The Illawarra Mercury reported on Saturday March 21 1903 that over 160 bags of Bulli soil was shipped from Bulli jetty at Sandon Point to be used for the Melbourne Cricket Ground pitch. “This soil was selected out of many samples forwarded from other parts of the State,” the newspaper reported.
FAME OF BULLI
Another Pocket Found
No cricketer’s vocabulary would be complete without these two words, and they are the world over. One of the things every English cricketer looks for on his arrival in Sydney with a M.C.C. side is a wicket made of Bulll soil.
When the Englishmen visited Australia in 1920-21, with Johnny Douglas in command, they were taken a motor trip to the South Coast by the NSW Cricket Association, and Bulli was, of course, included in the itinerary.
Many were the inquiries as to whether the pavements and streets of this little coastal town would be of Bulli soil because it was considered from what they had seen of the wickets on the Sydney Cricket Ground, this rare deposit should make excellent roads and footpaths.
Imagine, however, the surprise of the members of the team, on their arrival in Bulli, to find the famous soil missing.
BULLI USES CRONCRETE
Even when Douglas and his men were taken to the local cricket oval, all the locals could show them was a concrete wicket, with a sandy outfield. Just imagine the humor of it! The flower of English and Australian cricket playing Test matches on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Bulli soil wickets, and yet a concrete wicket is found in the town from where the soil came.
Long ago, Billy Galvin, the licensee of an hotel in Wollongong, with Jack Nevill, who owned Norwood Park at Marrickville, and Ned Meads, the caretaker of it, came across a soil at Austinmer, which is close to Bulli. They considered it had great possibilities for wicket-making.
Galvin forwarded a sample to the late Phil Sheridan, who was manager of the Sydney Cricket Ground, and he was so
satisfied that it would make the right kind or wicket that he at once obtained supplies for the ground.
The wicket made from this soil soon became famous.
They were as fast as glass in fine weather, when the wicket had been properly prepared, and they were as sticky as a glue-pot in wet.
Cricketers of those days had to use their brains when playing on wickets of either nature, as fast and medium paced bowlers were able to get same on the hard wickets, and the latter able to do all sorts of antics on the ones.
GREAT DRYING POWERS
Bulli soil has extraordinary properties. Its drying powers are wonderful. There may be a deluge, but the water will not penetrate the wicket to any great depth. In fact, if you put a piece of Bulli Soil in a bucket of water, and allow it to remain there a week. It will be found at the end of that time that it will be practically as hard as when it was put in. It will also be found that little water has permeated it.
A properly-prepared Bulli Soil wicket is extraordinarily hard, although it is not as of concrete a nature as the Merri soil wickets in Melbourne. Bulli is not a good grass-growing soil, and consequently when the wickets are top-dressed early in September the soil has to be well screened beforehand and put on very lightly.
The pocket from which the first supply of Bulli Soil came from gradually petered. The soil is found in pockets. An instance is known of 15 inches of good Bulli Soil being obtained on one side of a drain, while on the other there was no indication of such a deposit. For many years the Sydney Cricket Ground authorities and the grounds under the Jurisdiction of the NSW Cricket Association found it extremely difficult to get the ‘real thing,’ and latterly the soil has been below standard. In 1931 the Association sent its secretary, Mr. F. A. Iredale, to the South Coast to see if he could discover another pocket of the real stuff, but without avail. But last season Mr. H. E. Peir informed the Cricket Association that Ned Meads was living at Austinmere, practically on the same ground as where the original Bulli Soil came from, and that he could guarantee to supply any amount of the genuine article.
NOT AT CRICKET GROUND
Samples were asked for, and the NSW Cricket Association was so satisfied that arrangements were made for Mr. Peir to supply all the grounds for this season. Thus the ground players are new every Saturday playing on wickets made from soil similar to that supplied many years ago. It is a pity the Sydney Cricket Ground authorities did not also obtain supplies of this soil, so that there would have been uniformity throughout the metropolis. Next season the wickets in Sydney should be much better, as this season much of the soil previously laid on the wickets must necessarily mix with the new stuff. Mr. Peir has had prepared a large ball of real ‘Bulli,’ which will be suitable inscribed, and which he is handing to Mr. Sydney Smith, Jun., manager of the Australian Eleven, to present to the Marylebone Cricket Club for its long room at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Suitable soil shortage at the SCG threatened to end the SCG pitch’s reputation as a spinner’s paradise in 2006, but the discovery of a new source was reported to be able to preserve the surface’s distinct characteristics. With the groundsman’s stores of Bulli soil dwindling and development covering over the old mining sites, Tom Parker, the SCG curator, learned the Wollongong Golf Club was reconfiguring its layout and had found two seams of the treasured product.
Graham Dunlop, of Newcastle in NSW, wrote me the following letter back in the late 1990s about his father, Robert ‘Bob’ Dunlop.
WHILST dad was (editor) at the Bulli Times he was presented with a cricket ball made from Bulli Soil. I believe this was 1945 and these balls were made at time Bulli soil was being exported to London to prepare the wicket at Lords for either the Victory test or the 1948 test. The reason for dad being presented was in recognition of the amount of free publicity he had been able to arrange for the shipment, not only in the Bulli Times but also in Sydney papers. Dad kept copies of these papers but unfortunately my mother burnt them after he passed away. I was lucky enough to rescue the ball which I still have. As I am getting on in years I decided to find a home for it and as none of my children are interested I have arranged to pass it on to a great nephew who is a first grade cricketer. I want to give him as much background information as possible so that when he needs to find a home for it he will have the history. I understand that the MCG have one of these balls. I offered it to Lords but they were not interested. Perhaps you or one of your readers may be able to provide some additional information.
This story from the Sydney Morning Herald on September 2 1946 explains how the soil was much treasured:
Bulli’s First ‘Bulli Wicket’
BULLI, Sunday. – There are Bulli soil cricket pitches in Sydney, England, and South Africa, but none in Bulli Shire. A wicket now being built at Slacky Flat will be the first Bulli soil pitch in the home shire. Before the war, Notts and M.C.C. cricket clubs imported Bulli soil for their turf wickets. It was also exported to South Africa. It became known as the best foundation and dressing for turf wickets, mainly because of its clay-like binding and hardening qualities. It was once a cause of complaint in a letter to the London “Times,” which stated that Australia had an unfair advantage in Tests, because matches were always played on Australian soil.
The Australian newspaper reported on October 16, 2006:
A CRISIS that threatened to take the bite out of Shane Warne’s bowling in the Ashes Test at the SCG has been averted.
With less than three months to go before Australia takes on England in Sydney, ground staff have secured the future of the wicket known as a “spinner’s paradise” – but only by the skin of their teeth.
It has been revealed that the SCG came dangerously close to exhausting its supplies of the black Bulli soil that sits beneath the famous turf and creates ideal conditions for spin bowlers such as Warne and Stuart MacGill to take the battle to the English.
A stockpile kept behind the Bradman Stand was diminishing by 30 tonnes a year, and what was held in storage off-site was also dwindling.
If the spin was to continue, more Bulli soil had to be found.
“Bulli soil has been in use at the SCG since day one and we’re talking of more than 150 years,” curator Tom Parker said. “It’s volcanic in nature with 65 per cent clay content.
“The soil is normally found at the base of the Illawarra escarpment (south of Sydney), but sadly a lot of the area is now built out.
“The high clay content in the soil makes the pitch set hard and provides true bounce.”
With stocks running low, pressure was building at the SCG, but a chance discovery and a lucky tip-off has led to Parker securing enough of the soil to ensure the wicket remains an ideal platform for the kings of spin at this coming Ashes Test and for those who will follow throughout this century.
Former Test spinner Greg Matthews said the discovery would have a major bearing on attempts to reclaim the Ashes. “I always found it a great place to bowl,” said Matthews, who claimed 61 scalps in a 33-Test career.
“Tom Parker has got to take a great deal of the credit for making the SCG a spinners’ paradise,” Matthews said.
“It is to be hoped common sense prevails and the national selectors pick two leg spinners against the English in a Test that could well have a big bearing on us winning back the Ashes.
“The thing that has seen the likes of Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, and the likes of Bob Holland and Murray Bennett before them, so successful, is that the ball does move sideways off the pitch.”
But with stocks of the Bulli soil diminishing, continued success appeared in danger until Parker took a call from SCG Trust soil supplier Matt Collins.
Collins had heard that the Wollongong Golf Club, 80km south of Sydney, was about to change its layout, requiring the removal of several thousand tonnes of earth. Two seams of the black soil were found running parallel there.
The find was considered of significant importance for Collins, Parker, trust chairman Rodney Cavalier and chief executive Jamie Barkley to preserve an air of secrecy over the find of the dark, clay-like substance, which rolls into a hard, resilient surface.
Of the initial 7000 tonnes removed from the golf club’s third and fourth fairways, 5000 was discovered to be of no use to the SCG.
With the remaining 2000 tonnes now safely in the hands of the trust, Parker estimates the stockpile will be enough to service the nine wickets that make up the SCG table well into the next century.
As to what the SCG Trust paid for the Bulli soil, the price remains a secret.
“Nothing comes cheap these days, but given the rarity and scarcity of the product, I believe the trust paid a fair price,” Parker said. And golf club general manager Kevin Fagg just said the money would pay for the $1 million reconfiguration of the club’s course.
Parker, 39, who clocks up 10 years in the job next March, can now relax.
“This new stockpile of Bulli soil will certainly see me out in the job, good and proper,” he said. “We had originally acquired a very small quantity of Bulli soil from the same club not long after I first started here 10 years ago.
“But that was only one-tenth of the soil we’ve managed to recover this time from the original 7000 tonnes of earth removed from the site.”
As to how the SCG pitch would play come January, Parker was predicting that not much would change.
“The weather forecasters are predicting a long, dry summer,” he said. “By the fourth, and certainly on the fifth day, it will break up and take spin.
“It will take maximum spin for the likes of both Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill to bowl in tandem against the Englishmen.
“To be perfectly honest, I can’t wait for the Test to start.”