Freddy ‘Curly’ Valentine with a team from the Northern Suburbs District Cricket Club (front row, second from left).
By LAURA MACINTOSH
Just like hundreds of thousands of people every year, for Gary MacLellan and his wife, Robyn, travelled to Fiji for the first time in March this year, to celebrate their wedding anniversary. However, unlike the majority of their fellow tourists, Gary and Robyn had a special homage to pay to Fiji…
You don’t have to be a huge fan of Fijian cricket to recognise the name Freddy Valentine. Affectionately known within the cricketing fraternity as ‘Curly’, he was arguably the best player to represent Fiji with the bat and ball.
Hailing from Lautoka, Curly’s international debut came at the remarkably young age of 17, when he was invited to step up to the plate of the National side on a tour to Australia, due to the unavailability of the then captain, the legendry Ratu K.K.T. Mara.
In the absence of Ratu Mara, Curly’s debut for Fiji was made in a Nat Uluiviti-captained side, in what was a marathon 16-match tour to Australia in the scorching heat January of 1960. Overall the Fijians dazzled the knowledgeable Australian cricket-crowd with their fast running between the wickets, devastating fielding and accurate bowling, but before they knew it, it was time for the feature match of the tour – Fiji versus the New South Wales Metropolitan XI at the prestigious Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
To say the opposing side had a formidable line-up would be a gross understatement. It was packed with current and former Australian test players of the day, including their captain, Richie Benaud, as well as Keith Miller, Alan Davidson, Jim Burke, Neil Harvey, and Norm O’Neill. No one expected much more than a Fijian thrashing – and who could blame them? But it was a young Fijian on debut whose name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue once the match came to an end.
“Young Freddy Valentine, bowling off a long run with a slight breeze at his back, is working up plenty of pace, extracting life from the pitch,” the commentators roared. “…he’s moving the ball mainly away from the batsmen but using the off-cutter as a variant…”
He broke through in his third over of the game, collecting the wickets of Burke and O’Neill within the same six balls, the latter for no score. He then went on to dismiss Benaud and Davidson as well, all within his first nine overs.
Remarkably Fiji went on to win the match by 27 runs. Even more remarkably, Curly finished with figures of 4-54, a nice bag to contribute to the 30 wickets he took throughout the 16-match tour.
In his first tour, at just 17 years of age, a legend was made. It seems fitting that even though Curly was inducted into the Fiji Sports Hall of Fame posthumous, it was alongside London Olympics gold medal-winning Paralympian, Ilisea Delana – the first Fijian to ever win an Olympic medal of any colour. Two legends, who battled to the way to the top of their respective sports – even though they barely made waves in the Fijian sporting media landscape before reaching the highest hights – and made it.
Curly went on to play countless matches for Fiji, dazzling foreign and local crowds alike, just as he had done that day in 1960 at the SCG. However upon contemplating retirement and perhaps seeking a bit of a quieter life, Curly and his wife Sandra, moved to the sleepy northern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia.
The 65-year-old ‘GABBA grounds man (‘GABBA being the affectionate name for the Brisbane Cricket Ground, named after the suburb in which it resides; Woolloongabba), Gary MacLellan, is another cricket die-hard, who, in one way or another, has been around the game his entire life. Like most Aussie kids he began playing at about age eight or nine in the backyard, before joining his local club’s junior team at the Northern Suburbs District Cricket Club. Entering senior cricket he worked his way up the grades, until he settled playing out his twilight years captaining the third-grade side, and then playing with the fourths.
Enter Curly Valentine.
Very content with his decision to lay low after his retirement from international cricket, the humble Fijian wasn’t interested in playing anywhere higher than the third- or fourth-grade.
“He was a great mentor,” Gary said. “He mentored a lot of the younger players.”
Curly didn’t talk much about his cricket back in Fiji, nor mentioned the height he had reached in his own international playing career, but Gary remembered couple of tales – now considered club folklore – that gave an inkling as to just how good the big Fijian was.
“When we were playing against Wests (the Western Suburbs District Cricket Club – the very same club who in fact has travelled to Fiji for the annual Easter Tournament the past two years) one time…I was a young A-grade player coming back from injury, and we were wanting to win this game to get into the finals,” Gary explained. “We had the old tram sheds…and they were the dressing sheds at either end of the ground in those days, and he said (to me) ‘go out and score some runs’. So I went out there and I managed to score the winning runs…and as I did an enormous noise came from the inside of one of those sheds – it was Freddy!”
Gary also said he was amazed to learn that there were no turf wickets in Fiji (in fact the only turf wicket in the Pacific is in Papua New Guinea) as he claimed that no one could read the pitch better than Curly.
“(Once) he was coming into bowl – and he’d been bowling for a few overs without much luck while I was at slip – he said to me ‘Gaz just move over, just two steps’…and the ball just came straight to me!”
Gary only learnt of Curly’s passing when he received a letter from Sandra shortly after his death. A year later he received another letter, learning that Freddy had been inducted into the Fiji Sports Hall of Fame.
“I knew he was good,” Gary recalled. “He said to me once that he had captained Fiji…in England at the Mini World Cup (the competition in place before the World Cricket League system was introduced)…but I didn’t realise that he was that good and that he had played against Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson and all those older Australian players…he was very modest.”
“I ever meet up with him again, I want to ask why he never told me that he was as good as he was!” Gary laughed.
Although it was only Gary’s first trip to Fiji this year, with his wife Robyn to celebrate their wedding anniversary, he said he also thought of it as a sort of pilgrimage.
“Seeing I’d missed his funeral, I wanted to at least pay some respects to him,” Gary explained. “I would like to see where his ashes are buried on my next visit.”