Four seasons in the whites

At roughly the same time and the same age as Boris Becker was boom booming around Wimbledon I was pop popping around the eastern suburbs of Melbourne playing tennis. One year I was offered the captaincy. I thought my skills have finally been recognised, then I saw that it was a mixed team and the women were twice my age. Serving was never the best part of my game. Actually, as I think about it now, it would be hard to narrow down the best part of my game. Then my serve just left me. I was in HSC and had no time to practise so I was just turning up to the games and playing. I just could not get the ball in that square. Much has been written about Ian Baker-Finch and his putting yips, Greg Chappell and his season of batting well but scoring ducks. This is the first time anyone has written about me hitting it into the net, or serving into my partner’s back or the wrong side of the court….it was embarrassing. I even served a full game of double faults. Eight consecutive times I could not find that square on the ground over the other side of the net and every time I missed it just got worse. The horrible part was that I had been made captain based on my potential and improvement over the last few seasons. I decided eight or nine consecutive seasons of tennis was enough. My feeble Wimbledon aspirations were finally self-acknowledged as totally unrealistic. Spending wet school days in the library reading John Newcombe’s tennis tactics was clearly not going to get me a ranking.

 

Cricket was calling.

 

I loved cricket. Backyard games with my Dad, hours spent next door at Graham’s place, more hours bowling a tennis ball aimed at the green stripe on the wooden garage door and more still batting with the clothesline as the wickets, bouncing the tennis ball on the stepping stone, trying to hit it past the veggie patch.

 

Perhaps I could play real cricket, so I joined a club, the nearest club, barely half a km down the road. I knew no one there but I decided I would have a go.

 

I rocked up at training a few times, bought some whites and was told where the first game was; going quite well so far. We bowled first and I ran around like a mad kelpie in a sheep paddock trying to field the red ball. I even took a catch. At least I was enthusiastic.

 

I’d already made one mistake about half way through the opposition’s innings when the captain (couldn’t quite remember his name) asked if I could bowl, and I said not much. Thursday night’s memory was too strong in my mind. My attempt to replicate the instructions in Ian Chappell’s Cricket Coaching Book (ICCCB) on how to bowl a leg-spinner miserably failing. Not quite in the John Howard league but mine was no more likely to be hit, because it left my hand too early and landed on the roof of the nets. I really regret not saying yes because who knows in that grade of cricket whether Warnie-like confidence would have sublimely deceived the batsmen, even if the title of my bowling should have been right-arm innocuous or even right-arm experimental leg-spin.

 

Noel, you’re up….

 

Someone must have seen something at training in my batting though, as it looks like I have been promoted up the order even before my first innings. Opening in my first hit, I definitely wasn’t expecting that. Some of these other forgotten names can’t be much good.

 

Tennis was not my thing and I’d had a go at umpiring (see Footy Town, ISBN 9780987434326 pp281-286) but it surely was going to be cricket where I would create my destiny. I had visions of me climbing the ranks through this club, then down the road to Ringwood, on to district cricket, and even beyond. And it was all beginning today. From C Grade RDCA to the top, the captain has seen my true potential. I could see, nay smell, nay even feel the touch of the new baggy green on my head walking out for my first Test Match at the ‘G. Fans cheering the local lad striding out to face his first ball at the pinnacle level as he seeks to right the wrong at 4 for 19 and later, just before tea, bringing up a maiden test century as I hold the tail together….

 

Noel. Noel. NOEL. I was woken from my reverie. Noel, you’re up ….. it’s your turn to umpire.

 

Oops.

 

Umpire, sure, of course. Umpire! Naturally I had read the rules of AFL football when I umpired the footy. Did such a creature exist as the rules of cricket? I had a rudimentary awareness, although “if you hit the garage wall, you’re out” probably wasn’t part of a real game, particularly as there was no garage in sight. The rule was born in Graham’s backyard, because he smashed my innocuity through the cement sheet wall right into his dad’s vintage car.

 

Anyway, I’m up to umpire, so off I went. I played such low grade cricket that there was not even one umpire.

 

There’s no easing into it, either. First ball of the innings and I’m taking it. To say I’m nervous is an understatement. I have no idea what I am doing and I am actually shaking, more than Shakin’ Stevens on a disco floor, even more than when I was confined to bed with a fever. I’m at the end where a left-arm fast bowler is steaming in. I guessed if his foot went over one of those lines it was a no ball. I really hoped that he was tired when it was my turn to bat because whatever he was bowling up seemed heaps faster than anything I’d faced in the three net sessions that constituted my pre-season training. I can hear him coming, he’s running that fast.

 

We are still in the first over when the left-arm fast bowler steamed in, his foot not over the line. Our opener, Max has gone back in front of the stumps and the ball has cannoned into his pad. The bowler appeals, the wicketkeeper appeals, it sounds like the whole team appeals. Could 11 people anywhere in the world, in any setting make this much noise? I’m about to make my first major decision as a cricket umpire – my right arm comes shooting up from beside my leg, with the fully extended index finger determining Max’s fate. How confident can you be! There was not a shred of doubt in my mind. His bat was nowhere near it, the ball would have struck middle stump and then like a bowling ball completing a strike careered on and caused the other two stumps some disarray. I’m almost smiling at how easy this is. Max glaring at me disturbs me a little but it wasn’t my fault he missed such a good ball.

 

Nerves are partially gone. Shaking has reduced to manageable levels. I’m good at this cricket umpiring thing. Perhaps if this cricket experiment fails, I could spend six hours standing in the sun each Saturday using a raised or not indexed finger to really annoy people. Someone had handed me six stones on the way out to help with remembering which ball of the over we’re up to, but I have nearly finished my university degree with majors in statistics and mathematics, so I can count to six. I threw the stones away and just used my fingers. Hold on a moment, have we had three or is that three to come? I think it’s three to come. Anyway after counting to six I confidently call over; I’ve seen that on TV, so I must be right.

 

In over number three I’m back behind the stumps at the bowler’s end, having stood at square leg in over two. Several balls in and my index finger makes its second appearance for the afternoon. Again, it shoots up quickly from beside my right thigh, no use delaying the inevitable. Again, no doubt – a huge snick through to the keeper from the other opener, Gavin. Wow, we’re not going too well; two down for hardly anything. At least Gavin’s scowl is not in the same league as Max’s. I’m still a bit concerned about that.

 

At the end of the over it feels like the whole team up on the hill is waving at me and I get the gist that my umpiring stint is finished already. Only three overs. Perhaps they’re thinking I need to pad up soon because both openers have played such poor shots. No, wrong again. My spell as umpire is complete because I now have the nickname of ‘trigger finger’. I’m quietly instructed that I don’t have to give everything out just because someone appeals. Max still has a decent scowl as he walks deliberately towards me. From his determined stride it appears that his first question will not be “Did you enjoy your first stint as an umpire, Noel?” Instead it is a reasonably aggressive : “Don’t you know that if the ball pitches outside the leg stump you can’t be given out?” My feeble shake of the head did nothing to ease Max’s pain. I knew I should have read the rules of cricket.

 

My turn comes to bat soon enough. The shakes have re-started; the whole umpiring experience and the confrontation with Max was not an ideal preparation. I’m upset that I gave Max out when he wasn’t out and I’m dwelling on that far too much as I go out to face my first ball.

 

I soon realise that years of practise with Graham in the spare block, reading the aforementioned ICCCB and several net sessions is limited preparation for real cricket. I somehow survived for about an over and a half, even jamming down on a much faster ball than the first five when a wily off-spinner suddenly bowled a fast one. However my first innings ends in a duck. The next week I survive a little longer, even managed to trouble the scorers. My first scoring shot in real cricket is hit hard to mid-off and I take off. I know I can make it to the other end, that was all that is needed in the backyard when Graham was bowling and I was batting. As I start running I realise I never practised running with bat, pads, gloves, box at training. Twenty two yards is an awfully long way in all this paraphernalia. Graham could rarely hit the stumps anyway, so I knew I was a better than even chance of scoring, and then taking the overthrows. His misplaced confidence that he would run me out never turned into anything more realistic.

 

I quickly realise that Graham’s backyard pitch was significantly less than 22 metres – seems quite a long way with all these pads on. Somehow my partner scrambles in to complete the single. I resist the temptation to say ‘wicket’, although I mutter a mumbled apology to my partner, as I recognise that there wasn’t really a run there. I also resist the temptation to raise my bat as I have made a real run in real cricket. Thankfully their mid-off is about a good a throw as Graham. Anyway after two innings my average is 0.5. Cricket is a cruel, cruel sport when you nearly have a degree in statistics.

 

The next match is at my old high school’s oval. I still barely know any of my teammate’s names but I am enthusiastic. This is great, I’m enjoying every moment.

 

My turn to bat comes too soon again this week as I see that even some of the people with talent and or experience can get out for low scores like me. I lean into a shot and the full face of the bat meets the ball; must be what they call timing. I’ve put hardly any effort into the shot and yet it has rocketed to the boundary. My team on the hill are clapping. I’m in complete shock; I was just trying to play a defensive shot and yet I’ve hit a four. The statistician in me takes over: 0 + 1 + 4 = 5. 5/2 completed innings and my average has rocketed into single figures (2.5 for the non-statisticians reading this). Even if I get out without scoring any more I will still be averaging in single figures at 5/3 = 1.6666 repeated, rounded to 1.67. Go me.

 

Shortly after this I get out without scoring any more and I walk off with the four shot still replaying in my mind. Thirty plus years later I can still see the caressed ball beating the cover fieldsman heading towards the boundary where I made my move in the school cross-country several years earlier. It remains my best shot in four seasons of cricket. At the same time I am nearly as pleased about my average. Just two weeks ago I didn’t even have an average. It was zero. Now, 1.67. 1.67. Wow, I’m improving all the time.

 

In the second innings a few balls hit the middle of the bat, plus a few edges and I can’t keep track of my score let alone my average. I lose a few partners along the way and by the end of my innings I actually have no idea how many I have scored. I have surely made it well into double figures. I felt like the mainstay of the middle order, just like in my daydream of my first test innings a few weeks ago. I rush up to the scorers, I’ve hit 26 runs. I still have my personal records of this game (and every other game for that matter) which show that I came in at 4/38 and was (finally) dismissed with our score at 9/108. I’m genuinely excited by this. Unfortunately over the next four seasons, I never managed to better that score.

 

Later in the season I make another 20, 21 to be precise and I finish my first season with 82 runs at an average of 8.20. We rarely win but we celebrate the small personal victories of several wickets or 40 plus scores, a great catch or a runout. I bowl two overs for the season and but for a dropped catch off my bowling, my figures of 0/10 are acceptable. My seven catches including three in one innings plus my enthusiasm and encouragement in the field is enough for me to take out the fielding trophy. (Someone cruelly told me years later that the fielding trophy is only for people who will never get a batting or bowling trophy – but read on for more on that!)

 

In my second season I am elected as vice-captain, surely due to my enthusiasm and the fact that half the team are now too old for underage cricket. Occasionally, I get asked to open as my defensive shot is usually solid even if I don’t have too many scoring shots. I did top the scoring with 10 one day but my name didn’t even make the local paper in brackets. I did check eight times but it definitely wasn’t there.

 

One constant throughout my cricketing years was when one of our fast bowlers come on to bowl, the captain would call out to the scorers: “Change of bowler: Watt”. And invariably the scorer would yell back “Who?” The response was always the same “No, not who, Watt.” “That reminds me of the Marx brothers baseball scene…” Every week, exactly the same; and the scorer of the opposition would think they were so funny, not realising from our perspective after the 15th time, it loses its humour.

 

My best innings was as acting captain when I really had no idea what I was doing. Our typical first innings collapse and a score of 115 was totally eclipsed by the opposition’s 1/241. In the second innings I strode to the crease at 4/26 and in total disarray. I defended prodded and poked for a couple of hours and remained 21 not out as we survived to stumps at 8/131. I helped us avoid the outright defeat. A true acting captain’s innings.

 

I must have been too proud as I ended the season with three ducks and a six, although I did manage my first wicket.

 

The next season I bounced back from the ignominy of those three ducks in 4 innings and 5 for the season. Others may not have displayed such resilience. Through hard work, hours, well possibly half or even more likely quarter hours in the nets, concentration, skill and technique, re-reading the aforementioned ICCCB and some poor fielding including dropped catches by the opposition, I never scored another duck. Apart from my fielding trophies (picked up another in my fourth season) and the vice-captaincy I consider this to be one of my most significant accomplishments in my four seasons in the whites.

 

I finish my fourth and final season with a flourish: 16 – my sixth-highest score ever. I was incorrectly given out LBW. I had hit the ball. I was on my way past that 26. I glared at my team mate in the great tradition of Max.

 

I even get thrown the ball and in my first over a skied mishit is decked. In the next over the batsmen tries the same shot, almost exactly the same hit but this time it is caught in the deep; on the verge of a miracle in our team.

 

My second-ever wicket.

 

I knew it was my final season.

 

I reckon I was an under-utilised bowler. Perhaps I was a bowler. I knew I should have said yes in that first game when I was asked if I could bowl. Yes I should have said YES; that was the path that would have taken my down the road to district cricket at Ringwood, state and then the baggy green and a five-for in the Boxing Day Test rather than a century. Actually, no it wouldn’t have.

 

Maybe I was a specialist fielder. Perhaps I was, to plagiarise a Twitter description I saw: “Non-bowling number 11 fieldsman of some repute.” My cricketing epitaph should read thus; two fielding trophies in four years. Catches, run outs. Where was the statistician in me not to record – ‘runs saved’? My final figures are diminished by the missing data of ‘runs saved’. A whole new statistical genre…perhaps I could have gone on to be a cricket statistician and travelled the world. My delusions of grandeur never dissipate. Thirty plus years of non-descript public servanthood can do that to you.

 

My wedding was in a couple of months and I knew the next season I would not want to waste time playing a game I was clearly no good at. Our new captain did warn me, then there’ll be kids and you’ll be like me and not play for 20 years.

 

Why torture yourself when you aren’t any good?

 

I stopped playing, I got married, I had children. I never went back, even after 20 years.

 

Career figures:
Mt In NO HS Rs Av Cs O M R W B Av
26 34 2 26 245 7.66 15 9 2 40 2 1/2 20.0

 

(Individual season’s figures available on request. E.g. 1985-86 batting average in double figures and bowling average in single figures).

 

Speaking of 1985-86….as mentioned above my background is in statistics. I love the purity of numbers. I see patterns. Sporting facts and figures prompted me to study stats at Uni and later I spent 13 years at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. When man-made rules get in the way of the reality of the numbers I feel annoyed, nay, betrayed. In the aforementioned season there was a cricketer who tried very hard at all aspects of his game as evidenced by his averages. To move to a more economics-type analogy, let’s assume his name is Noel McPhee. Specifically a batting average of 11.5 and a bowling average of 4.0. Now with an average of 4.0 most people would expect the bowling trophy coming their way. And this is my very point about man-made rules such as a certain number of overs need to be bowled or a certain number of wickets needing to be taken. In my statistical world, 2 overs 1 maiden 1 wicket for 4 runs average 4.00 (and a dropped catch) is the winner. Why is 15 wickets at 13.93 more worthy? I dispute Mark Twain’s viewpoint. The numbers do not lie.

 

If I had Facebook I would start a petition for Noel to be given the Heathmont Uniting Cricket Club seconds 1985/86 bowling trophy he so richly deserved. After all, Col Austen et alia were given their rightful Brownlow Medals. (Likely to be unsuccessful as the club no longer exists).

 

Some memories:
When Max’s son, the man-child Jeff, bowled a fast bouncer that hit the edge of the opener’s bat and flew directly to me at third man and went through my hands over the fence for six and we lost the ball…

 

Fielding at fine leg at South Ringwood, the oval that backs on to the back end of the chocolate factory outlet, the smell was appalling.

 

Highest average at the end of a completed innings: 8.94 after the acting captain’s innings.

 

I loved every minute of my four seasons in the whites, no matter how bad I was.

About Noel McPhee

Noel’s background is in statistics including 13 years at the ABS. More recent employment has been at Deakin University. He enjoys working on the Census and elections. His weekly article, ‘The Stats Bench’ appears in the EFL’s football record – The Eastern Footballer. Noel’s legacy as a sportsman is that he tried hard; two cricket fielding trophies, a tennis premiership and boundary umpiring about 80 EFL senior games and a couple of underage grand finals.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Noel, you should do something similar on behalf of every pre MyCricket park cricketer. There must be a government grant available for that.

    Well done.

  2. Magnificent.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great stuff Noel

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