Chris Williams looked to his left and right, and all he could do was laugh given the company he was in.
The high school PE teacher was padded up waiting to bat for Sutherland District Cricket Club in a 2018 first-grade match like he had done on countless Saturdays over the previous decade.
Only this time a couple of seats away sat Shane Watson. Next to him was Mitchell Johnson. Out in the middle was Steve Smith on 20-odd not out. Fielding was David Warner and in the adjoining marquee was Steve Waugh.
Coogee Oval was heaving, and Williams was next in.
“I just looked around. I didn’t really say anything to the guys, I kind of laughed,” Williams recalls.
“As a schoolteacher it was pretty hilarious.
“There were all these Australian players there and a couple of others like me who have just got to go to work tomorrow.”
Former Australian paceman Mike Whitney was also there in his role as Randwick-Petersham president, a club he has held a lifelong association with since his Premier Cricket playing days began in the late 1970s.
Not since the early days of his career had the 12-Test quick seen the club’s famed beachside home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs even half-full.
It was of course the famous Smith v Warner grade clash of November 2018while both were serving their year-long bans in the fallout from the Cape Town ball tampering scandal, that had led to such a packed house.
Estimates of the crowd that day range from 2000-5000 – some had traveled from Ballarat and in Johnson’s case, Perth – and Williams reckons it was comfortably double that of the 2000 they had at Glenn McGrath Oval for Smith’s opening match of the season.
For the Sutherland skipper and the rest of his regular teammates, the novelty of having to traverse a barricaded walkway to enter the field was not lost, but for Smith, Warner and Watson it barely registered.
“Smithy and Watto were all kind of used to it, they were just talking as normal,” Williams tells cricket.com.au.
“The rest of us were sitting around going ‘jeez, what’s it going to be like to go out and bat with a crowd like that?’
“The most any of us had ever played in front of was about 200 people the year before when we made the T20 finals which they played under lights at the SCG.”
That 50-over match was the last time Smith and Warner have played against each other on Aussie soil, and Whitney says it was a day the club had earmarked from the moment the fixture was released as it was known the pair would have to return to the top flight through the grade system.
There have been other Smith v Warner battles since; a quintet of Indian Premier League clashes from 2019 to 2021 and the Bangladesh Premier League not long after that day in Coogee.
But none of those have attracted the fanfare among an Australian audience like that unique match did. On Saturday night, the pair will again suit up on opposing sides in the Sydney Smash.
“When it all happened and they go ‘they’re suspended and they’ve got to come back and play club cricket’, we went ‘that can be a really big deal for our club and we need to make it a big deal’ ,” Whitney says.
“And David was fully involved with coaching the kids, talking at training, doing whatever, and playing.
“Our club was so excited about the whole prospect; we knew it was going to be a big day, we were prepared for it, but it was three or four times bigger than what I ever perceived it to be … it was insane.
“More people came to watch Randwick-Petersham that year with David playing than ever (before), and we’ve been around 23 seasons now (since the merger).”
Johnson, a good mate of Watson, was there after concluding a business trip to Sydney, while nine-year-old Sam Williams, a huge Warner fan, traveled from Ballarat in Victoria with his mum Marita to watch his hero in action.
“He hung out with David Warner all day,” Whitney recalls. “When David called for gloves, Sam ran them out. When David needed a drink – he only got 13 – but he hung with David Warner all day and now those people are big fans of our club, and we still converse with Marita and Sam .
“Smithy, Watto, David sat there all day when they had the opportunity and just signed autographs and had photos.”
Walking out for the toss that day was even a surreal experience for Chris Williams and opposing number Anthony Sams – the brother of Australia and Thunder left-armer Daniel.
Such was the interest in the season and that game, there was even gambling on first-grade cricket for the first time in Williams’ memory.
“It was probably the most hyped-up game of cricket that there possibly could have been,” he says.
“Everyone wanted to play because Smithy was playing.
“We had Shane Watson in the side as well, Ben Dwarshuis at the start of the season, Dan Fallins was playing for NSW at the time, so we had this amazing side and consistent first graders all of a sudden were out of the team and pretty disappointed.”
Alongside Warner, Randwick-Petersham also boasted an imposing side that day.
Daniel Sams has played 10 times to date for Australia at T20 level. Jason Sangha became one of youngest first-grade premiership captains in NSW history the following season, and has also led the state in the Marsh Sheffield Shield and Sydney Thunder in the KFC BBL.
Riley Ayre – playing against his former club that day – also made his first-class debut for NSW last season, while club legend Adam Semple retired at the end of last season as Randwick-Petersham’s all-time leading run-scorer (6505) and wicket-taker (419) in first grade.
But it was English first-class batter Daniel Bell-Drummond that upstaged his opening partner with a superb 106 (from 130 balls) to lead the hosts to what should have been a defendable first-grade total of 8-267 in 50 overs.
Son-of-a-gun Austin Waugh – who has since taken a sabbatical from the game – was the star of the show for Sutherland with the huge scalp of Warner in his 3-43 before later finishing with 46no, including a six from the third last ball of the match to seal the win.
“It was a pretty good total, nine times out of 10 in grade cricket that score is going to win you a game,” Williams says.
“But with Watson and Smith in your side you just thought to yourself, ‘well, we’ll get whatever they get’, that was just the mentality when we walked off the field.”
“Shane Watson, he was a cut above everybody that day,” Whitney recalls. “And that’s no disrespect to Smudge (Smith) and Davey, but Shane Watson won them the game with his innings of him.
“He hit five sixes and they were monsters.
“One of them went halfway up the hill at Dolphin St on the north side and the crowd just went berserk, it was amazing.”
Williams – who himself made 55 – says it was just like watching a Big Bash game, and it perhaps felt like it too as Watson was the Thunder’s captain at the time and Sams, who he crunched for two of those sixes along with three boundaries, their opening bowler.
“He was just pogoing him back over his head,” he recalls. “What you can think of Shane Watson as an international one-day champion, he was just hitting balls out of the ground and over the sight screen … it was exactly how you would expect him to bat.
“I remember him hitting it up on the big hill a couple of times and the ball trickling back down and little kids running to try and get their hands on the ball … it was just like what you’d see if you’re going to a Big Bash game, it almost had that atmosphere.”
When Watson departed for 63 (41) in just the 11th over, Smith took over and looked to be steering Sutherland towards a comfortable victory as he had done for Australia many times before.
“He definitely wanted to hit me straight, he kept running at me to try and hit me straight to the short boundary,” Ayre recalls.
“We had a good little battle for a bit.
“Obviously, he’s a good player everywhere but we were just trying to limit his boundary options and that is pretty tough at Coogee Oval, it’s a really small ground straight.
“A big one for me was just using my change of pace and making it hard for him to hit me down the ground.”
Ayre conceded just one boundary in his tidy return of 1-37 that day, five balls before he won the biggest battle of his career so far as Smith, after facing two consecutive dot balls, rushed down the wicket only for the left-arm orthodox spinner to slide it past his bat with the former Australian skipper stranded out of his ground on 48.
A photo of that dismissal now holds pride of place on a wall in the new Randwick-Petersham clubrooms at Coogee Oval following a redevelopment in mid-2021.
Ayre says it was “definitely” Anthony Sams’ doing as the gloveman who completed the memorable stumping, although the former under-19 Australia tweaker has no qualms about the moment being enshrined for others to see.
He says it’s still the best wicket he’s ever taken – although he added another four Test-level victims (including Raymon Reifer twice) during the NSW & ACT XI’s tour match against the West Indies last November.
“I just really enjoyed the challenge of coming on to bowl against the best in the world,” Ayre says.
“It’s hard to explain (the feeling of getting him out). It was an awesome experience and to have a good challenge with him and then eventually get one past … to say that I got Smith out, that’s definitely the biggest scalp I’ve got.
“Just to be part of a grade game like that; the crowd at Coogee Oval was unreal and to play with Davey and against Smith and Watson was pretty special.”
Chris Williams also retired at the end of last season as one of the greats of Sutherland District Cricket Club, rating that match alongside winning the T20 premiership that season as one of the “real highlights” of a decorated 12-year career.
“It was an amazing game of cricket, it’d be cool if you could play more of them,” Williams says.
“As unfortunate as it was as to how they arrived to be at that ground on that day, it was really fortunate that we got to play with Smithy; it’s not something many guys will ever get to do to play with someone as good as him .
“Anyone that popped down for a game grade cricket on that day was treated to obviously some of the best cricketers in the country and you couldn’t have asked for a game to provide you with more entertainment.”
Whitney adds: “It will always be one of the great days for Randwick-Petersham Cricket Club at one of our home grounds.
“It was just the people who were there and the atmosphere.
“And when I run into the Sutherland guys, they all say the same, it was just an amazing day of club cricket.
“To see it happen on that day and in front of everybody just solidified my mentality that we need to have these guys back in grade cricket at every opportunity that we can, if they want to play and they’re happy to play.”
Check out the scorecards from the match here.