The man behind Sydney's cricket-gear wonderland
He was a kid from Sri Lanka who came to Australia with no more than A$200 in his pocket and a child in his hands. But decades later, the name Harry Solomons is synonymous with the Disneyland of cricket gear in Australia: Kingsgrove Sports Centre.
For those who voyaged there as kids, the store in Sydney's south was less a shop than a castle. For this author, it was simply the greatest place to go, ever. Endless rows of cricket willow adorned the walls; every size and taste was catered for. Pictures of Harry alongside generations of cricket luminaries lent a gravitas that doesn't dissipate as an adult. His store is an undoubted cultural icon.
In this millennium we often read about the romance of the successful basement start-up; Kingsgrove, now in its 41st year, wasn't far off. In 1976 the newly arrived Solomons purchased what his son Hamish describes as "a small office in an arcade". Harry worked as a prison officer at Long Bay Jail at the time, and continued to work there for nearly a decade after Kingsgrove Sports Centre was born. According to the younger Solomons, it was his father's love and passion for cricket, alongside his specialised service (there were no other cricket-specific stores in Sydney at the time) that set Kingsgrove apart.
It is not hard to find media stories of Harry's close association with the Waugh brothers, Michael Clarke, Steven Smith and countless others. And after 40 years of providing cricket equipment to an entire city and beyond, Solomons has a unique understanding of how cricket has changed, what cricketers want, and who now plays the game.
It's in the latter category that Harry has seen the most change. Kingsgrove has seen a fine upshot of Australian multiculturalism. "In the old days, going back 25 years, cricket here was very much an Australian-born thing. It was only Australian-born players that came into the store," Solomons says.
"But now there are more subcontinent-born players living in Australia, and they like to play cricket 12 months of the year. It's just amazing how the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese, and then the Sri Lankans, play so much cricket. They love the game.
"I've heard it's huge in Melbourne too. The Indian community, the Sri Lankan community and the Bangladesh community. They have their own tournaments, the same as those we have in Sydney. There is a lot of cricket that's not quite coming under the umbrella of Cricket NSW or Cricket Victoria or Cricket Australia, and these guys just go and play the game. And not only do they play the game, they put on the music, make it a bit of a festival on Sundays."
But while Solomons has observed ethnic diversity in those playing the game today, there are other aspects, more trivial, that remain the same. "Man, woman or child, they all want a bat with thick edges and a thicker profile," he says.
An expert on cricket bats, Solomons understands the MCC's proposal to firm up regulations on their ever-growing size. He notes that David Warner has become the poster boy for ridiculously enormous bats, but says others do it too.
"Firstly, you don't necessarily need that massive profile to hit it into the third tier. I notice a lot of people worry about the bats David Warner uses. They are extremely thick, they all have huge edges and they also have massive profiles. Other players are culprits too, not just Warner. Some get special bats made by suppliers, often in India. In my personal opinion it's getting a bit too much. To have some controls and regulations is okay, as long as we don't go over the top."
Solomons' counsel is regularly sought by the head honchos of equipment manufacturers from around the world. They travel to Kingsgrove, ask him what young cricketers want, how they are buying their gear, and how community set-ups like clubs and schools are arranging their gear too. It speaks of a figure with deep insight into how the game is evolving at the playing level. Moreover, to know what people want, you have to have a fair sense of how society is moving.
"The world has changed the way we do business," Solomons says. "The old way of working was, the clubs would come and buy the gear. There would be four bats, a couple of pairs of pads, maybe a scorebook, a set of stumps, and some balls.
"We don't depend a hell of a lot on clubs and schools for our business anymore. The business we do with our clubs is bigger in terms of clothing, where we design it, but we sell very little equipment to them. That's because today the individual buys their own equipment to suit their personal needs."
Pressed on whether the trend toward greater individual consumption of cricket gear said something about Australian society, Solomons is understandably circumspect.
"Modern-day society is more materialistic, yes," he says. "Having said that, it's convenient. A club may have a helmet that's too big and pads that are too big, and now it's not unusual for a mother or father to come to us and say, 'Look, the club kit is not suitable to us, we want something that suits our kid.'"
After so many years of advising the cricket world on gear, Solomons has now turned his eye to another offering for cricket-lovers.
"My next project is to build a small personal cricket museum in the Hunter Valley. I've got 2500 items and I need to show it to the world before I die. The people who come up can't drink wine all the time! They have to do something else."
One may be forgiven for guessing that a bricks-and-mortar warehouse in the city's suburbs may cast a kind eye on yesteryear. But Solomons and Kingsgrove are as influential as ever. He lists some players he's supported over the years with more than a hint of paternal fondness: Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Michael Clarke, Steven Smith. "They grew up with Kingsgrove," he says.
So many of us did, and so many more will.
Sam Perry is a Melbourne-based sportswriter @sjjperry