(a yarn written at the turn of the millennium)
Making public statements can be dangerous. When recently, and rather too publicly I admitted that I had, as a kid, and as a thirty-something, dreamed of playing cricket for Australia, I didn’t realise the consequences. Books, as I now realise, are things that people read.
Some read them more diligently than others. One particularly diligent reader (let’s call him Neil Mooney) from Channel 10’s show, Switching Lives, having digested my book Confessions of a Thirteenth Man could not contain his sense of the absurd.
Neil rings me with what he considers a rather delicious proposition: he wants me to face an Australian bowler on a Test ground. He suggests the Gabba and I suggest he searches the nation’s nursing homes or cemeteries for the likes of Arthur Mailey or Clarrie Grimmett. Rob Parella is another who springs to mind.
In its most romantic form the exercise sounds like fun. The frictionless wheels of my imagination start rolling yet again. The Australian bowler selected will enter into the spirit of things and I’ll enjoy a very pleasant half hour in the middle. By “Take 9” I’ll be smashing the half volley to the fence in front of a national television audience — something Ken Eastwood was never able to do.
I have a little cricket experience. I enjoyed a mind-numbingly ordinary down-the-grades career with the University of Queensland CC. It was ended by a spectacular sequence of ducks many years ago; so spectacular that after the fourth (shouldering arms to a left-arm medium-pacer and losing middle and leg) I went to the skipper, Vincent Van Geiger.
“Look, mate,” I said. “I won’t be too worried if you decide not to pick me next week.”
‘I wasn’t going to,’ he replied.
Since then I have had the occasional game with the Benson Street C.C. where I feel among my own.
I am left wondering who the Test bowler will be. Neil rings again and cackles down the phone. It is a voice modulated by perverse triumph: ‘I’ve got Michael Kasprowicz.’
I find my bravest voice: ‘Great.’
‘The Gabba’, he says. ‘Next Tuesday.’
It is the worst possible result. On hanging up I immediately wonder whether Australian cricketers also read books. Of all the bowlers he could have found he gets the one I’ve sledged. On page 102 of Confessions I observe Kasper in the Test against England in Brisbane: ‘Kasprowicz lumbers. Although he is from the University of Queensland C.C. my loyalty does not extend to believing that he is a Test-class opening bowler.’ Bugger.
Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
This is not good. I find myself talking with the media manager at Queensland cricket. I tell Steve Gray I’ve had trouble sleeping. I ask whether he thinks Kasper will have seen the comments in the book. He tells me he knows he’s seen them because he’s pointed them out to Kasper himself. I hope he is joking.
By Monday morning everything is ready. We are to have a hit on the Gabba wicket that has been used for the Shield match between Queensland and Victoria. It has rained in Brisbane. The teams are dismissed twice inside two days. Radio commentators have described the track as ‘hostile’, ‘lightning fast’, ‘bouncy’ and ‘doing a bit’. They don’t quite use the term ‘dangerous’.
I organise some gear. Many seasons ago I donated my kit to the Benson Street C.C. so I ring the skipper, Captain Aldo, and fill him in on what’s happening. He brings it over. When I tell him the bowler is Michael Kasprowicz he laughs and asks whether the big fella has seen the book. Then we discuss the wicket. He leaves. The phone starts ringing. Word is out. I’m involved in a series of giggling sympathy conversations which end without any hint of wishing me all the best for the New Year. I conclude that most of the upper order of the Benson Street C.C. don’t think I’m going to have one.
I check out the kit. My old pads are really good. The bat is dodgy: dry and cracked. The gloves are adequate. There are four protectors. (I must select carefully tomorrow.) Whichever I choose I’ll be facing a Test bowler while wearing the protector of the nether regions of ordinary park cricketers.
Monday drags on.
I decide it would be best if I have a net. I ring my brother, Sparrow, formerly a handy opening bowler for UQ. I explain the scenario and he doesn’t take too kindly to the suggestion that he spend the afternoon bowling at me. He is unable to stomach the fact that this is what I do for a living. And it’s hot. But family loyalty wins out and we are back at the University nets after many practiceless seasons.
I pad up. I have this misguided mindset that batting is like riding a bike. Sparrow rolls the arm over for a couple. Military medium. Then he bowls an outswinger. It is one of those seam-up outswingers that gets Australian cricketers a game anywhere they like in England.
Sparrow is encouraged. He has hardly bowled an outswinger in his life, and he is suddenly a greyhound on the bunny. He’s thinking of employing an agent and having him contact Durham. He builds rhythm. Each ball is on me too quickly. My feet are bricks. Pushing forward actually means leaning over the crease with my neck stuck out. Sparrow brings one back off the seam. I am getting increasingly concerned about tomorrow.
I know what I’m supposed to do but nothing seems to be moving. I have the footwork of a man who is very handy with the wine list. I know this because Sparrow goes back and bowls me a shorter, quicker one, pitched on middle and leg. It moves away off the seam, and squares me up. I find myself in the worst possible position: ambitious backlift, feet together on the crease, perfectly chest on, looking straight up the wicket.
When the ball hits me in the box I go down. This is best described as an involuntary movement. Groaning, I am on my back. My legs rise to my chest. I look like I’m about to give birth only the pain is worse. I rock from side to side. Groan gives way to moan, a mournful sound like a cow that’s lost her calf.
My first conscious thought involves the realisation that there is a very good chance I haven’t put the entire tackle inside the box. My right agate has been squashed by the edge of the protector with a force of a large hammer on a small anvil.
This is not my worst injury. A closer inspection reveals blood. The impact of the cricket ball has turned the box inside out, rendering it convex rather than its usual concave shape. At the point of impact the air holes in the plastic have worked in harmony with the cricket ball to produce a scissor action. I am cut.
There is something about scrotal blood. It is somehow purer: you might have cask in your chin but it’s Grange where it counts. Understandably you protect it. A shaving spill doesn’t warrant reaction; a cut finger might move you to the Band-Aid; but the presence of a single red corpuscle down below sends you into a sanctuary of concern rarely entered. If, of course, it’s your own.
Sparrow, an anaesthetist before he rediscovered the outswinger, seems unconcerned. He has followed through down the wicket (as had become his habit by that stage of the session). He sort of kicks at me to see if I’m alive; the same way he might roll a jellyfish over on the beach. He has that I’m-glad-it’s-not-me smirk which has usurped any sense of genuine concern. There’s even a hint of amusement — too big a hint. It’s a standard bloke reaction. No one speaks. There are longer gaps between my groans until eventually I laugh. It’s not really a laugh. It’s actually a laugh bubble which gurgles out of my throat. It’s about fifteen years since I’ve had this experience and, let me tell you, it hasn’t improved with age.
When I recover a little composure, the first reasonable thought I have (apart from my initial surprise that Heaven should be a strip of artificial grass inside a cricket net at a university) is that the very few neurons of confidence I had going into tomorrow have flown the coop. There is little point continuing.
We pack up.
Later, the producer rings. I tell him I’ve taken one in the goolies while having a net. He laughs. He tells me not to worry: ‘Kasper won’t be aiming at your goolies.’
‘That’s good,’ I think.
‘He’ll be aiming at your head!’
That night I prepare my favourite dinner. I check my Visa card bill. I tell Susan I love her. I try to sleep. I consider what drives a writer to give his impression of a cricketer he hardly knows. Why? Why? I keep asking.
I am up early. It is overcast and humid. I head to the Gabba in the Camira and park in the players’ car park (this proves to be the highlight of the day – easily). I meet Neil and his crew.
Steve (the media manager) is also sniffing around. He has found me a pair of creams which are a little bigger than my own. I have my own Gray-Nich shirt. It is far too small and has a 1980s proportion of nylon in it. It shows off the topography of my midriff horribly. Steve introduces Michael Kasprowicz.
I wish I have a protractor so I can measure the number of degrees through which my neck must go to see up into his eyes. They are the bright and clear eyes of the superfit athlete. I see them through my own roadmaps. He is sort-of friendly; we share about as much humanity as the felon and the firing squad.
I stare. Michael Kasprowicz is huge in all directions. My conversation is nervous. I don’t even say g’day. I open with, ‘Geez, you’re looking fit today Kasper’ (as if I’ve known him all my life) and a self-preserving, ‘You’ve always been a great bowler.’
It’s all just a little too familiar but I have very little say in what’s emerging from my mouth. He disappears into some conspiratorial discussion with Steve.
I pad up. I’m actually padding up at the Gabba. I choose carefully from the three boxes in the kit. My pads feel comfortable. There is no thigh pad. I am reminded of medical text books showing hip bruises. Kasprowicz prances into the dressing room. He throws me his Queensland helmet: ‘Try this.’
I walk onto the Gabba. It’s a buzz — only I’m having a lot of trouble appreciating it. As the Test opening bowler marks his run — his full run — in front of the cameras I find myself chatting to Kevin Mitchell, the curator. ‘Bit of juice in it on the weekend?’ I observe.
‘No mate, dry as a bone,’ he reassures me. ‘Just bounced like a trampoline. Just zinged off. Amazing pace.’
It was the hymn they’d be singing at my funeral. As I prepare to take my first delivery I consider the scenario: very ordinary (but enthusiastic) cricketer with split scrote facing Test bowler whom he’s probably upset with public comments. All this on a wicket which, the weekend before, had seen 38 wickets fall in two days (two batsmen retired hurt). The grass on it has grown a few millimetres and it hasn’t been rolled. Michael Kasprowicz has a new ball. I can see the seam standing. The clouds are closing.
The moment arrives. Kasprowicz comes in off the long run. I demand my feet stay put, my mantra, ‘I.M Chappell: back and across.’ If nothing else I want to eliminate accusations of cowardice. He rolls the arm over gently but that is enough. The delivery passes the off-stump as I’m taking my backlift. Steve Gray laughs. The cameraman’s eight year old son fields the ball on the boundary and stays in that position. The next one cannons into my pads. The next jags away off the seam.
Michael Kasprowicz is at half pace but I still can’t get the bat on one until I push at a half volley which trickles a few metres in front of me. The old bat jars in my hand and for a moment I feel like a human tuning fork. I make a discordant flash at an out-swinger and it squeezes off the bat through gully to the boundary.
This is clearly an error of judgment. I admonish myself for such carelessness as I face the next ball. Kasprowicz lets one rip: a yorker delivered from wide on the crease. It passes between my toes and the bat before I move. I look up at the monster inquiringly. He recognises the inquiry (of the bamboozled) and tells me it has missed the leg stump.
Then he bounces me. Kevin Mitchell is a good judge: the cherry climbs like a superball and clears where a `keeper would have been standing. It heads to the fence. It reaches it on the third bounce.
I am quietly pleased that nothing has gone near my protector when one comes back and I get a thick edge onto my thigh. It stings. Then I nick one through second slip. And finally one gets straight through and I’m bowled. Michael Kasprowicz finishes right next to me and then shakes my hand. He has been very good about it all.
Back in the dressing room I have that feeling of just having completed a five-hour innings. I have faced about 15 balls. I sit, elbows on knees, sipping a drink. The dream is, in its own way, fulfilled. I have faced a Test bowler at a Test venue.
As I sit my mind travels further. Would I have made those comments in the book had I known Kasper as I do now? I still wonder whether Steve Gray has pointed them out to him.
A few months later I am made to look like the bunny on national television. My Caribbean drive-snick through gully winds up on the editor’s floor. In fact, I fail to get the full face of the bat to anything.
Soon after Michael Kasprowicz bowls Queensland to another Sheffield Shield.
I batted him into form.