Graeme Vimpani was a premier talent, highlighted by his standout first-class season in 1996/97. When he could utilise the “perceived pressure” he placed on himself, and find the right balance of freedom, he was one of the best in the country.
Beginning as a budding junior for St Stephens Cricket Club in North Balwyn, Vimpani was content to admit that he “certainly wasn’t one of those teenage prodigies that are good at every sport.”
Vimpani explains, “it probably wasn’t until I started scoring a few runs consistently at district level when I was fairly young that I thought and believed I could make the leap. When I was young, I never thought I’d go as far as I did.”
Considering what Vimpani would achieve when looking back at the close of his career, it’s surprising to find he had a hard time establishing himself at the top level of Premier cricket.
His debut came “against Carlton at Princes Park; Darren Lehmann was bowling, and I was absolutely shitting myself. I got off the mark first ball, I think it was a three, and he gave me an absolute gobful when I completed the third run at the bowler’s end. That was a real eye opener to how intense the cricket was.”
A tough initiation the beginning of Vimpani’s challenges, as he “was going in between the ones and twos a lot.”
”I scored lots of runs consistently in the seconds, some big hundreds. Every time I played in the 1st XI there was a big mental barrier, I think across my first 12 games I was averaging four.”
“The chairman of selectors told me it was my last chance; I’d been in and out 11 or 12 times and enough was enough.”
That one simple message, the key to unlocking his coveted freedom, and playing a big part in him taking the next step with his cricket. “I had nothing to lose and just went out and batted with more freedom. Luckily, I was batting with Shaun Brown who was (and is) a great mate of mine and that certainly helped me out. We put on quite good partnership and won the game – so that was a real break-through for me.”
Once his place was cemented in Premier cricket’s top flight, Vimpani’s improvement didn’t slow until he made “the biggest jump in Australian cricket.”
“I personally never made the jump to international cricket, but I suspect it’s not as big as the gap between Club to Shield cricket. One thing about Shield is the outfields are faster, the pitch is flatter and the conditions are more consistent, District cricket is tougher in that respect, but the jump from District to Shield is definitely very big as the standard goes up significantly.”
His Victorian debut was “against Pakistan at the MCG; it was a big tour game in the build up to the Boxing Day Test. It was seriously amazing; my first runs were a three down to third man.”
“The crowd were pretty knowledgeable and knew it was my first runs in first-class cricket, so I got a generous round of applause for what was a pretty average shot!” chuckled Vimpani.
“The atmosphere, the crowd, the old members stand, batting out in the middle of the world-famous MCG… it was absolutely amazing.”
The season after his debut, and his first as an established first-class cricketer, Vimpani compiled one of his best innings of 131 against the West Indies.
“Initially (facing a prime West Indies attack) was daunting. Particularly the night before, morning, and during the warmup I was incredibly nervous. The West Indies were still a powerhouse back then and had two or three quicks competing for that final spot in the Test team ahead of the Boxing Day Test, so they weren’t holding back. I was in a bit of form luckily, started hitting them ok and made some runs. As for Brian Lara, he was seriously next level, but it was good fun to test yourself against those guys.”
That century was the catalyst for his breakout season, as “it was a huge injection of confidence, the biggest boost of confidence you could ever imagine.”
“I’d never really had any sort of publicity before and all of a sudden, my name was on the 6 o’clock news, so that was pretty funny. Mobile phones weren’t big back then and this will sound a bit stupid but I had 20 odd messages from people who had seen me on TV that night, which was kinda funny – particularly as some of them were from people I hadn’t spoken to since primary school! It certainly boosted the ego at the time. But following that knock I really felt more established and that I could play at that level.”
Vimpani batting for Victoria in a Sheffield Shield clash
A century against international opposition merely the beginning for Vimpani, “I just had a real hunger to succeed.”
“I was certainly in good form too – so as I said – the confidence you have is a massive factor in doing well – but mainly I was just really determined to establish myself in the team and make as many runs as I could. It was a childhood dream to be playing cricket and travelling etc. I was new to opposition teams – so they hadn’t seen me before and didn’t know my strengths or weaknesses – which played in my favour. But overall – everything was new and it was like a drug – I just wanted more and more of it.”
A mere two months after his West Indies century, he would notch his first-class high score of 161 in a gripping last session victory over New South Wales.
“It was a great win for Victoria, we were chasing 380 or 390 odd in the fourth innings. It was a day-night game at the MCG and they were always a real buzz. I had the added incentive to last a bit longer so mum and dad could finish work and get there to watch me, I loved seeing them in the grandstand. It was a very nerve-racking run chase; I was seeing them well and hitting them well and we got home against the odds and was just a great game to be part of.”
In that breakout 1996/97 season, Vimpani scored 752 runs at an average of 50.13 in the
Sheffield Shield, and scored a half century against England A on top of those innings. Astounding numbers and career best form.
Unfortunately, Vimpani’s achievement would come at the detriment of the freedom that propelled him to such a successful position. A cruelling paradox that tipped the once evenly weighed scales in favour of “perceived pressure”, in turn undervaluing his freedom.
“In the previous year, everything was brand new, and I had done well, but now opposition teams targeted me more and knew my strengths and weaknesses. There was a long gap in between seasons and suddenly, I had time to over-think things and recognized I now had something to lose. My biggest mistake was looking over my shoulder and worrying about losing my position instead of worrying about what was in front of me. I now had something to lose, which I’d never had at that level before. They say look through the windscreen not the rear vision mirror, and I fell into the trap of looking through my rear vision mirror way too much.”
“The main pressure I experienced was the pressure I put on myself. Coaches were forever telling me to give myself a break and relax more, but that simply wasn’t me. Of course, there were external pressures too – but they are mainly ‘perceived’ pressure – they’re not real. The greatest pressure I ever felt was that which I put on myself – but – I really didn’t know any other way. I’m still like that to this day to be honest! Even when you make 150 – I’d be disappointed I didn’t make 200 – I could never make enough runs and never was happy or satisfied in that sense.”
The pressure he placed on himself wasn’t the only aspect of domestic cricket that challenged Vimpani. Nor should it have been, “it was very cutthroat” cricket and not for the faint hearted.
One of the most challenging aspects he explained was consistency. “You need to produce every game. I remember one week I scored 50 or 60 against New South Wales in the second innings and was dropped the next game – so it was brutal. It’s very challenging to consistently score runs, and knowing your spot is on the line every time you bat.”
Domestic cricket wasn’t all challenges and stress, it came with its perks too, making what he described to be a “heaven or hell” lifestyle worthwhile.
”Travelling and getting paid to play on the best grounds and play with - and against - some of the greatest players in the history of the game were the main highlights for me. You’re playing against the likes of Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Adam Gilchrist, plus you’re playing alongside players like Dean Jones, Shane Warne, Merv Hughes and so on. You feel like you’re born under a lucky star. That being said, it’s completely shithouse when you’re losing matches or out of form. Hanging out with your mates, playing with genuine household names, all the travelling we did, getting your head on TV, it was all pretty cool.”
Vimpani’s domestic success wasn’t limited to the game’s traditional form. In 1998/99 the stars aligned for him to slot in to Victoria’s one-day team at the most opportune of times. He didn’t just go along for the ride but rather played a part in steering the ship. Providing valuable contributions of 36 in the semi final and 48 in the decider.
Vimpani raising the bat for Victoria in a white ball match
“I made 30 odd in the semi-final and did enough to warrant selection for the grand final. I never played in a Shield final so playing in the one-day final was definitely a career highlight. To win the one-day title and be a part of the best domestic team that year was pretty amazing.”
Another big career highlight of Vimpani’s coming from a more left field source than big hundreds or grand final wins, was ‘Super 8s’ cricket.
Vimpani’s joy towards the mention of the format alone was obvious. ”It was the greatest fun I’ve had on a cricket tour ever. That was the best three weeks of my life. There was a week in Cairns, a week in Townsville, a week in Brisbane. It was ‘train hard, play hard and celebrate hard’ on steroids! Warney was the captain and he really epitomised that. The whole tournament was televised, which was a big deal back then for Shield players, who were rarely on TV. It wasn’t like today where you have the Big Bash prime time every night, it was quite cool and a bit of a rarity to be on TV. It was very unusual back then and it was bit of a novelty but the whole tournament was awesome fun.”
“I think they only took about nine or ten players, so it was quite cutthroat. Pre-season tryouts were early mornings at Bat and Ball in North Melbourne around May or June and when it was horribly cold. My bowling was pathetic, hadn’t improved since the under 12’s and I knew if I was going to get on this team I would have to impress with the ball, so I took a brand new ball and was coming in off about 16 yards and just bowled as quick as I could. Fortunately, I managed to get Shane Warne – who we knew was going to be captain – out a few times which certainly helped my cause. All the Selectors were watching and they probably thought I could bowl. I can’t, I’m hopeless, but next week they announced the team at training, and I was in it. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face!”
Once he deemed to have lived his life span in the Premier and domestic ranks, Vimpani joined Oakleigh in the Victorian Sub-District Cricket Association (VSDCA). His presence heavily influenced the club, and he was said to have bought a work ethic and culture of success.
”I didn’t know any different, I’d always had a strong work ethic, set goals, good game strategy. John Scholes was the Victorian coach and his lessons were amazing, he was a great coach and mentor. At Oakleigh I just instilled the skills and ethos I’d learnt at state level.”
Vimpani’s professionalism wouldn't take long to translate into success, in just his second season at the club in 2004/05, they reached the VSDCA’s pinnacle.
“That Grand Final win with Oakleigh was a real breakthrough and is probably my fondest cricket memory alongside being part of the Victorian team that won the domestic one-day title against New South Wales. But what we did at Oakleigh was amazing, incredible. I honestly don’t have the words to describe the game itself. I didn’t do any good personally, but it was the best team game I’ve been a part of, it was such a rollercoaster and is by far and away the most memorable game I ever played in.”
Vimpani (left) with his premiership medal after Oakleigh's extraordinary Grand Final win over Box Hill
After a 12 year hiatus from “serious” cricket, Vimpani made a return. “It sounds strange – but the reason I played again was simply because I got a new cricket bat and wanted to get out there again and give it a test run! I still played the occasional game with the Australian Cricketers Association or a few Vets games with Plenty – but – I always had a match-bat and that broke – so I had to get a new bat, and that was the reason for my comeback. I went down to Gray Nicolls who were my sponsors when I was playing and they made me a new bat – which was completely unexpected as I was just after a second-hand one that would fill the void. It was very cool as I hadn’t gotten any new gear in more than 12 years. I was walking around the house with it like a little kid at Christmas. I called Oakleigh and said I wanted to have one hit, it could be in the seconds or the fourths I didn’t care, just one hit so I could use it. So, I went back, had a hit, did ok and caught the bug again.”
Graeme Vimpani and premierships soon went hand in hand at Oakleigh, upon his return they experienced more success, winning the 2018/19 flag.
“That premiership was right up there. We won the semi-final against Caulfield who I have the utmost respect for, and it was a really tough contest. But the following week in the Grand Final it was almost the perfect game as we won quite comfortably – nothing like the win against Box Hill 12 years prior which was beyond nerve wracking. I hit the winning runs too which was something I’d never really done – primarily because as an opening batsman you typically aren’t around at the end of the innings – so that was pretty special.”
Vimpani celebrating with his daughter after hitting the winning runs in Oakleigh's Grand Final triumph
Speaking on whether he’ll play again this year, “I don’t know, I think I will in some shape or form, depending on injuries and my body I’m not sure how much I’ll play, but I’ll probably play.”
Similar to many ex-professional cricketers, the pathway of coaching enticed Vimpani. “Yeah I was (interested), initially I wanted it pretty seriously as a career. I ended up going down a completely different direction and looking back I’m grateful for that. I wouldn’t have enjoyed coaching as much as I thought I would. I’ve done a fair bit of coaching, private coaching, specialist batting coach at clubs, but overall, I’m happy I went down a different career path.”
“My career was working in media and corporate communications affairs. When I finished playing there was a job vacant at Cricket Australia, after a bit of back and forth I got the role. I was responsible for things like the annual report, various other publications and media relations. But part of the role was to be the Australian Team’s Media Manager – so while I never got to go on tour with the Australian team as a player – being in the inner sanctum as part of Team Management was a pretty good substitute.”
Vimpani (right) celebrates Australia's Ashes win with Prime Minister John Howard
Vimpani was set up for life with a job at Cricket Australia, or so he thought. He grew unhappy with the role and desired change, leading to him taking his biggest leap of faith.
“It was a measured risk. I planned out what my finances could look like if it fell apart, and it was a low to medium risk. I thought Cricket Australia would be my dream job, but it wasn’t for me long-term, most of the time you were caught between a rock and a hard place. The players didn’t want to speak to the media, the media always wanted more information. When incorrect details were relayed, the players would complain to me even though I played no part in it. Ultimately, I guess I didn’t want my bosses’ job, that’s when I knew I had to start looking elsewhere. Now I genuinely love what I do, and all that drive and passion I used to put into my cricket I now put into my work.”
“I’m a Mortgage Broker and my business is Alphaloan Mortgage Group. Basically, my job is to help people get a great deal with their home loan. That is our job, to give people the best deal whether they’re a first home buyer, refinancing, or selling and up-sizing. It sounds really corny, but I love the work that we do and the industry we’re in. It has a heap of challenges – but the energy and passion I had for cricket I now put into AlphaLoan and it’s great fun – I’m very lucky in that regard.”
Reflecting on his playing days, Vimpani’s biggest setback was “without question the injuries I had. I had debilitating back injuries in my prime. At times I couldn’t walk two metres without collapsing. I couldn’t get out of bed or get into my car, that was just my DNA – you were essentially a cripple. Eventually, I found ways to manage my back, but I’d forgotten what it’s like to bat pain free. Unfortunately, by the time we discovered how to treat and manage by back my professional career was long gone, which was frustrating, but, it is what it is I guess.”
Having faced plenty of international bowling, the most intimidating Vimpani believed came from a source closer to home. “Automatically I go to Brett Lee. He was incredibly quick, reasonably accurate, the kind of guy that keeps you up the night before a game. The West Indies’ bowlers all bowled thunderbolts, they were a different kind of pace. They were intimidating, but I simply loved the challenge and pitting myself against them and facing the best in the world.”
Vimpani (right) with Australian spearhead Brett Lee
In terms of skillful bowling, the defining factor in Vimpani’s eyes was accuracy. “Whether it be swing, seam or spin, the most skillful bowlers were the most accurate. Greg Matthews was an off spinner that would bowl six completely different balls in the one over, but they were all incredibly accurate. Bruce Reid was another one who I really struggled with. I was facing him on the back of making three centuries, and didn’t think he would be anything special but he turned me inside out and upside down. I flew over to Perth choc full of confidence – and flew home completely shattered!”
In Vimpani’s eyes, his toughest opposition was “Queensland at their peak, they could quite easily fill an Australian side. At the time Australia were a powerhouse, they had Shane Warne, the Waugh’s, the Lee’s, Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Jason Gillespie and so on. Given you can only fit 11 in the side at any one time, this meant that many Queenslanders like Andy Bichel, Kasprowicz, Adam Dale, Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden, Martin Love, Jimmy Maher, Andrew Symonds, all of whom would walk into the Australian side at any other time in history - none of them were getting a chance, so Queensland was a really strong team as a result. John Buchanan was their coach who would coach Australia, they were a class above.”
Interestingly, Vimpani’s best win wasn’t from domestic cricket and not even Premier cricket, but rather local cricket in the VSDCA. “The Oakleigh grand final in 2004/05 is the top of the pile, we were 4-2 after eight balls chasing 230 odd. The last wicket put on 30 or so and it was a miracle win. The Mercantile Mutual Cup against our arch enemy New South Wales was also right up there.”
Having spent time in the middle with plenty, the cream of the crop in terms of who Vimpani enjoyed batting with included “Stuart Cann at Camberwell/Collingwood, he is still a great mate to this day. Dean Jones, I grew up watching Deano on TV and loved the way he batted and ran between the wickets, so batting with him was seriously good fun. Matthew Elliott at Victoria and Camberwell/Collingwood. Those three come to mind but there is an endless list. Anthony (Jerry) McQuire was another – I didn’t get to play alongside Jerry for terribly long, but we had a ball batting together. It’s important to have sync with your opening partner and build a good rapport, I had that with those guys, which made life a lot easier.”
Skill wise, Vimpani touched on plenty of names that caught his eye throughout his career. “It’s funny, the other week I was making a list of my “Best blokes on an end of season trip” XI – I better not mention those names here though as I’d probably get in trouble! In terms of the best players I played alongside, there’s all the guys you play state cricket with. Dean Jones, Matthew Elliott, Brad Hodge, Paul Reiffell, Shane Warne, Darren Berry, Ian Harvey, Shane Harwood, Merv Hughes, Tony Dodemaide, Damien Fleming, Mick Lewis. They’re the best skilled, but there’s lots of them – I’ve probably missed a few!”
For aspiring cricketers, Vimpani says “enjoy it and also work really hard on all three facets of the game. I wasn’t a bowler, but I would need to be in today’s generation. Cricket’s a game where it will reward the guys that work harder. Blokes with skill will get so far but it’s the guys that work the hardest that have the most success.”
Vimpani’s success was partly driven by his hunger to learn, whether it be from influencers and mentors, his fellow colleagues, or stars that he reads about. “The most influential was John Scholes. He was the Victorian coach and a like second father to me. He took a genuine interest in me not just as a player but as a person. Kent Hannan really helped me with my injury, fitness and rehab and I owe him a lot for helping me out there. Shane Warne and Darren Berry were great captains to play under – I really enjoyed their leadership and couldn’t speak highly of them in this regard. Shaun Brown was very influential to me in my formative years, and we had a lot of fun both on and off the field. He’s still one of the funniest blokes I’ve ever seen in action at a pub after the day’s play! But I always took an interest too in how other players at Shield level went about their cricket and you could always learn simply by watching them and how they went about it. I used to read lots of autobiographies, not just cricket but all sports, guys like Leigh Matthews and try and see what you could learn from them – so I always enjoyed learning that’s for sure.”
When quizzed about what he would change, wisdom was a recurring theme. “I guess the hardest thing is to put an old head on young shoulders. I wish I knew then what I know now. The second-year blues I suffered at Shield level that I spoke about before; I could’ve handled those a lot better on reflection. These days I know how to approach an innings much better, pace myself, read the game, read the conditions much better. The knowledge I have today would be very useful back then. I wish I knew how to treat my back better and had surgeries sooner, I could’ve had surgery three of four years earlier and successfully treated it. But that’s all wishful thinking isn’t it. When I got a game for Victoria I – I made one single promise to myself and that is no matter what – at the end of my career I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and know that I’d given it my best shot – left nothing in the tank – which I can do thankfully.”
As for his proudest moment on the cricket field, Vimpani again drew back on that VSDCA Grand Final win in 2004/05. “The Oakleigh Grand Final miracle against Box Hill is probably the one. As Coach, lots of the messages I’d been preaching to the players all season came to fruition that day. It’s a team effort, everyone down to 11, and there’s no more important game for it to come together than in a Grand Final, which it did. We were right up against it, I did stuff all, but we won completely against the odds – and that is something I will never ever forget and be forever proud of what we did as a group.”
Driven by hunger, Graeme Vimpani had all the ingredients for success both on and off the field. When he got his recipe right with the bat, combining freedom and the “perceived pressure” he placed on himself, he reached extraordinary heights.