Taking your little tacker to pick out their first cricket bat is a landmark moment in any sport obsessed father’s life. On Saturday morning I fired up the pale blue Camry, strapped young four-year-old Jack William Dodson into the car seat and all roads lead to the Greg Chappell Cricket Centre in Dudley Street West Melbourne.
It has been a slow burn on the cricketing front for Jack. He has been playing with a football since he could crawl, mainly thanks to his father shoving one in his mitts at any opportunity, however, any attempt at a game of cricket has been met with only lukewarm interest.
The tide started to turn during the Bellerive Test. The little three-foot dictator was strangely attracted to the train wreck. He sipped watered-down Ribena and stared intently at the box as Adam Voges forgot that his cricket bat could be used as an aid to propel the ball in front of the wicket and Callum Ferguson blended in about as well as a teetotaler at the Deni Ute Muster. As the wickets tumbled we headed outside for a hit, using a previously discarded plastic bat. Jack’s cricketing adventure had started.
Jack’s interest has grown in subsequent weeks. His ability and technique has moved past a Bruce Reid level. Cricket is well and truly on his radar, second only to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (has there been any original ideas generated in kids animated television in the last 30 years?). When I suggested a cricket bat for an xmas present (using Nan’s $50 Christmas bounty) Jack jumped higher than Geoff Lawson’s final gather to the crease.
I haven’t been back to the Greg Chappell Cricket Centre since my playing days ended, close on a decade ago. The indoor nets used to be a pre-season venue of choice for the Royal Park Brunswick Cricket Club. Good times facing our quicks bowling with new pills off 18 yards. On numerous occasions I recall wearing boxer-shorts by mistake (a common pre-season trap), which coincidentally made me play straighter than Geoff Boycott, in an attempt to keep my manhood intact. When I ask where the nets are, I am met with a quizzical look from the young whippersnapper behind the counter, who informed me they were taken out 7 years ago.
The smell hasn’t changed. A mix of new leather, ambition and desperation. Children and grown men alike playing imaginary cut-shots and immaculate cover drives in the show room. Everybody looks good when there is no ball involved. A new bat brings hope for the purchaser. The struggling 4th grader, who has never batted long enough for the sunscreen to take effect, suddenly sees salvation and thinks the new blade will help him be opening the batting in the 1sts by Australia Day.
Things have changed in cricket bat manufacturing since I was a young lad in Wagga asking Dad to buy me my first blade. I thought about asking the young whippersnapper to direct me to the section that stocked the Symonds Tuskers, SS Jumbo’s, County Sportsman’s or Gray-Nicolls Scoop’s. He is probably about as familiar with these names as he is with the Commodore 64. Time stands still for no-one.
I struggle with remembering Mrs D’s middle name, yet I could tell you every cricket bat I owned from age 4 through to 30. The Greg Ritchie Scoop right through to the top of the line Steve Waugh endorsed Gunn & Moore Autograph edition blade.
Even in the decade since I’ve been out of the game, time has moved on at a rapid rate. The bats are unrecognisable to what I remember. There is now double the wood, yet the weights are lighter? There is more meat in the edges than used to occupy the middle of my old Symonds Grand Monarch. Hyper-inflation has crept in. $1450 for the top shelf Gray Nic cricket bat… seriously?? Good luck getting a yorker and splitting that in the pre-season. Somehow brands that used to be focused on selling overpriced sneakers have now moved into cricket bat manufacture. I suspect there is one remaining cricketer in Australia who still oils his bat (probably aged 48 and playing with his 14 year old son in the club 5ths)?
The world has gone protection crazy. Nervous parents roam around and buy little seven year old Johnny a $150 helmet. I get the urge to protect, yet I don’t sense the functional use. I am yet to see any grade one kiddy who is able to get the pill to kick off a good length and take out the batsman’s baby teeth. Beamers? Maybe, however with the soft ball they use at that age, the risk is minimal I think. Maybe I’ve just become a dinosaur, who will soon be propping up bars telling people how I used to open the batting back in the day, wearing nothing but the stench of Brut aftershave on my face. Teach your child how to watch the ball at a young age and worry about helmets when you hit mid-teens I’d say.
Not much competition in the size 1 bat category it seems. It boils down to a choice of only two blades. Thankfully for this ‘grumpy old man’ it is a choice between two of the more traditional brands. Gray-Nicolls versus Kookaburra. I was a Gray-Nicolls kid and wasn’t swayed by Dean Jones and the Kookaburra pull. I try not to enforce my will on Jack and his choice.
When the little man spots the green handle on the Kookaburra Kahuna the debate is effectively over. He swishes the new blade like Zorro, while brandishing a Luna Park width smile. This is a cricket bat like the ‘real players’ on the tv use he explains to younger brother Harry and Mrs D. I take a moment and just watch. It is a mixture of enthusiasm and awe. Jack promptly tells the salesman that he will play for Australia when he is older.
Harry (aged 2) sense a distinct lack of equal opportunity and scurries off to secure his own blade. I’m pretty sure unless we caved in and got him a little kiddies plastic bat he may well still be barricaded in the store, protesting valiantly.
Will this be the start of a lifetime of love for the willow and the gentleman’s game for Jack? Summer’s spent on the couch with Dad trying to make sense of Ian Healy’s commentary? Dad desperately hoping Jack hasn’t inherited my ‘ability’ to hit lofted drives straight to mid on after seeing off the openers. It may only be a temporary fixation, so I’m going to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.
Jack tucks his new size 1 Kookaburra Kahuna under his tiny little arms and we pack it delicately into the back of the Camry. Hopefully an enduring cricket love affair awaits for my little man. I hope Jack remembers this day in time. Dad certainly will.