I remember clearly the first time I realised I needed to wear pads when facing my son in the nets.
For the last 5 years, since he was about 7, we have spent many weekends at whichever local cricket nets we can get to, (or sneak onto), to practice. This has seen him develop from someone who had never played to a kid with reasonable skill, a carefully measured 12 step run up, good action and a penchant, like many 12 year olds, for wanting to deposit whatever he can deep to cow corner.
We’ve moved from tennis balls to protective gear, from underarms to coming off the long run.
We started with the basics, which was interesting as I had never coached cricket, didn’t receive much in the way of coaching in the late 70s and early 80s at school, other than the standard stuff, and had only played 3 matches since leaving school myself.
But, you don’t spend as much time as I have watching Channel 9 over many, many summers without picking up some tips, or looking to imitate the stars.
Whilst I don’t think it’s in any manual, my earliest bowling advice was predicated on him being able to take on and respect the technique of bowling, and not dismiss it in favour of trying to be the next Akhtar or Lee immediately.
Early on, we practiced bowling in two stages, off a step or two to begin with, to get the delivery right. Accuracy was paramount I insisted, and pace and variation would come either naturally or later. I heard the words ‘line and length’ and ‘make the batsman play’ repeatedly come out of my mouth and wondered who this old bloke was who sounded like he should be commentating for the ABC. I used phrases like ‘corridor of uncertainty’ and talked of McGrath and the great DK.
My early advice on delivery was cartwheel, windmill. I don’t really know why I thought of those terms, but it seemed to appeal to a 7 year old with a ballet dancing younger sister who would have seen that stuff around the backyard.
So the high right front arm approaching the release, (as he’s a southpaw) with one leg in the air imitating the end of a long run up at the bowling crease, followed by the quick follow through, release at the peak of delivery, left arm coming down across his body, became a mantra of cartwheel, windmill. A two-step process, a sort of ready and go, one and two, wind up and bowl.
Once that was stored in the memory bank, the run up started to take shape. Don’t get side on, eyes on me, not where your feet will fall. As time went on, pace was created as his upper body grew and he leaned out from grade prep puppy fat to a tall but strong tween.
We started with tennis balls then the hard red plastic cricket balls that seem to be part of junior kits before we started finding and keeping whatever old six stitchers we could find near the nets and after games had finished. Not much shine on them, but the real deal none the less.
Many hours of throw downs to him followed and occasionally me off a short run, and three over spells from him when I was batting.
We had to deal with his early frustration of finding out that you can’t spin a tennis ball and plastic doesn’t reverse swing, but the more we played, the better he got.
He’s never played club cricket, only representing his school through grade 5 and this year. I clearly remember the night before his first ever match, when I realised that for all our practice and the sessions he’d had at school, he had never run in pads. We comically tied two pillows to his legs and had him run up the hall to ensure he knew what the feeling was like. Whilst they’d practiced in the nets at school, I had no idea of whether my hours of throw downs would be similar in pace to the opposing eleven year olds he would face the next day.
My wife had a different issue. She was shocked to find out that players usually shared a box, and thought it incredibly unhygienic. The concept, quite common to most people my age, of stopping to meet the departing batsmen and receiving from his undies, to place in yours, the used crown jewels protector on the way out to face was distasteful to her, so a quick purchase was made before game one.
By this stage, his cricket had kicked on, and I remember how my response to his game had graduated along the way.
There are certain milestones in your life in which you can track your age and development. It could be first this or first that, being invited to the parents table at Christmas lunch or being offered a beer with dad after a hard day in the garden.
As a younger kid, I recall at what stages I was allowed to hear stories about the exploits of my globe-trotting and child-of-the-60s uncle, and realising that as the stories from my parents progressed in details and more information was shared with me of his misadventures, the more mature they must have thought I was becoming. Equally, I can and will be able to track both my son’s development and my aging in how I deal with him on sporting terms.
Roles will soon be reversed. I realise that the day when it is he who keeps the rally going with moon balls when we play tennis and makes sure his dad gets a few balls back is coming. We have been playing tennis for years now, and my attempts at scaring him with my serve have gone from his shock and wonder at dad’s ability, to him getting a racquet on it, quickly to him being able to hit it back to me, and now the Agassi-like passing shot from my puff ball attempt can’t be too far away.
Similarly, our swimming at the local poll progresses from me letting him just beat me whilst dog paddling to his freestyle, to a freestyle race with a small headstart for him, to I am sure a race, probably this summer, when he’ll swim out much farther than me in the Point Leo surf.
Sadly, football equality came and went early, with him a better player already at 12 than I was in my late teens (although I am still a more accurate kick, for now). I have the clear jump on him on the hockey field and he’s not a sprinter, but those days may come too.
With cricket, the graduation has been from me not wanting to hurt his feelings by playing a savage square cut, instead cross batting it back to the bowler, to playing a forward defence because I was treating each delivery with respect, to my first clear nick fending at one outside the off stump.
Then early this year, I tried to turn one off my legs backward of square and had the red cherry career into my right knee, just in that lovely soft spot protecting the cartilage.
From then on, it’s been pads for me, although seeing they are his, the look on me is slightly comical, with them not coming up too far and the middle Velcro strap rarely staying on.
I don’t use his junior Grey Nicholls, as it is more his height and weight, but have reverted to the 1960s Norm O’Neill special my aforementioned uncle left me when he departed in the early 70s. It’s got a handle of string, many marks on the front from banging in stumps when I was young and too many nicks to mention, but it does the job.
He’s a left arm bowler, and can generate some good pace, slanting across the right hander. He’s MacGill like in that there’s potentially a four ball each over, but at his age, that’s a reasonable average. He bats right handed, could probably bat left if he liked, but I see the left arm bowing as a definite advantage.
I have been extremely lucky to have been able to watch most of his matches, as they have been played so far during school hours on Wednesday afternoons, and I’ve often been able to sneak away and watch bits. I will always treasure seeing him bowl and face his first ever competitive deliveries, take his first wicket in his first over (a blinding catch by a school mate at short cover), first catch (a caught and bowled that lobbed back in game 2) and dispatch his first full blooded square drive to the boundary. I can add that to having seen his first football goals for both school and club as images I never hope to lose. If my memory goes in my dotage, I would ask that my daughter’s smile, the image of my wife at the door of the church on our wedding day and that square drive to be the last things that fade into the fog.
My father wasn’t into cricket, which was more mum’s passion. (I recall him taking a book to the cricket at the G once). But, every Saturday morning he drove me all over Melbourne to cricket, athletics, football, hockey, and often both those winter sports in the same Saturday morning. I was always amazed at his ability to remember where we were going, which always seemed so far away.
Luckily, my boy and I share a love of games, and want to participate in it as much as watch it. Through football coaching (officially and accredited) and cricket guidance (built on lessons learned from the couch), it’s been fun to be part of.
I realise that there’s a small chance I won’t always be cool or needed by my kids. That there’s a slim possibility that my antics, gags and views will go from being fun and quaint to embarrassing and cringe worthy. I grudgingly accept that.
There’s a chance that our weekend net sessions and kick-to-kick will be overtaken by girlfriends and other pursuits, which is his deserved rite of passage.
When that happens, I’ll look back on the milestones of his cricket progression in the nets with me. First time he faced a cricket ball, first blow he took being too quick on a pull shot, my first nick, first time I really put some effort into a delivery and he effortlessly carted me over mid-wicket, and my first painful realisation I couldn’t face him without wearing pads.
I wonder if I should put in an order for my own box for Christmas?