Asked to describe what Jamie Mitchell was like as a teenager, his friend and former teammate Gerard Clarke cuts to the chase: “He lived for his cricket and he probably didn’t have his eye out to do much else.”
Back then, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs of the early 1980s, Clarke, Mitchell and their mate “Pistol” formed a trio whose backyard Tests often looked a lot like the real thing.
Behind the Mitchell household on Eley Road, Box Hill South, a cyclone-fenced cricket net announced to visitors that Jamie Mitchell meant business — a baggy green cap was the goal and there was no Plan B.
Pistol could hardly judge. It was his goal, too. And 20 years after he first took guard at Eley Road, Paul “Pistol” Reiffel had worn his own baggy green all over the world, winning the Ashes for real, and a World Cup too.
Clarke was no slouch either. In the mid-1990s, alongside Reiffel, Merv Hughes and Dean Jones, he played a few games for Victoria. Some say he probably deserved to play a few more.
Comparing him to the men who shared a sporting dream and flanked him as groomsmen on his first wedding day, it is an oversimplification to say that Mitchell simply didn’t cut it.
At 16, the diminutive left-handed batsman was an All-Australian and already playing year-round as a professional. He was described as a “genius” by an English newspaperman who watched Mitchell’s Stuart Surridge Jumbo bat slicing apart Test bowlers in Lancashire’s Ribblesdale league.
The following Australian summer, Mitchell played for the Victorian Under-19s against Queensland. At Hobart, he played the innings of his life until that point — a chanceless 146 to guarantee Victoria’s win and his own place in the Australian Under-19 squad to tour India and Sri Lanka.
In a file box of schoolboy cricket ephemera that now sits in basement storage at the MCG, there is a typeset tour report. It was written by the former Shield-winning spinner Bob Bitmead, who was Victoria’s coach that day and, for the third year running, would coach the Australian Under-19 team, too.
Coming as it did from the mind of the man who’d overseen Victoria’s dominance of the previous three national carnivals, Bitmead’s comment on Mitchell’s innings is especially significant: “The best performance I have seen in any U19 Championships.”
In the weeks following, Mitchell padded up like countless times before and strolled into the backyard at Eley Road for a photograph that signalled the next step towards his dream.
Perched on the 18-year-old’s knee was his big-time cricket career’s learner-plate — a baggy green cap with “Youth XI” stitched below the Australian coat of arms. When Reiffel was called up too, the childhood friends were hurtling towards their destiny.
But looking back on that time now, the Mitchell family see Jamie’s return from the subcontinent a few months later as the dividing line between two very different sporting lives — one overflowing with brilliance and great promise, another filled with sadness, frustration and bitter disappointments.
Foremost, they remember the horrifying sight of Jamie — sickly, grossly underweight from the effects of the gruelling trip, and barely responsive — being pushed towards them in a wheelchair at Tullamarine airport.
They recall the unwillingness of any Australian cricket officials — nor even Jamie’s mates — to make eye contact with them, let alone explain the state he was in.
And most painfully of all, they think back on the devastating moment six months later, when they heard a horrifying allegation about Jamie’s trip — albeit from the lips of a stranger:
‘Something went off inside me’
In August last year, Jamie Mitchell logged onto Facebook, spotted a familiar photo of the 1985 Australian Under-19 team, taken before a game in New Delhi, and responded to it like never before.
“It just triggered something,” Mitchell says.
“Something went off inside me.”
For the last few months, prompted by discussions between Mitchell and Sports Integrity Australia CEO David Sharpe, an Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation has been seeking to uncover exactly what transpired on the tour. After referring the matter to the AFP, Sports Integrity Australia briefed Cricket Australia and gained its cooperation with the AFP’s investigations.
Not least, AFP investigators are trying to establish who committed the alleged sexual assault that Mitchell disclosed to a number of confidantes upon his return, before he buried his trauma for decades. As yet, no charges have been laid.
Until the last few months, “India” was considered a taboo topic in the Mitchell family — something that could only be thrashed out properly if and when Jamie declared himself ready to talk, but the arrival of that declaration in recent times has made the matter no easier to confront.
For one thing, Mitchell has stumbled into an emotional minefield, triggering all manner of painful memories. His last four months have been a living hell of drip-fed information from family, teammates and friends — revelations so personal and painful as to seriously test his emotional wellbeing.
“When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think about,” Mitchell says.
“It’s made me very reclusive. I do have a lot of dark times. It’s the not knowing. It’s taken me to a place where I want to believe that it’s about someone else.
Making things more difficult for Mitchell, he now has only hazy recollections of the night in question. He says that when the incident occurred — in Colombo, on the last night of the tour — he was not just ill but barely conscious from an injection administered by the Australian team doctor, Malcolm McKenzie, a highly-regarded Melbourne GP and one-time Victorian president of the Australian Medical Association, who died in 1998.
McKenzie’s role in whatever followed is also now being scrutinised by the AFP.
Another barrier has been the wall of silence around a tour considered infamous in cricket circles, and after which the national coach, Robert Clyde Bitmead, now 79, vanished from elite coaching ranks forever.
In an interview with ABC Sport, Bob Bitmead denied that he sexually assaulted Jamie Mitchell , and said the events of the tour were unrelated to his departure as coach of the Australian Under-19s.
Mitchell and his teammates say that Bitmead’s disappearance was never explained by the Australian Cricket Board (now Cricket Australia), and say that as the sport’s peak body, it needs to be transparent in its investigation of the matters raised by Mitchell’s story.
The players claim the ACB overlooked Bitmead’s reputation as an inappropriate person to be leading 16 teenagers on an eight-week tour of Third World countries, and did not respond to complaints about his alleged conduct afterwards.
For Mitchell, the issue has come to a head in stages. Six years ago, at his 50th birthday party, Jamie’s brother Michael could no longer bear the tension of decades spent hearing allegations from friends in Melbourne’s district cricket scene that “Bitmead got to” his brother on the tour.
The brotherly conversation left Jamie equal parts baffled and distressed, but he was unaware of the layers of understanding Michael already possessed. Upon Jamie’s return from the tour, Michael says, Jamie had “spoken quite venomously” about Bitmead.
“I don’t know whether, due to trauma, he’s blanked it out,” Michael Mitchell says.
“But Jamie was always very clear that Bitmead was not a trusted person and had done bad things.”
Periodically, in the time since that party, Jamie sought his own answers. He made phone calls to teammates, family, journalists and friends. He started a Facebook group for his Australian Under-19s teammates — to share memories and photos from the tour, but also to start unravelling the mystery that continues to gnaw at him.
But after his “triggering” episode last year, angry at how little he knew about the alleged crime committed against him, Mitchell realised something more methodical was required.
In early August, an explosive Facebook post clearly spelled out his concerns that he and teammates had been “exposed to unacceptable behaviour from a person in a position of trust”, and that the issue had become “an elephant in the room which needs to be named and dealt with … The ACB failed in its duty of care to players and their families.”
Mitchell’s broadside found its way to the then-chairman of Cricket Australia (CA), Earl Eddings, a former club cricket opponent of Mitchell’s.
Mitchell says he passed on a message saying he was open to a phone call from Eddings, but it never eventuated.
Instead, CA’s chief executive Nick Hockley called. Mitchell says he was immediately put offside by the CEO’s preference for CA’s Integrity Department to handle the matter.
“I felt fobbed off,” Mitchell says.
One further entreaty, from CA’s Integrity Department, arrived only on November 22 — in the wake of harsh criticism of the organisation’s handling of the Tim Paine affair, and more than three months since Mitchell first aired his grievances. He says it was only at that point – once Cricket Australia was aware of the AFP’s investigation – that the governing body offered him access to its Employee Assistance Program.
Mitchell told CA it was too late, that the matter was in the hands of the AFP and Sports Integrity Australia, and that the only support he’d received to that point was from its investigators; through Sharpe, Sports Integrity had provided Mitchell with counselling services, and the Australian Cricketers’ Association had provided early assurances that it would support Mitchell and his teammates too.
Yet all that Mitchell has really wanted since August is information that moves him closer to the honest truth of what happened that night in Colombo — for CA and its predecessors to produce anything that might give him closure, and for protective family and friends to stop telling the story behind his back and share their information, no matter how shocking he found it.
But none of those self-assurances could prepare Mitchell for the stresses that have followed.
‘Not one person spoke to us about anything’
It should have been an optimistic summer’s day during the 1985-86 district cricket season, two parents sitting on the hill of Glenferrie Oval watching their son press his claims for higher honours.
The proof was right there in the newspaper reports: Hawthorn-East Melbourne’s young batting star Jamie Mitchell would soon be pressing for Sheffield Shield selection.
Yet for John and Monica Mitchell, doubts lingered. After Jamie’s return from the subcontinent that April, they worried that their son’s physical appearance and personality had altered dramatically, and it remains their view that Jamie has not been the same person since.
The comments that sent them into a tailspin came from Hawthorn-East Melbourne powerbroker John Miles, circling the ground that day.
Miles was an especially credible source — a conservative, a traditionalist, a veteran administrator at the club and, for the Liberal Party, a newly-elected member of parliament.
By the recollections of the Mitchells, Miles, who died in 2010, introduced himself to Monica and asked that she call John closer to discuss an important matter related to Jamie’s time in India and Sri Lanka.
Miles cut straight to the chase and alleged Jamie had been “raped” — a word never used in the Mitchell household.
In their respective states of shock, Jamie’s parents also recall Miles using the following words: “Jamie told me”; “someone in authority”; “doctor”.
Monica says her “blood ran cold” and that her husband had to escort her away to process the harrowing information in private.
Michael Mitchell says the issue has been an agonising dilemma for his parents ever since.
“They’ve been carrying this for 35 years and not knowing if they should talk, or if Jamie wants them to talk,” he says.
“It’s been a real conundrum for them for a long time.”
Casting their minds back to six months earlier, Mr and Mrs Mitchell say they felt “avoided” when Jamie returned from the tour in a wheelchair, and that they’ve never heard a single word more from Cricket Australia.
“Nobody spoke to us at all,” says John Mitchell.
In recent months, what Jamie has had to painfully accept is that Miles was not the only person in whom he confided. Starting in the months after the tour, brother Michael heard his periodic streams of invective about Bitmead. It is likely that other clubmates were told too.
Another trusted individual — a nurse who was close to the Mitchell family and does not want to be identified, but is prepared to cooperate with police investigations — says Jamie told her he was paranoid that he might have contracted AIDS on the tour.
Advising Jamie to get tested immediately, she asked him why he was so concerned.
Jamie answered clearly, she says, explaining that his fears were “because of something that happened in India”.
Then he swore her to secrecy.
‘There is something seriously wrong there’
Placed next to such distressing events, an unfulfilled cricket career hardly seems important, but in Jamie Mitchell’s case there are grounds for lament.
Weeks before he jetted off to the subcontinent, the potential of “Victoria’s latest batting discovery” was outlined in Melbourne newspaper The Herald.
Mitchell gave an undaunted account in the paper of his first training session since being added to the Victorian Sheffield Shield squad:
“It was very competitive,” he told the newspaper.
“But everyone made me feel at home — in fact, I was surprised how many people knew me.”
For Mitchell, the Under-19s tour moved into gear at Bombay’s Wankhede Stadium, in Australia’s three-day game against West Zone. He reached 47 by stumps on day two in Australia’s first innings, but collapsed at the edge of the square from heat stroke and had to be carried off the ground and into the showers.
His slow recovery from that incident ruled him out of the first Test. For the rest of a spluttering career that baffled those who saw Mitchell’s rich talent first blooming, out of contention he would remain.
Jamie’s brother Michael summarises the rest bluntly.
“It just never happened for Jamie when he got back from India,” he says.
“You don’t go from being on the cover of magazines as the ‘next big thing’ in cricket to taking seven or eight years to get your first district century.
A veteran cricket writer, who only saw Mitchell bat for the first time in the late 1980s, by which point he languished in second-grade teams, says he could never quite understand how such a well-credentialed cricketer had become a disconsolate shell of a batsman.
“It was like he had no confidence,” he says. “And no shots.”
Equally baffling to those unfamiliar with the Under-19s tour was Jamie’s worrying tendency to collapse on hot days. Before the trip, he’d never had a problem with the heat. After it, it was not uncommon for Mitchell to be hospitalised.
Teammates recall the sense of panic in a club game at the Junction Oval, when an ambulance drove onto the field and took Mitchell away.
Not discounting the significant physical impact of representing his country, Mitchell now ponders the psychological damage it did: “Was it something that took me back to that horrible day?”
“Cricket was a game I adored. I lived for it, really. For a long time, it was my identity. I’d go places and it’s all that people wanted to talk about, because I was a cricketer. Now that I realise how much of my life I invested in the sport, it’s disappointing.”
Michael Mitchell says another indicator of how toxic Jamie’s relationship with cricket became is that, in parenthood, he actively discouraged his children from taking up the game.
“With Jamie, it was almost like, ‘It’s hurt me, I don’t want it to hurt you,'” he says.
Jamie says it is a thought that struck him often.
“I can’t remember ever throwing a ball to my sons as kids,” he says.
“I feared them being interested in cricket. No way at all. For a lot of cricketers, the greatest day of their lives is playing in a game with their son.
“But I never wanted that.”
‘Youth cricket was the future …’
With their astute leadership and many thousands of runs, Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh are rightly seen as the fathers of Australia’s cricketing dominance since the 1990s, but less obvious factors played a role.
Recalling the post-Chappell doldrums in his memoir, former Australian Cricket Board CEO Graham Halbish explained his original pitch when he joined the governing body in 1980: “The lure of the job was not the salary but being involved at ACB level and with youth cricket and coaching.”
Halbish, soon appointed secretary of the ACB’s youth and coaching committees, saw a rejuvenated, well-funded elite junior pathway as a fundamental method of replenishing national Test and one-day international teams shorn of generational performers like Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh.
At the apex of that pathway was the Australian Under-19s team, once under the aegis of a nepotistic schoolboys’ cricket association, but by Halbish’s time an ACB-run feeder team.
In his book, Halbish stated that the mid-80s was a period of realisation for the ACB, that “youth cricket was the future… We groomed those with a future at the top level.”
In certain crucial senses, the results speak for themselves. The Under-19 teams constructed between 1983 and 1985, for instance, produced backbone players of the 90s: Steve and Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy and Craig McDermott — each of them coached by Bob Bitmead.
Also led by Bitmead, Jamie Mitchell’s team to India and Sri Lanka produced World Cup stars Reiffel, Tom Moody and Andrew Zesers, Test spinner Gavin Robertson and accomplished first-class players Warren Ayres, Richard Soule and Geoff Parker.
Bitmead, now 79, had first come to wide attention in the 1960s, as a lanky left-arm spinner bowling off the wrong foot at Fitzroy Cricket Club, whose captain Jack Potter ushered him into Victoria’s Sheffield Shield-winning side of 1966-67.
As a player, Bitmead’s novelty factor quickly wore off.
After the national call-up to the Les Favell-led “Australia B” team to New Zealand in 1967, his first-class career ended inside the year. But coaching would bring him greater acclaim.
By the late 70s, Bitmead had moved through the coaching ranks at Fitzroy and on to the powerful Richmond Cricket Club, coaching teams stacked with Shield and Test stars.
He was also a fixture of the Victorian Cricket Association’s (VCA) burgeoning elite junior scene. VCA annual reports and magazines of the time list Bitmead among the coaches at “three-day live-in cricket clinics” the VCA ran for the best 52 Under-16 cricketers in the state.
And Bitmead was not merely a product of the elite coaching system but one of its chief architects. As a member of the VCA’s coaching committee since 1980-81, he had both status and significant influence on coaching policies.
Among players of the time, he is better remembered as the coach of dominant Victorian Under-19s teams, of which he first took charge in 1981-82. By the end of that summer, he was also appointed as assistant coach of the Australian Under-19 team, steadily rising to be its head coach for the 1983 tour of England.
In doing so, Bitmead had reached the top of an increasingly sophisticated pyramid of coaches. But there were also concerns about his character.
‘I found it ridiculous that he could get that gig’
Since his playing days, Bitmead had been known in cricket circles as an unusual character – a deep thinker on the game, but an oddball and a loner. By the time he was handed the Australian Under-19s coaching job, even clubmates at Richmond, who respected Bitmead’s tactical nous, questioned his suitability to coach junior teams.
Even among Bitmead’s backers, there were reservations. George Murray, the Fitzroy CC stalwart and revered junior coach who managed a number of Bitmead’s squads, including the 1983 Australian team to England, returned from the latter trip and confided in a close friend that he’d witnessed behaviour that alarmed him.
At one hotel, he’d seen Bitmead bring a young boy to breakfast.
Responding to that allegation, Bitmead told ABC Sport: “I think at one stage I had an acquaintance who was 19 or something like that. We had breakfast. That did happen, yes.”
Players from that 1983 tour mostly recall an incident-free trip, but a hot topic of conversation was Bitmead’s decision to farewell the team following the first leg of the flight home and carry on to South-East Asia by himself.
In Victorian cricket circles, his frequent solo travel to Penang became a talking point.
Allegations had also emerged from a less official cricket trip in the late 1970s, when Bitmead was among a rag-tag squad of former top cricketers and VFL footballers to tour South-East Asia.
Few remember the cricket they played, but they haven’t forgotten Bitmead’s preoccupation with the young boys on the beaches of Penang, nor the sight of him plying them with gifts and wrestling them in the sand.
Bitmead told ABC Sport that Penang has been his “second home” since the early 1980s, but denied the allegations of his cricket associates that he used his frequent trips to seek out sexual encounters with children.
Among Victorian Under-19s players of the mid-1980s, there was discussion of Bitmead’s lingering stares in the showers, his habit of sitting too close and knocking knees with the teenagers and his occasional manhandling of players.
One Victorian Under-19s player recalls Bitmead’s reputation: “Everyone in district circles knew,” he says.
“It wasn’t spoken in whispers, it was common knowledge. It was definitely known that he was creepy. It used to be commented on: ‘How the hell did he get the gig for the Under-19s?’ We made fun of it.”
Mitchell says they were moments that players ‘laughed off’ at the time.
“You’d be standing in the shower, drying your hair, and you look up and there is Bitmead staring at your penis,” he says.
Bitmead denies allegations that he used his coaching positions to seek sexual gratification.
Some players now question whether the winning records of Bitmead’s teams, and the esteem in which he was apparently held by key administrators, prevailed over legitimate concerns about the coach’s behaviour.
One, who was selected alongside Mitchell for the tour of the subcontinent, says “things changed a bit” once the tour began — from joking to genuine concern.
“I couldn’t believe that Cricket Australia would send someone like that to India and Sri Lanka with 16, 17 and 18-year-olds,” he says.
“Even when he was coach of the Victorian Under-19 team before we went away, we talked about it. We shook our heads at the time. It was talked about. I found it ridiculous that he could get that gig. That was well and truly when it’d started — before that tour.”
A Richmond cricketer of the era still shakes his head.
“It was known before that Australian team left,” he says.
“It was well known in Richmond cricket club circles, so I would have thought it would have been well known throughout cricket. I’ve got no doubt.”
Known, perhaps, but not acted on.
‘We all thought there was something not quite right’
Until recent months, no other member of the 1985 Australian Under-19 team knew the dark extent of Jamie Mitchell’s alleged experiences on the trip, but each acknowledges there were aspects of the tour they will never forget.
Most retain in their memory two distinctly different versions of the tour.
The good version is mostly about a sensory and cricketing adventure — 16 naive but talented teenage cricketers confronting the physical and emotional challenges of four Test matches, six one-dayers and a crammed schedule of tour matches played in oppressive heat across eight intensely testing weeks.
In the good version, some used the trip as a springboard to storied careers — Zesers and Moody were senior World Cup winners within two years, Reiffel an international mainstay for the following decade — while others recall cricketing experiences that will be shared with grandchildren.
But the bad version of the tour, most agree, was so disturbing that their teenage eyes could hardly process what they were witnessing.
Team captain Dean Reynolds, a talented batsman from Queensland, alleges non-Victorian players got an early crash course in Bitmead’s ways.
“I remember being in the showers at Calcutta, and he’d look at your penis,” Reynolds says.
“I found him creepy. He had this reptilian face. He just had this scary stare. He’d always be there a long time in the showers.”
Allegations of behaviour of even greater concern were to follow. Bitmead was seen abandoning his coaching duties to wander around arenas and seek the company of young local boys. Players would look around the stands as they fielded and allegedly spot the coach holding hands with the children.
Zesers, then the country’s most promising fast bowler and a Shield regular for South Australia, recalls walking around the sparsely populated stadium at Ahmedabad and allegedly spotting Bitmead sitting in the stands with a group of young boys.
“Bob had his hands on the leg of this kid in the stand,” Zesers says.
Responding to the allegation that he frequently socialised with young boys in the crowd, Bitmead told ABC Sport: “Yes, that was correct. Well, they socialised with me. I sat in the stand behind the wickets and they came up and were talking. They were interested in what was going on and talking to me, and talking about cricket in general.”
One morning, midway through the Test at Eden Gardens, Mitchell remembers walking single-file into the ground behind Bitmead and spotting about 20 Indian boys waving from an archway above.
“As I waved back, they looked ahead to Bitmead and a kid grabbed a banana and started putting it in and out of his mouth while he was looking at Bitmead,” Mitchell alleges.
“My guts just turned. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Bitmead was not able to be contacted about his recollections of this alleged incident.
One night at the team hotel, a player who’d become frustrated at his non-selection was urged by teammates to seek an answer directly from the coach.
As he attempted to knock, he unintentionally pushed forward the door to the coach’s room and alleges that he saw Bitmead, wearing only a skimpy pair of shorts, photographing a young Indian boy on the bed.
“He was traumatised by it,” says one teammate.
“It scared the shit out of him.”
Asked to confirm allegations that he often had young boys in his hotel rooms, Bitmead said: “No, not really. Well, again, some of the players that were in the Indian side would come in, but they were always two or three and not, you know… They’d just pop in and say hello and we’d talk there for a while, and that was it. It was very seldom. I wouldn’t say it was a regular occurrence, but it did happen, yes.”
Asked if he photographed young boys in his room, Bitmead said: “I can’t confirm or deny. I may have. Let me think. I’m trying to… No, not really, no. I’ve taken photographs of them at the ground and out around. Just general photographs that you take while on tour. But no, if you’re inferring that I was taking photos in the room, no.”
But players remain adamant in their view that Bitmead’s behaviour was a concern to the playing squad.
“It was in our faces,” one Australian player says of what players allege were regular sightings of Bitmead with young boys.
“I remember guys in the team saying, ‘What is going on? This is not right. What are we doing here?’ It was not good. The feeling of being on that tour, particularly towards the end, was that [Bitmead’s behaviour] was so blatant. It just makes me feel a bit sick, really.”
Bitmead denies an allegation from one player that he was arrested outside the stadium during a one-day international at Colombo. But Bitmead admitted that he and the team’s doctor Malcolm McKenzie were detained and questioned by police in India for taking photographs at a holy site.
Zesers says that by the Sri Lankan leg, Bitmead had all but abandoned the team.
“He’d lost interest,” he says.
“And we’d lost interest in him. Once we worked it out, and he wasn’t interested in us, particularly in Sri Lanka, it was quite obvious that no-one would listen to him. He probably gave up and chased whatever else he was chasing.”
The recollection of most players is that team manager Jack Bennett — a veteran cricket administrator from Launceston who, with Bitmead and McKenzie, was one of three adults accompanying the squad — was well-intentioned but out of his element and unsure what to do about Bitmead’s alleged behaviour.
In effect, nothing was done.
“I think he became more brazen as the tour went on,” squad member Warren Ayres says.
“The players were furious about it. But nothing ever happened.”
Walking past Bitmead’s room one day, Mitchell alleges he witnessed “kids jumping around on Bitmead’s bed and he’s got his red Speedos on.”
Bitmead denies that he ever had young boys in his room.
‘What the hell is going on here?’
Players from earlier Australian Under-19s tours recall breakfast being an optional engagement for whomever rolled out of bed in time.
On the tour of India and Sri Lanka, it doubled as the daily team meeting and, depending on the quality of the hotel, the guarantee of at least one meal for the day that carried no health risks.
With all players present, therefore, there is little debate over the scene that they allege guaranteed their final revolt against Bitmead.
It took place in the dining room of Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens Inn, hours before the first morning of the team’s only Test against Sri Lanka.
“We came down to breakfast,” Mitchell says.
“And there is this Sri Lankan boy, maybe nine or 10 years old but no older, with just a pair of shorts on and bracelets on his hands — a very thin-looking kid. And there is Bitmead, sitting at the table with him, buttering his toast, hand-feeding him and putting milk on his cornflakes.”
Bitmead denies that he brought a boy to breakfast.
Wicketkeeper Jason Jacoby recalls the feeling of horror among the group: “We all just looked at each other and went, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was just ridiculous.”
Some recall Zesers erupting and telling Bitmead that his conduct had become a disgrace. Others say they barely knew where to fix their eyes.
“To me, it seemed like he’d conceded that the jig was up and he couldn’t be bothered hiding it anymore,” Mitchell says.
“Zesers got up and said, ‘What the f*** is this?’ One by one the players got up and walked out.
Bitmead told ABC Sport: “I never took a Sri Lankan boy to breakfast. I don’t remember any confrontation with the players at any stage. I had a good relationship with the team.”
Players recall that Bitmead would go missing for entire days towards the end of the tour, leaving the team to organise itself on match day.
In the eighth and final week, one player says he witnessed something that horrified him. With the team bus idling outside the hotel and ready for its 9:15am departure for the ground, and only Bitmead missing, team manager Bennett sent the player back into the hotel to fetch the coach.
The player alleges he knocked on the door of Bitmead’s room. When Bitmead opened it, his bathrobe was halfway down to his waist. The player says that inside the room, bouncing around on Bitmead’s bed, were four young Sri Lankan boys with no clothes on.
The player says he composed himself and told Bitmead that he was late and the team was waiting for him. He says that Bitmead looked at him blankly and slammed the door in his face.
Bitmead denies this, and says he never had young boys in his room.
Returning to the bus, the player says he told the team manager what he’d witnessed. He says Bennett turned to the driver with a panicked command: “Just drive.”
ABC Sport understands Bob Bitmead’s alleged behaviour on overseas trips forms part of the AFP’s investigation.
‘Anyone could have come in and had access to me’
What Jamie Mitchell may never know is precisely what happened in the evening hours of March 30 and the early morning of March 31, 1985, before the Australian Under-19 team rose early for a 6.30am departure to Katunayake International airport for its flight home.
Yet even some of Mitchell’s hazy memories are well supported by the recollections of teammates — as Mitchell always remembered, after falling ill, he was medicated by Dr Malcolm McKenzie and left alone at the team hotel as his teammates attended a dinner function at a nearby hotel.
Crucially, Jamie’s roommate that night recalls being firmly instructed by McKenzie, attending to Mitchell before the dinner, that he would not need to return to the hotel to perform a welfare check on his teammate.
After the dinner, Mitchell’s roommate was told that Mitchell had been “quarantined” and was too sick for the roommate to sleep in the same room. The roommate was ordered to sleep in another teammate’s room – a fact confirmed to ABC Sport by that other teammate.
It means there was a window of approximately 10 hours in which Mitchell was left alone in the room. Mitchell says it was ample time for an assault by someone with knowledge of his whereabouts and semiconscious state, and access to his room.
At the time, no player on the tour suspected any wrongdoing by McKenzie, whose obituary by an AMA colleague described him as a “dedicated GP” and a “valued participant in medico politics … actively involved in upholding professional standards.”
The obituary noted that McKenzie “had several interests outside medicine and had given distinguished and tireless service to amateur football and junior cricket”, and served as an elder of the Presbyterian and Uniting churches for many years.
But ABC Sport has spoken to a former patient of McKenzie’s who says in his late teens and early 20s, he was subjected to bizarre examinations of a sexual nature.
In one, without any medical justification, McKenzie gave the man pornographic magazines and told him to get an erection, which McKenzie then “poked and prodded”.
The man says McKenzie was preoccupied with semen and often asked him questions about masturbation.
The patient says that when his younger brother reached his mid-teens, he refused to be examined by McKenzie, telling family he’d been sexually molested by the doctor.
This new information has raised questions about McKenzie’s role in whatever happened to Mitchell.
Bitmead denies that he sexually assaulted Mitchell, telling ABC Sport: “No. Never. Never. I can’t recall Jamie Mitchell even being sick.”
Bitmead added that he had “nothing but the utmost respect for Dr McKenzie”.
Mitchell is clear on the sequence of events.
“I remember the doctor, Malcolm McKenzie, giving me a jab of what I thought was penicillin,” Mitchell says.
“Most of the guys have said they lost me for a couple of days. They remember putting me under the shower the next morning, to get me ready for the flight. They remember trying to dress me. And when we landed, I was wheeled to my parents in a wheelchair.”
On the topic of McKenzie’s role in whatever happened to Mitchell, there is now consternation among other team members. One says Jamie was not the only player “given hard drugs or knocked out” after suffering food poisoning or heat stroke.
“It wasn’t just antibiotics,” one player says.
“I was in all sorts of strife. I went missing for three days. It was a four-day game, and I didn’t leave the hotel room until the night before we left there. I didn’t even go to the ground. I have no idea who we were playing or where we were.”
It’s most likely they were injected with promethazine.
Better known as Phenergan, it was commonly used in the 1980s to treat a range of conditions including nausea and vomiting. It was also commonly used as a sedative, because its worst side effect was dramatic — “knockout” level drowsiness that could last for 48 hours, sometimes more.
Regardless of the drug’s necessity and its widespread use as an item in the kit of most doctors, some players are now angry at being left in a vulnerable position, unaware of the dangers they may have been exposed to.
“It was an awful environment we were put in,” one player says.
“As I’ve got older, I have a bit of disbelief that that’s the situation we were put in. It was right in front of our eyes. [Bitmead] just wasn’t right.”
The captain of the team echoed those concerns.
“We were just teenagers,” Dean Reynolds says.
“I trusted Australian cricket.”
‘He just disappeared off the face of the earth’
Beyond finding out what happened to him, the two most pressing matters for Jamie Mitchell now are to establish exactly what was known about Bob Bitmead and Malcolm McKenzie by cricket administrators before the ACB appointed them to go on the 1985 tour, and what the governing body did about Bitmead’s alleged behaviour in the tour’s aftermath.
For most players, the last sighting of Bitmead was at the end of the first leg of the flight home. One player says Bitmead took a connecting flight to Penang, leaving it to Bennett and McKenzie to usher the squad home.
When the Victorian-based players considered their next moves, ringing in their ears were conversations in which Bitmead boasted of his influence with the state’s Sheffield Shield selectors — a move they saw as manipulative.
“He was in a position of power, and to upset him would not be in your interests at all,” Mitchell says.
Warren Ayres says that problem extended to any player with aspirations to play for the country.
“We had to bite our lips,” Ayres says.
One player summarises the tour review process: “It was never spoken about again. Bitmead just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Yet questions were posed, and residual anger festered.
“My recollection is that there were letters written and presented to Cricket Australia that just weren’t actioned,” Ayres says.
“It was a big cover-up, in my view. Bob Bitmead basically just disappeared from the world of cricket.”
In fact, although Bitmead never coached elite juniors again at any level, it was not until six months later — halfway through the Victorian district season following — that he stepped down as senior coach at Richmond CC.
Unlike his relinquishment of other posts, this made for a news item — under the headline “Bitmead, Tigers part company” in The Age, on January 30, 1986.
The article began: “Former state player Bob Bitmead, one of Victoria’s most highly regarded cricket coaches, has been replaced at Richmond by former South Melbourne coach Keith Kendall. Bitmead, 40, said last night he had resigned for personal reasons.”
The article suggested something that few administrators of the time are now able to confirm or deny: Bitmead had “resigned” from the Victorian Under-19s job.
Bitmead was quoted as saying “it was purely for family reasons that I had to go”, and in a significant understatement: “It would be premature to say I will never return to coaching, but I can’t see myself returning in the near future.”
The report was rounded out with a comment from VCA secretary Ken Jacobs: “It is unusual for a club to part company with its coach midway through the season, but that is Richmond’s business and has nothing to do with the VCA.”
Jacobs told ABC Sport that although Bitmead was never appointed again by the VCA, his recollection is that the matter was never formally discussed by the VCA executive committee.
Bitmead, who was 43 years old at the time, now claims he stood down from his coaching roles to care for his mother, with whom he lived.
“She was quite ill and needed … I lived at home with her and that was it,” he says.
“Once I stopped, the years went by and I was getting older and older, and I more or less just stopped coaching.”
‘The Board has been very happy with all reports on the tour’
Of the three documents that could provide answers about the ACB’s knowledge of the tour, neither the tour manager’s report nor a letter of complaint — written by a parent on behalf of the squad and detailing the allegations about Bitmead’s behaviour — has been seen by players; the family who sent the letter say that the ACB provided no response.
Asked if he was aware of complaints from parents about his conduct, Bitmead said: “I never ever suspected anything like that or any kind of conflict with players at all. I thought I had an excellent association with the players.”
Ayres says the lack of response from the ACB only strengthened the feeling that it was not in the interests of players to take the issue further.
“We also probably thought whatever we said was irrelevant,” he says.
“If those letters that got sent to [the ACB] got brushed under the carpet, what help were we gonna be?”
The third document is Bitmead’s coach’s report, which he says he submitted to ACB chief executive David Richards.
One document that is in the possession of numerous players is a short letter on ACB letterhead sent after the trip, disbursing the balance of their tour allowance and noting the inclusion of score sheets and press clippings. In that letter, an ACB office staffer signed the following words on behalf of general manager Graham Halbish: “The Board has been very happy with all reports on the tour and its success. I hope that the tour was for you also a positive and rewarding experience.”
It is not only the ACB’s apparent approval of the tour’s happenings that now irks Mitchell, but the letter’s reference to the missing “reports”.
Although it was standard for a team manager like Bennett to submit a tour report — and captain Reynolds remains adamant he instructed Bennett to lodge a formal complaint about Bitmead — Cricket Australia will not confirm if the 1985 tour report resides in its archives.
Cricket Australia has declined Mitchell and ABC Sport’s request for copies of the tour manager’s report and other tour documentation it holds, on the grounds that it believes that doing so could compromise the AFP’s investigation.
Regardless, other coaches who were involved in the ACB’s elite junior pathways in the 1980s say it is unlikely that Bennett would have documented information as disturbing as Bitmead’s alleged behaviour in writing.
“He would have done that verbally,” says Brian Taber, the former Test wicketkeeper who replaced Bitmead as Australian Under-19s coach.
“I don’t think he’d put it in a report for everybody. He would have probably reported to [ACB Board members] Bob Parish and Ray Steele down there verbally and just filled them in on it. That would have been enough to alert them to the fact of what was going on.”
Asked what was known of Bitmead’s alleged conduct at ACB headquarters after the tour, Taber said: “It was quietly known around the place but it didn’t become an issue at all as far as I can remember. He just sort of faded out and we didn’t see him again.”
“But, you know, the [ACB] knew of his persuasions over there.”
‘I don’t remember that particular tour’
If there was institutional knowledge of the issue, it is increasingly hard to verify.
Halbish — whose name appears at the bottom of most tour documents, who Mitchell says presented him with his baggy green cap and Australian sweater, and whose delivery of a presentation at the squad’s pre-tour camp in Canberra is confirmed in the 1984-85 ACB annual report — told ABC Sport: “I don’t remember that particular tour.”
Asked if he recalled the nature of the ACB’s parting with Bitmead, Halbish replied: “Short answer is no.”
“I can’t recall ever having to deal with an issue in regard to Bitmead,” says Halbish, who went on to be the ACB’s chief executive between 1993 and 1997.
“I think there was an innuendo about him. I can’t say exactly when. But that was about … yes, I think, yes he did disappear, but the exact circumstances I can’t recall.
“I certainly can’t recall any formal process in that regard.”
Asked if Bitmead’s alleged behaviour was reported to the ACB by Bennett, Halbish said: “I can’t recall it being raised by Jack Bennett at the time. I’d remember if something like that had come up. I don’t even know if there was a formal report from the Under-19 tour manager at the time. You’d have to see what they have in the archives.”
Asked if he recalled hearing any other allegations about Bitmead’s behaviour on the tour, Halbish said: “There were some stories — rumour-type stories.
Halbish said he could not recall receiving the letter of complaint written on the players’ behalf by a concerned parent.
Asked if he’d heard about the allegation that a player had been sexually assaulted on the tour, Halbish said: “No. That’s absolute … completely news to me. I’ve no doubt if there was any formal complaint lodged that it would have had to have been actioned. But I don’t recall. I’m shocked.”
“We were very interested with and concerned about player welfare and wellbeing. All the tour arrangements we did, I can only recall us being as diligent as we possibly could and doing the best we could by the young player. We took a lot of pride in what we did with the youth program back then.
“It’s certainly enormously sad and disappointing to hear that an experience I’d always thought for everyone concerned was an important and positive part of their development, not just as a cricketer but as a person was … look, it’s very sad.”
Halbish says that if problems like those described by players were on record at the time, they would have been dealt with by the ACB’s then-CEO David Richards, who led the organisation between 1980 and 1993 and was succeeded in the job by Halbish.
Richards told ABC Sport he had “no recollection” of how or why Bitmead never coached the national team again after its return from the 1985 tour. Responding to the allegations about Bitmead’s behaviour, Richards said: “I haven’t heard that at all. I don’t have any knowledge of that and I don’t have any recollection of it.”
“Graham [Halbish] was the man who was handling all of that stuff within the organisation at that time.”
Asked to explain Taber’s view that Bitmead’s alleged behaviour was known about at ACB headquarters, Richards said: “Well, that’s his point of view. I don’t know whether that is right or wrong. I don’t have any recollection of any of this and I don’t have any grounds to make any allegations against Bob.”
“Even though it was 36 years ago, I would have thought if something of that magnitude came up, Graham or I, or both of us, would be aware of it. I’m not.”
Bitmead told ABC Sport that Richards appointed him as coach for the tour and remained his primary contact at the ACB. Richards says this was not the case, and that all such appointments were made by the ACB’s youth cricket committee, of which Halbish was secretary.
Bitmead added that it was at his own urging that the team doctor appointment went to McKenzie, who had acted as scorer for Bitmead’s 1984 Victorian Under-19s team.
“It was at my instigation that he was asked to go on the tour,” Bitmead says of McKenzie.
“I had a discussion with David Richards. I said, ‘What about Dr McKenzie?’ and David said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea’ and approached him. That was how it all took place.”
Richards says he has no recollection of such a conversation, nor of McKenzie’s appointment.
Asked if the players are owed an apology from Cricket Australia, Halbish said: “I can’t speak for them. I’m a long time out of it now. I can’t speak for the current administration. How they handle it is entirely up to them.”
“But I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t look into it if they felt it was something they should and need to do.”
‘You reflect back on it now and it’s a bit scary, really’
Among his Australian Under-19s teammates, at least, Jamie Mitchell has felt supported. In long phone calls and message threads, their encouragement and backing has made Mitchell feel less intimidated about seeking answers to questions that have caused him much anxiety and silent suffering.
Reiffel has been a rock to Mitchell throughout, but could not be interviewed for this story due to restrictions put in place by his employer, the International Cricket Council.
Gavin Robertson, the former Test spinner, elected Mitchell “captain” of the reunited group and suggested more regular catch-ups.
Another of the Victorian contingent, wicketkeeper Jason Jacoby, has offered Mitchell unstinting support.
“What I find really hard to swallow is that with Jamie, there was more to it and people knew that something went on,” Jacoby says.
“That hasn’t even come out or been followed up. People know stuff that just hasn’t been acted upon.
“Even if there was just the admission or the acknowledgement: ‘There were complaints and we got rid of him’. Just admitting that it was a mistake. It’s a long time ago, but there are still some things that are clear in my mind. It’s a really dull, sick type of feeling that’s hard to explain.”
Another teammate says he has been angered by much of the information that has come to light.
“I’m now a parent and if my 15-year-old went away, I’d expect a bit more diligence and to know who’s going away with them,” the teammate says.
Zesers remains as disgusted as the morning he walked into the Colombo breakfast room.
“I’ve got no doubt Cricket Australia knew,” he says.
“You reflect back on it now and it’s a bit scary, really.”
Reynolds feels a nagging sadness.
“It has pained me to hear that something happened to Jamie,” he says.
Mitchell’s childhood friend Gerard Clarke, who went on to work for Cricket Australia through the 1990s, says that nothing other than an unsparing investigation will avoid suggestions that administrators “covered it up”.
“This is probably not just about Jamie,” Clarke says of Bitmead’s time as national Under-19s coach.
“Someone allowed this to happen. Where is the duty of care for these young cricketers? There needs to be an acknowledgement that it was wrong.
“I”ve said to Jamie, he might never find out what happened to him, but, at the end of the day, it needs to be acknowledged that Bitmead was the wrong person to have in that role and there was a duty of care by those in charge.”
Jamie’s brother Michael sums up the family’s feelings towards Cricket Australia, lamenting “the complete absence of any information or communication from anyone in officialdom”, adding that his brother’s story “has to be accounted for.”
“We shouldn’t be wondering, should we?”
‘Your callous indifference to his suffering is remarkable’
In its 28-page submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cricket Australia made no specific reference to historical abuse allegations, nor specifically explained how it would deal with historical matters should they arise.
That submission detailed Cricket Australia’s current screening requirements for coaches and its member protection policies, which include mandatory reporting guidelines and recognise “the importance of treating each allegation of child abuse or neglect promptly and with a high degree of sensitivity.”
At present, Cricket Australia’s screening procedures require working with children checks (WWCC) on all volunteers and employees who undertake work with children, and in states or territories without a legislative requirement for a WWCC, a national police check is required.
But no such policies or checks existed in 1985.
In the five years since their submissions, neither Cricket Australia nor Cricket Victoria has signed up to the National Redress scheme in response to the royal commission; among the state associations, only the Western Australian Cricket Association has joined.
The scheme was set up to offer survivors the chance to seek financial compensation for their abuse without the need for legal action, but payments are capped at $150,000 and survivors cannot make claims against institutions that haven’t joined the scheme.
Among those agitating for change, Sport Australia is aware of Cricket Australia’s stance. Until recent months, Cricket Australia was listed on the National Redress Scheme website among the institutions “intending” to join the scheme, but it has since been removed from that list.
In response to a request from ABC Sport, a spokesperson from the Department of Social Services said protected information provisions which form part of the National Redress Scheme’s governing legislation prevent the department from commenting on the joining status of organisations such as Cricket Australia.
“Several organisations were previously listed on the Scheme’s website as intending to join,” the spokesperson said.
“To provide accurate messaging to survivors, organisations which have not taken active measures to join over a prolonged period are removed.
“The Government applies maximum pressure to all institutions with an obligation to join the Scheme, which includes publicly naming those which refuse to join despite being named in an application or in the Royal Commission, as well as making them ineligible to receive future Commonwealth funding and putting them at risk of having their charitable status stripped.”
As it stands, a survivor of historic abuse in elite junior cricket would have to pursue CA in court. But the problem is no longer a hypothetical one.
In March, Cricket ACT published a statement that went largely unnoticed, explaining that it had been “assessed by the Department of Social Services as being unable to join the Scheme based on the current requirements of the legislation, particularly the Department’s assessment of Cricket ACT’s incapacity to pay redress for current and any possible future applicants over the life of the Scheme.”
Cricket ACT’s recognition of “the devastating and lasting impact that child sex abuse can have on the lives of survivors and their loved ones” may be of limited comfort to the survivors of abuse by former first-class cricketer Ian King, who was jailed for 19 years for a string of serious sexual offences against boys he coached in the ACT in the 1980s and 1990s.
King also coached at representative level, having been placed in charge of the ACT Under-19s team in the mid-1990s — the period in which, his convictions state, he was maintaining a sexual relationship with a boy he coached.
In March, survivors of King’s abuse told The Canberra Times they’d been left “penniless” in their quest for compensation, with up to 15 survivors unsuccessfully applying to Cricket ACT.
The report stated that Cricket Australia’s “reverse umbrella” structure, in which it is owned by the state and territory associations and not vice versa, means it cannot foot the bill — unlikely to be more than $1.5 million, based on the Redress Scheme’s criteria.
But Cricket Australia’s corporate structure, which limits the liability of members to $1,000, presents a misleading picture of cricket’s power structure and finances. Under its “member distribution” process, Cricket Australia doles out the benefits of cricket’s TV rights billions to the states.
In 2020, the member states and territories shared in $130 million of funding and in 2021, the figure was $120 million.
Cricket ACT’s 2020-21 annual report revealed that Cricket Australia had provided it funding of more than $2.2 million, to go with ACT government grants of $567,000. Due to what Cricket ACT called “tight fiscal controls and careful management of expenditure”, it posted an operating profit of $670,922.
King is not the only elite junior coach of the 1980s and 90s with a question mark next to his name. In their haste to promote their burgeoning coaching qualification courses and junior pathways of the 1980s, the ACB promoted another dubious Victorian coach named Brother John Laidlaw — a teacher and sports coach in the Christian Brothers school system.
In “Keeping Pace”, a regular ACB-produced feature in Cricketer magazine issues of the mid-1980s, the governing body spruiked Laidlaw as a success story of their coaching accreditation scheme, stating of the Level 3 coach: “John’s talents and expertise have been utilised with great success in helping State schoolboy teams.”
But Laidlaw was also sexually abusing the boys he coached. In 2019, he was jailed for four and a half years after pleading guilty to assaults on six boys, aged 12 to 17, between 1963 and 1984. Isolating boys in team locker rooms, Laidlaw would offer remedial massages to injured players and then sexually assault them.
In sentencing Laidlaw, Victorian County Court Judge Peter Berman made reference to Laidlaw’s treatment of one boy: “Your callous indifference to his suffering is remarkable.”
ABC Sport does not suggest Laidlaw had close ties to Bob Bitmead, but as coach of the Victorian Schoolboys Under-19 squad in the 1980s and 90s, Laidlaw was a highly influential coach and, at one point, Bitmead’s co-selector of the Victorian Under-19 team.
‘I just don’t want anything to do with cricket’
Like his mate Reiffel, the second act of Jamie Mitchell’s cricket life was as an elite umpire.
After Mitchell relocated to Tasmania in 2003, that included 216 first-grade games, appointments for Futures League games and as a WBBL match referee, plus three “umpire of the year” awards and presidency of the Tasmanian scorers and umpires association.
In October this year, overcome by the emotional toll of confronting his alleged sexual assault, Mitchell felt incapable of committing to another season.
He stood down from all match appointments, resigned from the scorers and umpires association, and found himself despising the game he’d once seen as his life.
“This has changed everything for me,” Mitchell says.
“To be honest, I just don’t want anything to do with cricket. It’s just closed the cover on the book for me. That’s the sort of impact it’s had on me.
“It’s also made me question the values and ethics of these organisations. It’s made me think about the human rights of those kids in India, Sri Lanka and Penang. If they were abused, and that abuse was known about but not reported, it was effectively condoned by the organisations who chose this person as their representative.
In recent months, work and study commitments have drained Mitchell far less than appointments with counsellors and psychologists, the harrowing discovery of the disclosures he’d made and repressed, and the stressful process of being interviewed by police.
He says the latter, after decades of wondering exactly what had happened to him, felt like a point of no return.
“Right now, I’m not the person I want to be, that’s for sure,” he says.
“I have trouble trusting people. It’s dawning on me now, especially the last couple of months, what Cricket Australia has done to me .
“You know that if you go to a game, people might be looking and thinking, ‘There’s that bloke who got raped in Sri Lanka.’ I’m not running away from that. I’m at the point of not being embarrassed about it.
“But I’m a 55-year-old bloke with four adult kids and I’ve got this thing hanging over my head, where I don’t know what happened. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s not nice to know that someone invaded your body like that. I want closure.”
Mitchell knows that the AFP’s investigations may not provide all the answers he is searching for, but he can’t help but feel aggrieved at the coldness of Cricket Australia’s response to his suffering. He wants greater transparency and empathy.
“Someone must have known,” Mitchell says.
“I want some acknowledgement that the ACB’s decision-making was poor and dangerous. It was a flagrant disregard. It’s about respect. They were dealing with people’s kids.
“They didn’t put the players’ welfare first and confront a real problem.
“I think they were so focused on results, they didn’t pay attention to the sorts of people they sent away with teenagers. I think they thought, ‘All that other stuff, we’ll deal with if it comes up’.
“Well, here it is.”
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