Despite the sorry state of affairs, an Association sub-committee had been active doing the ground-work preparation for a major restructuring of local cricket for introduction in the 1903-04 season. This involved the organisation of competitions on a district rather than club cricket basis. A lot of preliminary work was done, defining boundaries whereby West Maitland was to be split into three districts – Southern, Western and Northern. It was hoped that this would even out the competition which had previously been dominated by the Albion and Pearl clubs, and that it would give the country clubs an opportunity of meeting the town senior clubs on a more equal footing. Negotiations were also entered into with the Albion Club about the possibility of handing over their ground to the Association.
By the time of the eighth Annual General Meeting of the Association in September 1903, new clubs had already been formed in the three new divisions Southern, Western and Northern. Shortly afterwards, an amicable agreement was reached with the Albion Club for handing over the lease of their ground to the Association on practically the same terms as the club held it themselves from the Hunter River A and H Association. The stage was now set for the introduction of district cricket.
Seven teams entered the senior competition on the new district basis – Northern Division, Southern Division, Western Division, East Maitland, Morpeth, Hinton, Lochinvar and Paterson. Even the junior competition was organised on a district basis, with Largs, Woodville and Millers Forest among the eight teams entered.
The Sydney points score system in vogue at the time was adopted, with a final only to be played if two teams finished equal.
Under the new system that required players to reside within the boundaries of their district, there was much interest in the “turn-out” of players at the start of the season. The district teams were to include a number of the leading former players from the Albion and Pearl clubs – Leon Moore, Harry Harden and Charlie White playing for Western Division; Bob Lindsay, Elias Bowden, John Kerrigan and Harold Johnston for Northern Division; Bob Norman, Harold Tegg and Fred Carr for Southern Division; and Charlie Onus for Lochinvar. It is interesting to note that the name of Harold Johnston (a former Albion player) was to be joined in the Northern Division team later in the season with that of W (Will) C Johnston (his brother), thereby beginning a long Association of the Johnston family name with that club. The Paterson District Club also had a strong family connection with the “Lawries” RG Lawrie, AC Lawrie, JW Lawrie and AG Lawrie – all playing in the senior team.
Both Western Division and Lochinvar eventually tied for the premiership in the senior competition, which was unfinished due to the late start, while Woodville won the junior competition.
As if to reflect the renewed interest in cricket, there was much activity on the representative scene. In addition to the regular two inter-district matches against Newcastle and the visit of W Richardson’s Metropolitan team at Christmas, a strong HRDCA team travelled north in February 1904 to play a number of matches in the New England region and there was another trip to Tamworth in April.
A highlight of the season was a match played at Maitland on December 2 and 4 1903, against Pelham (“Plum”) Warner’s touring English team, playing for the first time under the MCC banner. The Northern District 18 team selected was: H Harden, L Moore, J Baker, M Bourke, C Onus, S Freeman, W McGlinchey, R Lindsay, R Norman, R Lawrie, JW (HRDCA); E Capp, C Maguire (Singleton); N Ebsworth, W Cameron (Scone); E Clements, PS Waddy, T Hogue (Newcastle DCA).
The English team won the toss and batted first, no doubt mindful of the 558 that had been scored against their 1901-02 predecessors. They scored 453 with AA Lilley and J Tyldesley both making centuries, and BJ Bosanquet (after whom the “bosie” or “googly” was to be named) making 99. Best of the local bowlers were C Maguire (3 for 101) and J Lawrie (4 for 64).
In reply Northern scored 283 in their first innings (Rev PS Waddy 92, W Cameron 43 and L Moore 31), and 6 for 241 in the second. A feature of the second innings was Rev PS Waddy’s 102, giving him a fine double for the match. Bob Lindsay, who had scored a century against the previous touring team, made 62 not out in an innings marked by “beautiful leg glances” and “delicate late cuts”.
The Mercury reporter praised the “northern men” for their batting and bowling, but criticised their fielding as “probably the worst ever seen on the Albion ground”.
In all, 977 runs were scored in the two day match evidence again of the high standard of the Albion wicket. The Association profit from the match was €27. IOS. , although it was later claimed that profits would have been greater if the railways had been prepared to grant the usual cheap concession fares for such matches.
At the next Annual Meeting, the new President, Elias Bowden, was able to look back on the 1903-4 season as the “brightest in the history of the Association” and as “really the first live year the Association had had”. It was also a season in which the Association was “in a position to properly govern cricket, a position it had been endeavouring to secure for years”.