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07 October 2020
By DEAN LAWSON
Gary Bird was on 288 after hitting the winning runs for his beloved Blackheath team.
The last man in, he had finished the game against a Horsham Cricket Association Invitation 11 unbeaten with a mighty six off legendary Dimboola fast bowler Rex MacKenzie.
Having been tested by every type of yorker, bouncer and seaming, swinging or spinning delivery on a sticky wicket at Horsham City Oval, he had survived to score the biggest win of his life.
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Leaning on his bat and mopping his sizeable brow, he was noticeably fatigued. But satisfaction was spreadeagled across his grinning face as it sunk in that he had won a torrid battle.
He had presented a ‘chance’ in his grand match-winning innings but the ball had gone to ground and he made the most of his escape.
The date was, significantly, November 18, 2023 – two years from now.
While the game might be the product of the imagination built on years of a love of Wimmera cricket and the romance and nostalgia of the game in general, Gary, 63, is using the fanciful scenario as incentive in what in truth is the biggest battle of his life.
Gary, or ‘Birdie’, has for decades been a larger-than-life Horsham community and sporting personality.
A former Horsham mayor and champion of both underdog and superstar, he now has aggressive and inoperable lung cancer.
Treatment for another illness involving a heart valve, that he has all but overcome, means his options in fighting the disease are limited. Specialists have given him timelines, depending on how he responds.
In typically defiant spirit, he is determined to ‘bat out the innings’ for as long as possible.
As someone with a natural gravitation to seeing the funny side of life and always up for cricket-based metaphorical analogy, Birdie was quick to seize the opportunity to declare his approach to the circumstance.
He is now sporting a badge with the words ‘9-50 chasin’ 400 but still grinding away’.
But he said he was chuffed when his brother-in-law and former cricketing talent David Jakobi presented him with the imaginary scoresheet – complete with every run and delivery.
The scoresheet of the mock game shows how Birdie, during his dogged and determined hard-fought knock, put caution to the wind, flaying superstars such as Rupanyup’s Paul Morgan, Jung duo Alan ‘Jock’ McRae and Don Rush, Minyip’s swing sensation Lloyd McLachlan and Horsham City leg-spinner David Hopper to all parts of the ground.
Towering aerial shots cleared the boundary 11 times, but Bird also put on a show of elegant stroke play, sending the ball along the ground to the rope on 38 occasions.
The game reflects how Bird had nothing to lose when he strode to the crease. His team, set a hefty target of 401, was all but beaten at 9-50.
Blackheath legends Tom Byrne, Albert Hinch, Richard Young, Greg Exell, Geoff Hinch and Bob Sleep had all gone cheaply. Gordon Exell, Robert Byrne and Rod Lawson also soon departed, leaving David Jakobi running out of partners.
But as Bird walked onto the ground he knew the game wasn’t over until the last wicket fell or the last runs were made. He was determined to have a crack.
“Did you see – I was in such good form they threw the ball to Chris Hopper six times and he just walked away because he was scared I was going to get into him,” he said with a trademark hearty chuckle.
“It was just great that David’s done this for me.
“Look, I can only have minimum treatment because of medications I’m taking, but in all seriousness, I’ve never felt better.
“I’m physically as strong as an ox at the moment and there is always hope. While you continue to wake up, you’re still in the fight and every time I now walk past that cricket scoresheet it’s a reminder there is always a chance.
“Sure, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and at present it looks like a train, but we’ll try to get rid of that train. Ninety-
eight percent of me is fine, two percent isn’t and I like to run with the averages.”
Reasons to live
Birdie spent a lifetime in the construction business after moving with his family from Neuarpurr as a teenager.
A steel fabricator by trade, he turned his attention to general construction and then moved into the crane-hire industry, finishing up selling cars.
Along the way he married Karen and raised two children, Bec and Sammi.
“I now also have four grandchildren so there are obviously plenty of reasons to live,” he said.
His boisterous passion for sport, friends, family and community has led him to support and-or take an influencing lead in a variety of Horsham district pursuits.
This ultimately extended to three terms on Horsham Rural City Council, topping the vote on two occasions, and a stint as mayor.
And he has stories aplenty that reflect on all his experiences.
“I played 100 games for Quantong in the footy – 99 in seconds and one in the seniors. In my one senior game I came on as 19th man. I kicked the ball to Keith Wade, he kicked it to Wally Wade who kicked it to Dennis Wade who kicked a goal. It put us up by about 140 points,” he laughed.
“When I was a councillor it was the best time of my life. I took a year off work to be mayor and put my hand up for some big things such as Horsham Town Hall, the aquatic centre and freight hub.
“In council I won a few rounds and lost a few rounds and now I have a big fight I definitely have to win.”
Birdie admitted a lifetime of smoking cigarettes was the primary cause of his illness.
“There are many ways to get cancer. I’ve sprayed sheepskins with arsenic, painted cars in sheds, worked on sites with asbestos, but it’s mainly the smokes,” he said.
“Thank God people botted a lot off me or I would have smoked a lot more.
“Back in the ’70s everyone smoked and smoked everywhere. It wasn’t peer-group pressure, it was society. Now times have changed. You can’t smoke in pubs or other venues and that stops a lot of kids. Hopefully they take notice.
“I don’t think I’d change much. You don’t expect to get this thing. I thought I would simply drop dead one day. At the moment I have a good quality of life, great family support and lots of reasons to live. I’m hitting this head-on.”
The entire October 7, 2020 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!