One of the gifts I received yesterday was a book I had left heavy hints about, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. This morning in bed I began to read it.
It is a large format book with pages of absolutely gorgeous, and occasionally iconic, photos: Kim Hughes wielding his bat one handed as if one the Three Musketeers with a rapier in hand, Dennis Lillee in full flight, Victor Trumper striding down the pitch, pictures from the Sydney hill, and so on. It would be easy to classify it as a coffee table book but for the quality of the writing inside.
It’s essentially a book of essays collected around different themes and by and large with an Australian slant. The writers are a diverse lot, cricket journalists, commentators and ex-cricketers predictably, but also historians and novelists, passionate followers of the game from all walks of life, a couple of ex band members, social commentators and the like – reflective of the wide and deeply grained love of cricket in this country. The essays range from the historical and fact driven to the swoopingly nostalgic. Inga Clendinnen, for example, writes a lovely piece on her memories watching her brother play local cricket in the years after the war. Though it’s an era far removed from mine there was much in it I absolutely knew such is the pervasive cricketness of Australian cricket. It was a beautifully written piece of intelligent Australiana that brought to order so many of my own parallel memories.
Is cricket Australia’s central sport? It probably is, though AFL is giving it a run for its money. Cricket all the same is the sport most sporting Australians identify with at a national level: it is our cricket team, and we ride on its coat-tails. A book like this would not be as resonant if it were not for the rich history of Australian cricket, as distinct from cricket elsewhere. At the top end there is the proud record as the winningest team in the caper. Most of us keen cricket watchers feel that is our birthright, and passionately uphold the notion that it is only ever a matter of time when we’re not. On top of that it’s a sport that has a rich iconography. In Australia we’re fortunate to have spawned some great characters as well as cricketers: Warne, Lillee, Miller, Bradman, Spofforth, and so on. Then there is the grass roots appeal and presence, never o0verlooked in this book.
Growing up we played cricket every summer in our street. We were protestants wedged between two catholic families, one of whom had about 15 kids. We never had any shortage of players, and hard fought contests. The teams were generally led by myself and my best mate from next door, Peter Woody as he was called, six and half feet tall by the time he was 15. More often than not we played in the backyard of my house, though often enough we would also play on the nature strip in the street. These were pretty full on contests that went one way then the other. Each of us skippers were the pre-eminent batsmen and bowler on our team. Often with a bin acting as our wicket and kids huddled all around the bat the bowler would storm in in emulation of Lillee, or else stroll up to bowl slow balls that might bounce more than once before reaching the batsman. Grubbers – where the ball would hit the pitch and roll – where mostly deemed illegal, though not always.
Unlike most of the kids I played with I had some professional coaching. One of our greatest family friends was an Australian ex-test bowler. I remember him as a big and very friendly man with a seventies moustache full of good stories. Every Sunday for a while I would show up at the cricket nets where he coached and hone my technique. Even today in impromptu scratch matches I have a classical cover drive and a perfect forward defence. Like most kids though I loved to hit the ball.
In recent times there seems a lot of old cricket either being broadcast or written about. By some happenstance there are many links between what I see and my own life at that time. I was there the day of the Centenary test in 1977 when David Hookes smacked Tony Greig for 5 consecutive boundaries, and Marsh scored a hundred. I was there with Peter Woody and his gruff dad.In this book there’s a photo of John Dyson taking his famous catch against the Windies in 1981 with the SCG outer in the background. I was there that day in the summer heat with my aunt and uncle.
I was also present at what is one of the most famous, and probably best, days of cricket ever at the MCG in 1980 when Australian was bowled out for just over 200, but with Hughes making a fantastic ton, before the Windies went to stumps at 4/11 with Lillee bowling Viv Richards with the last ball of the day. I was there with my grandfather, and still remember it well: my grandmother, being the driver in the family, dropping us off nearby in the morning in the silver Holden Kingswood they seemed to have forever. The short tram ride with others heading to the cricket, before we settled in the outer. My grandfather, a gentle and always elegant man, would share the thermos of tea he had brought and the sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
There;’s many thousands of people who have claimed to be present that day in the years since – if there can be iconic ‘days’ then this is one. What I remember is the steady tumble of wickets down one end while Kim Hughes defended or else played lovely swashbuckling strokes that would race to the boundary, the crack of ball on bat reaching us a moment after we viewed the stroke. Late in the day the ground was in crescendo, Lillee at his imperious best charging in as the crowd chanted his name. I joined in, thrilled, stirred, feeling myself part of something bigger as Australia surged and the wickets fell in quick succession to roars that must have rivalled that in the Roman Collosseum.
Another day I remember, at home this time pacing around listening to the radio as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson staged a last wicket partnership at the MCG against England. They scored reached 71 of the 74 runs needed when Thomson was finally dismissed. Despair and dismay in my household, and thousands of others, but also respect. It was a great effort.
Such are the memories, but that is what a book like this is all about. Less a book of raw cricket history and statistics, and more of a cultural study, as the name suggests, about what cricket means to a country such as ours. That’s memory, nostalgia, ambition, hope, expectation, triumph, fear, sentimentality, and so on. It’s about the arc of the game as a force within society. For us who follow cricket there are all these little footholds and occasional arcane moents which mean everything to us in our secret language. This book in fact was promoted earlier in the year by publicising the best 25 Australian cricketers through history, many of which I found contentious, until the top 5, which seemed perfectly predictable (Gilchrist, Miller, Lillee, Warne, Bradman). That whet my appetite for this book, and now I have it to read over this Christmas/New Year break, nicely coincident with the annual Boxing day test.