Farewell Skull: a legacy of knowledge and smiles

 

 

I’m a massive Kerry O’Keeffe fan, even though I can’t ever remember seeing him bowl.

As a kid, my favourite Aussie was Lenny Pascoe, because he was fiery, because he wasn’t Thommo or Lillee and I loved the underdog, and, for that reason, because he was a lone, fellow wog playing a brilliant Aussie game. I’d watch the cricket whenever he was on.

Over the years, though, life sped up. What once ruled my summers became a frame for them. I did stuff on summer days, shifting from telly coverage to radio. A transistor would leave my hands and feet free. It let me drive long desert roads, and helped me get through shit factory work days, and kept me company on long treks down to the most remote Otway surf beaches, and acted as a grandstand to our own backyard games.

There’s something freer about radio commentary. They seem to have more time for stories, personality. Maybe it’s the lack of ads, but there’s more ebb and flow. They seem to like each other more. The commentators paint a picture, rather that just lump it on your plate. I liked Roebuck, I like Maxwell. My favourite for years was Geoff Lawson. Honest, funny, very smart – it never seemed to be about him. Listening to Geoff always made me feel like I, too, knew the game.

Thirteen years ago, though, when I listened to the cricket, I began to cackle, snigger, and laugh. Who knew what stories were being told? O’Keeffe was on the radio.

The former Aussie spin bowler from the 70s, known as Skull, seemed, to me to love life. Suddenly, amongst all this formality, some bloke was telling jokes, or trying to. His own punch-lines would amuse him so much he’d start wheezing and choking on his own laughter, like a car flooding with happy juice, before he could get them out. Then, when he finally did, he would explode, hissing and fizzing happy sighs, exhausted on the come-down.

He was smart, knew that game well, but radiated a love of it and humour and stories and life as if the four are combined. Which they are. He could be hopeless, as if that’s a point of pride.

I’d listen just to hear that laugh, so many of us would. That point of view.

I’ll never forget his greatest commentating moment, in the booth with Jonathan Agnew, his perfect foil, for the last ball of day 2 at the SCG, a much maligned Steve Waugh stuck on 98.
Kerry: I think he’s going to run down the pitch.

Agnew (incorrigibly): But he could come back tomorrow… Pick off a loosener for two…

Kerry: Stuff the silver, we’ve come here for gold! Poms’d come back tomorrow, we want it now. Aussies are instant people!

Magic.

 

I went to a Boxing Day Test a few years ago, and sitting neither here nor there, somewhere vaguely in front of where I think Bay 13 once was, I noticed a lot of chuckling in the crowd, then again. A few people laughed out loud, happy as Larry, at nothing, it seemed.

“That Skull…” I heard someone with earphones affectionately say, and realised Kerry was telling another one of his yarns, letting it ripple out, through the crowd, across the nation and beyond its waters.
Maybe Skull was in another of his brilliant, jovial word-play moments with Harsha Bhogle, or the telling of a Geoff Boycott yarn, or frog joke, or relating the time he met the Queen. It didn’t matter, not a damn.
Everybody with a radio began sharing his moment with others around them. Expats, listening over the internet, or on podcast, were no-doubt, suddenly missing home.

What a gift! What a legacy to the game – knowledge and laughter.

 

I have no idea why Kerry’s retiring from broadcasting, though, I have noticed his laughter drop off a bit over the last few years. It rims, lips, but not nearly as frequently as yesteryear does it come. Maybe that thing I loved about him the most, the fact he amuses himself, is the problem? He still knows his cricket more than most, but there are others that do that, too. Maybe, simply, after 13 years his stories have run dry. Maybe it’s time.

I listened to his last day, even though the game was over, and I had work to do. Just sat in the ute, on a coop in the Tassie mountains, losing money, not going anywhere.

He was all Kerry, right to the last, singing “Hands up if you’re five-nil up!” full volume, to the Barmy Army, time and again, when the last wicket fell. Full of cheer, no malice involved.

“Hands up if you’re five-nil up!” he boomed, without rhythm or grace. “If you’re five-nil up, hands up!” “Hands up! Five-nil, hands up!” A simple seven-word chant impossible to join in with, because he was so happy, his timing so bad, it sounded like he kept getting their order wrong.

It didn’t matter a damn. A victory became a celebration! A moment of pride became an occasion of fun.
Jim and the crew, quite rightly, tried to blow smoke up his bum in the last minute-and-a-half. Apparently the whole booth had tears in their eyes. But Skull being Skull used his time to thank everyone from behind the scenes, pushing out this name and that, then sat back with a smile you could feel over the radio, praising the Aussie team one more time. Then, with three seconds to go, he realised he’d forgotten to mention the scorer’s name. Hopeless to the last, he blurted it out with apologies and thanks and a chuckle and they cut to the news and Summer was gone.

Kerry “Skull” O’Keeffe will be missed on the radio. Good luck to him wherever he goes from here. And good cheer. People are everywhere, but there aren’t enough humans in the world.

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    Wonderful dedicated piece to the ‘Skull’. Who would have thought a cricket-commentator could make you laugh out loud like he did as you drive around listening to the cricket.
    I feel ashamed and disappointed I didn’t listen to the ABC on his last day to soak up all those ‘Skullisms’ to store in my memory -bank.
    Instead I opted to watch it on TV and paid the price by having to listen to the dross disguised as commentry on Channel 9 as they squeeze it in amongst the ads.
    I did listen to the ABC at one stage where they must have been going over old ‘Skullisms’.
    All I heard was what sounded like a leaking, hissing, boiled radiator in a car which turned out to be Skull coming down from one of his famous laughs.
    He will be greatly missed and it’s hard to think of anyone who will come close to providing all that uninhibited joy.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Thanks Matt A great article I too reckon that the commentary of Steve Waughs hundred by Skull and J Agnew is gold . I am lucky enough to have gotten to know Skull over the years so rang him re this article he loved it and wanted to thank Matt
    Summers will not be the same with out Skull

  3. I must have missed the point, a long time ago. Thirteen years ago. When O’Keefe talked cricket I listened. I knew I was going to learn something. Quite a lot, most likely. But when the wheezing and the laughing and the cackling began I drifted, I tuned out, turned off. Churlish, I admit. Skull made a lot of people happy. Very happy. Good on him, as he might say.

  4. Mickey Randall says:

    Skull offered laughter and insight. Michael Slater is the BT of cricket commentary. I wonder if Skull might pop up on commercial media?

  5. Great article Matt commentary on the ABC sure wont be the same without the great man. You are right his laugh was infectious and he didn’t take himself too seriously. He knew his stuff too. I remember when he earmarked Nathan Lyon as the next test spinner after one big bash game saying he was turning them like Chandresaker.

    He mentioned he might like a gig on community radio. Skull you are welcome on our show any time.

  6. All very true Matt, but I think the laughter has lessened since Glenn Mitchell left the ABC commentary box. He and Kerry used to commentate a lot together and Glenn was the perfect foil for Kerry’s personality and was very quick with his retorts. It was wonderful to hear him again during the Roast at lunchtime on Sunday.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Great that he is leaving on his own terms, thanks for the past 13 years Skull, opens up a spot for M Ashwood.

  8. matt watson says:

    One of my favourite memories of Skull was when he was paired with Jonathon Agnew back in Sydney in 2003.
    Agnew asked Skull if he knew somewhere good to go out for dinner.
    Skull told Agnew to go to Oxford Street and started laughing.
    ‘How would I fit in on Oxford Street,’Agnew said.
    ‘You’d fit in anywhere,’ Skull said.

    I also liked his partnership with Peter Roebuck. The were a mismatch. Roebuck didn’t want to get involved with Skull’s histrionics. As Skull laughed, Roebuck played defence.

  9. Fitting tribute Matt. I thought Lawson and Cowan (and to a lesser degree AMcDonald) did a serviceable job as comments men in the Tests. Cowan will be a gem when his playing career is over. He was great on the mechanics and process of the game, but as others have commented it is impossible to say anything insightful or meaningful about players you compete with or against.
    Still the colour and flair has gone out of ABC commentary with the (very different) departures of Roebuck and Skull. All ‘straight men’ now. Ernie Wise without an Eric Morecambe; Lou Costello with no Bud Abbott.
    I always thought that Kerry’s migration away from playing for gags towards the analytical stuff that he was good at; was due in large part to not having Roebuck any more to serve that function. He expanded to fill the gap.
    For those who did not see him bowl – imagine if Jim Furyk bowled leggies.
    Thanks Matt.

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Guy couple of great points KOK an Glen Mitchell were a great double and yes I think
    Kerry has tried to replace Roebucks analytical observations even subconsciously and as a result less laughter and yep I’m available I won’t wait by the phone would love
    Matt Clinch to have a bigger role

  11. Despite being a left hander I could do a very good impression of K O’K’s bowling action in my youth. Spun the ball as much as him too.

    My favourite moment was when he talked to Harsha Bhogle about picking the All Time Country & Western 11. Harsha had never heard of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson so it didn’t go far.

    Here’s my attempt: good blend of youth and experience and most are still alive.

    Nelson W
    Haggard M
    Cash J (capt)
    Williams H
    Williams L
    Jones G
    Tubb E
    Harris E
    Yoakim D
    Williams D
    Parton D

    12th Welch G
    Coach Kristofferson K

  12. A great read, Kerry will truely be missed over the air waves-cricket will not be the same with out his humour, insightful ness and fantastic charisma that brings life and personally out of his fellow commentators.
    Kerry is a part of Australian cricket legend

  13. Mickey Randall says:

    Les- no spot for Slim Dusty; surely a Doug Waters type of contributor? Willie could have trouble with ASADA and WADA.

  14. Andrew Starkie says:

    All true Zurbs. Love the radio – more genuine, better commentary. Less bells and whistles. The crackle of the cricket in the background is the sound of summer. As I do with footy, i turn the tv down and the radio up. Skull will be so missed. His research was as good as anyone’s and of course his anecdotes are sensational. Apparently he has a ripper about being on the booze with Rolling Stones. heard it? His story about Imran Khan playing grade cricket in Sydney back in the day is pure gold: wine, women, song and a bit of cricket. All in a day’s play. Alot of people don’t forget Skull won the centenary test in 77 by cleaning up the tail when the poms looked set to pull off an unlikey victory.

  15. Rick Kane says:

    Thanks MZ for a much needed Almanac send off (and a wonderful tribute at that) to a man that understood a jester’s value to the court. KOK was a delight. Dave Warner (the real Warner) has a song that starts with the line, “John Arlott makes me chuckle with his stories of the 40s from The Oval”. It would be nice to think KOK will be remembered in song in a similar manner.

    And Les, like Mr Randall, I’m going to have to call you, not on your squad but who has been left out. Patsy Cline? Either Steve or Justin Townes Earle? Chad Morgan!!!? The Carter Family? Gram Parsons? The guy literally took the game to a whole new level. Cheers

  16. Lovely to know Skull read this and enjoyed it.

  17. Malby Dangles says:

    I’ll miss Skull! One of the funniest moments I recall was when Skull dared Harsha Bhogle to eat a chilli whilst Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey piled on the runs vs India at the SCG a few summers ago. Great stuff!
    Thanks for this piece Matt.

  18. Luke Reynolds says:

    Fantastic tribute to the great man Matt. Cricket on the ABC won’t be the same. In my opinion their coverage was at it’s peak when Skull, Roebuck and Damien Fleming were all on duty as the expert commentators. To me the replacement is obvious, one of your fellow Taswegians. Great cricket knowledge, highly intellegent and a very funny man. Brett Geeves.

  19. Mr Randall – good call on Slim, a definite for any touring party. He was great on the road.

    Mr Kane – Cline would be good for a last wicket stand. Discipline issues led to the non-selection of Parsons, Earl and Earl. Carters could have their own team.

    Chad Morgan is an obvious replacement for K O’K. Why didn’t anyone think of that?

  20. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Luke totally agree with you re Brett Geeves easily the best new person on the ABC over the last couple of summers . Amazing re Ed Cowan for a obviously intelligent guy to be such a appalling runner between wickets to get run out by having the bat in your wrong hand is inexcusable for a ten year old let alone a test player

  21. Great article about a great commentator, possibly the greatest we have known simply because he was so entertaining (`Bumble’ on TV isn’t far behind).
    I particularly love this line `sat back with a smile you could feel over the radio”

  22. my father was annoyed Skull wasn’t selected for the 1972 tour of England because dad thought he bowled in a similar fashion to Bill O’Reilly…almost medium paced leg spinners.O’Reilly bowled with success in the UK.
    I miss Roebuck’s commentary a lot.Skull will be missed.Great article Matt.thanks.

  23. and surely there is a place for junior Brown in that C&W eleven…

    Isaac Yamma,father of Frank, should get a guernsey also .Especially when they have to play the poms in Alice Springs

  24. Paul Young says:

    Reading this made me smile as I thought of the number of times Kerry O’Keefe made me laugh when listening to the great man on the ABC. I can’t recall a single line or memorable moment from any other commentator, but with Kerry O’Keefe, there’s any number of comments that were incredibly clever & amusing. Of course the frog gag – “His old man’s a Rolling Stone” is one of the best….but in respect to cricket here’s a couple I can recall. When describing a bowler who only bowled well from a particular end: “He’s like a sauce bottle – he does his best work from the one end”……..And descibing a fieldsman who had to run & wait for a ball hit high in the air; “Waiting for the ball to drop, he’s run around so much they rang a bell” …..Great read, thanks for sharing.

  25. Bob Morrow says:

    He cannot be replaced , a complete one off. If ever you needed a reason to turn off the audio on the TV [ and you really don’t ] & turn to the ABC this was the killer – listen for Kerry. I feel absolutely lucky to have heard the frog joke live when it was first told – what an honour . FORCE HIM BACK !!!

  26. Kerry James O’Keefe born NSW 1949. 169 first class matches, 4,169 runs@26 and 476 wickets@28; 24 tests. Best 99* and 7/38. Impressive but we will remember the frog and cackle: unique. Perfect retirement: Ashes chant “Stand up stand up… “. We need Jim Maxwell to give us the score, and Mark Nicholas to captain the boat, but who will find a language and humour to keep us smiling, even on a stormy sea. Thanks Skull. Enjoy your retirement.

  27. Well done Matt. As an expat for the past 13 years I have missed much of Kerry. However listening all the way from Beijing via the internet (at last we have radio coverage on line) this series was almost like being home. Yes Kerry has a great knowledge of the game and will be missed. I hope his replacement brings his own unique voice to the game. I thought Ed Cowan was excellent.

  28. Troy Hancox says:

    Great read, indeed!! took me back Matt. THANK YOU!
    I spent time driving to & from our future retirement home over Port Victoria (YORKE PENISULA, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) whilst under construction a few years back.

    It’s a 2 hour drive form Adelaide (one hour as the crow flies straight across the magnificent St Vincent Gulf), one spent listening to ABC Radio, one spent p!ss!ing myslef laughing at the great KOK stories, one liners etc that only KOK could tell.

    He was/is unique…. a one off, (like SK Warne)…… so privelaged to hear (SK see) the great man speak, such insight/knowledge of the game, superb stories, very infectious laugh (made me laugh quite often, in fact i am sure other drivers passing in opposite direction must of thought i was mad)

    I am sure he will be sorely missed (time will tell).

    We aren’t getting any younger, so i suppose Kerry knows it’s its time.

    Enjoy your retirement, enjoy your twilight years, hopefully there are many to follow.

    I hope that you/he gets a few cameo gigs from time to time!!!

    5 BOB NEIL!!!

    roll on South Africa tour!
    I am sure i will be late for work a few times soon ahead!

    Great article Matt!

  29. Shane Johnson says:

    Agree on J Townes Earle and G Parsons…well played them as KOK would say
    My funniest KOK was this year when Aus got the upper hand in the Adelaide test and a likely 2/Nil lead

    He returned to his hotel and as he got in the lift he got shuffled to the back by 8 poms returning to their place of abode…..”what floor” said one of the poms… to which Kerry relied “could you push 2 and 0 for me please”…….and no one laughed…”not even a smirk” said Kerry……so he said “could you push floor 8 then thanks”……said it was the longest ride he has ever had to the 8th floor……had to say “excuse me” seven times to get out of the lift!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  30. Could never have JT Earle over S Earle. Would be like opening with Shaun Marsh when Geoff was available.
    If you want family connections, I would give both J and R Cash a slot. R Cash’s form over recent innings has been dazzling. Late bloomer like Mitch.
    G Parsons was a bit of a K Pietersen. Played some genius knocks, but was an inconsistent, unreliable troublemaker.
    P Cline is a must pick, but can’t have the Sheik of Scrubby Creek. Novelty act like opening the bowling with Froggy Thomson.

  31. Matt Zurbo says:

    Agreed, Cookie! Thanks Heaps for your efforts there Malcolm!

    Les, I can’t believe no-one has picked the obvious
    Dolly Parton for Shane Warne.

  32. Matt Zurbo says:

    As in, didn’t he bat around eighth drop…

  33. Rick Kane says:

    Hi MZ

    I think Les did pick Parton, D.

    And PB, good call on Rosanne Cash. Have you heard her latest, ‘The River and the Thread’? It is another piece of solid gold; moving, literate and country as. I’m not sure I’d call her a late bloomer. She has produced great work right through her career.

    I will go in to bat for the mighty Gram Parsons though. Comparing him to K Pietersen? I don’t think so. Gram was a significant influence on The Byrds, The Stones, all but gave The Eagles the foundations on which to build a fortune and introduced Emmylou to the world. And that’s before we discuss his song writing and singing. Hickory Wind? Pietersen if a scribbler in comparison, Gram’s a poet.

    Other than that, carry on.

  34. Gram as coach?

    Or team manager. Organising motel accommodation, drivers etc.

    Hickory Wind might be my favourite song ever.

    By the way Matt, nice K O’K tribute.

  35. Matt Zurbo says:

    Rick, yeah, but had her batting last. If ever here was a country Warne, she is it.

    Les, it’s a corker idea. You should do a piece of the Almanac on it. I know I’d contribute to the comments!

  36. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:
  37. Barry Nicholls says:

    I like Skull. Always have.

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