The Career of Austin Punch

In 2018/19, the Bears established the Austin Punch Club for those who score centuries for Norths during the grade cricket season. The name came in recognition of the Club’s highest first grade run scorer, whose 9,075 first grade runs and 20 centuries have been the benchmark for over 80 years. 

But, aside from being a prodigious batsman, who was Austin Punch? With the generous help of Austin’s sons, John and Michael, we have been able to dig deeper into Austin’s central importance to the history of the North Sydney District Cricket Club.

A Family Affair

Austin Punch

Austin Punch in full flight

Austin was born in 1894, the youngest son of Francis Punch, the first Mayor of North Sydney.  Austin followed in the footsteps of his older brothers, Jim (first grade cap 53) and Frank (first grade cap 58), in taking a keen interest in cricket, particularly the North Sydney District Cricket Club.

Frank still holds the association record for second grade runs in season, amassing an eye-watering 1,083 in 1900/01. Jim too holds a club record, finishing the 1910/11 season with a batting average of 93.80 in third grade.

Austin was a tall, right-handed bat who also bowled leg spin. It was with his leggies that he first made a splash, setting the Club’s record for third grade wickets in a season (one that still stands) with 63 in 1910/11.  In 1911/12, Austin, at 17 years of age, claimed 5 wickets in 5 balls, and later that season made his first grade debut against Waverley as cap number 123.

Austin was noted for his lengthy reach and his powerful stroke-play through the off side. One former groundsman at North Sydney Oval recalled, “First job on a Monday was to repair the pickets loosened by Austin’s square cuts and cover drives the previous Saturday”.

First Grade Dominance and Higher Honours

Starting in 1917/18, Austin led the first grade competition aggregate in three out of four seasons, also claiming the highest average in 1917/18 and 1919/20.  This extended run of excellence earned him a State call-up 1919/20.

Austin’s son, Michael, recalls Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly stating that Austin Punch was the reason Bill chose North Sydney as his Club when he moved to the city. Bill went to Norths as he wanted to play with the best cricketer in the competition.

Bill O’Reilly also remembered Austin as a supportive club-mate with a good eye for talent. At Austin’s funeral, Bill recalled, “It was Austin Punch, after my first net practice at North Sydney Oval as a young 17-year-old cricketer, who sought me out and told me I had a great future as a spinner… the first encouragement I received from a top cricketer.”

In 1919/20, Austin was a part of a remarkable day’s cricket at Sydney University. At the time, first grade matches were played from 2pm to 6pm only. Despite this, North Sydney managed to amass the remarkable total of 4/515 in the day, with Austin’s century one of three scored in the innings.

Despite strong returns for NSW, including 59 and 65no against the English in a tour match at the SCG in 1920, Austin missed out on the 1921 Ashes touring squad. Cricket writer Ronald Cardwell noted Austin as, “the player the selectors forgot to pick in the 1921 Ashes team.” The selectors instead went with 39-year-old Victorian, Edgar Mayne, possibly to balance out the 10 New South Welshmen in the 15-man squad.

A 95-Year-Old Record

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The letter from the NSWCA to Austin informing him of his selection on the NZ tour

Austin became a regular member of the NSW side and, in 1924, was in the team for the NSW tour of New Zealand. On that tour Austin and his captain (and close friend), Charlie Macartney, set a record that remains unique in first class cricket.

The team was scheduled to play a three-day match against Otago in Dunedin. The game started on a Friday, so the Otago side batted first to ensure the larger Saturday crowd would get to watch the star-studded NSW batting line-up flex their muscle.

All went to plan with Otago losing their last wicket in the final session of the first day. Austin opened the batting and progressed to an undefeated 59 at the close. The crowd savoured the prospect of watching the test-quality batsmanship of Macartney, Kippax and Bardsley as they took their sets on the Saturday. Austin, however was not yet done.

In the first session of the day, Austin and Macartney became the first (and still only) pair of batsmen to each score hundreds in a session of first-class cricket. Austin finished with his highest first-class score, 176, and the crowd were more than entertained as NSW piled on 649 runs in the day, eventually declaring at 8/752.

A Move South

In the 1924/25 season, Austin captained the NSW side for the first time against Queensland, top-scoring in both innings.

Unfortunately, ill-health was an ongoing problem for Austin. The issues stemmed back to an earlier match against Victoria at the MCG when Austin was struck by a Ted McDonald bouncer on the head and collapsed. He subsequently suffered ongoing symptoms and decided to move to Launceston in Tasmania in an attempt to recuperate.

While in Tasmania, Austin continued to play and coach, guiding the Launceston Cricket Club to the 1926/27 NTCA title. During this time he also played in a first class match for Tasmania against Victoria.

North Sydney Glory

Upon returning to Sydney, Austin rejoined North Sydney and was instrumental in bringing the club its fifth (and most recent) first grade premiership in 1931/32. The backbone of the 1931/32 premiership side was the “Big Four”, Tiger O’Reilly, Frank Cummins, Clem Hill and Austin.

That North Sydney would win in 1931/32 was no fait accompli. As the Captain, AH Vincent, observed in the Annual Report:

At the commencement of the season few, if any, entertained any such possibilities, as the team was considered to be a moderate, well-balanced combination, likely to surprise opponents when least expected.

1931 32 Premiers

Austin contributed with both bat and ball to the premiership – scoring 500 runs at 41.57 and taking 10 wickets at 15.60. It was in the latter half of the season that he had the greatest impact. As Vincent noted:

To him is credited the best all-round performance, viz., 102 runs and 7 wickets for 53 runs v Gordon – truly Austin’s match.  His next knock (consecutive) of 132 v Glebe on a far from perfect wicket, was in point of merit the best performance of the year – there was only one other double figure scorer in the innings.

Austin continued to play first grade at Norths until 1936. His more than 25 years of service to the Club as a player was complemented by a stint as Treasurer from 1917 to 1919.

Life After Cricket

Austin’s passions extended beyond cricket field. He was an accomplished singer – often contributing to services and events at St Mary’s Church on Miller Street. After games against local rivals, Gordon, he would often visit Charlie Macartney’s home, alongside Chatswood Oval, and entertain players and guests with his fine singing voice, accompanied by Charlie’s sister on the piano.

Being the youngest of three sons, and having lost his father in 1917, Austin was charged with taking care of his mother, Sarah, at their home on Ridge Street. It was this responsibility that allowed Austin to commit so much time to his cricket (training being a short walk across St Leonards Park) and was the main reason he was 39 before he married and started a family.

Austin instilled a love of cricket in his children, and his son Michael coached the St Aloysius’ College and St Ignatius’ College Riverview 1st XI teams for many years and was a NSW Schoolboys selector during his long teaching career. Michael’s son, Frank, captained Riverview’s 1st XI in 1996-1997, exactly 100 years after Austin’s brother, Frank, had done so in 1896.

Another son, Austin, named after his father, had a long and distinguished grade career playing for Sydney University and Mosman cricket clubs. He captained several grade teams in those clubs to premiership successes.

Thanks to the Punch Family

The Club owes enormous thanks to John, Michael and all the Punch family for opening their family archives to the Club and letting us share Austin’s story. They have assured their ongoing support in the years ahead and are honoured by North Sydney’s decision to establish the Austin Punch Club.