults making their own way in the world”.
In retrospect, it’s refreshing that a chance communication with a former overseas player has led to something of a human interest story. He is a modest man and remembers with affection the two successful seasons he had in the Bradford Cricket League.
He cared enough to revisit his old Bradford League stomping ground in 2015 and it will be comforting if this story connects him again with some of his old cricketing pals.