Before the formation of an Association, clubs such as the Pearls and the Albions arranged their own program of matches for a season.’ This schedule was often very extensive, with some clubs reporting more than 20 matches in a season, and some of these being played as late as May. Matches would be played by invitation against one another – by 1890 there were “about 14 clubs in the immediate vicinity of Maitland” so there was plenty of opportunity to select a suitable opponent. Apart from the Albions and Pearls, some of the early established clubs included Morpeth, Hinton, Woodville, Lochinvar, East Maitland, Greta and Branxton that were later to play for many seasons in the Association’s competition. Some clubs also arranged matches, particularly on public holiday
weekends and at Easter, against teams from neighbouring areas such as Newcastle, Dungog, Cessnock, Singleton and even the Upper Hunter. Some, such as the Albions, had the occasional trip further afield to Sydney and the northern New England region.
A lot of less serious cricket was played in the Maitland district during this early period. Various professions, business and trade groups occasionally played against one another in matches such as Banks v Law; Bricklayers v Stonemasons; and Vanmen v Cabmen. Some of the large commercial warehouse firms such as David Cohen & Co., Wolfe & Gorrick, Owen & Beckett had teams which played matches on Friday afternoons when most local businesses closed down to give their employees “time off’ as part of the Half Holiday Movement. Matches between Married v Single members of a club were also popular and there were some matches that were played in fancy costume. In the early 1850s there is a Mercury report of an Australians v Europeans match where the “Currency Lads” (those born in the colony) challenged the overseas born to a cricket contest.
A popular venue for social matches was Ellalong, near Cessnock. There are a number of detailed reports in the Mercury of such matches played there. The visiting team from Maitland would usually travel on the Friday evening in Watson”s “four-in-hand” horse-drawn ‘buses and stay overnight at the local hotel. The match would be played the next day and then the visitors would be “royally entertained” at a dinner, followed by dancing and singing. Still in high spirits, but “a little the worse for wear”, they would then return “in the small hours of the morning” to their home town. A return match would usually be arranged so that the visiting team could pay back the hospitality.
One has to admire the enthusiasm and stamina of these early cricketers. They were prepared to travel considerable distances under difficult conditions for their game of cricket. The “roads” that they followed on foot, on horseback and in a variety of horse-drawn vehicles, were often little more than bush tracks. The grounds that they played on were frequently rough paddocks with long grass, that they would have to share with wandering cattle and where fieldsmen had to dodge cow pats when chasing the ball. Wickets that were under-prepared or not prepared at all must have been real “horror-stretches” for batsmen – no wonder that scores were generally low and that any batsman who got to double figures was rated a hero. In the rural areas, where farmers made up most of tile teams, it was often a case of travelling home in the dark after the match to find the cows waiting to be milked. Yet these difficulties and hardships did not deter the early cricketers – they were of little concern when measured against the fellowship of the match and the love of the game.