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!
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.