Almanac (Cricket) Life: Veterans’ Cricket

 

If I remember rightly, it was late September 2015.  The occasion and location are still clear to me: the XXIX Club Annual Dinner in the MCC Members’ Dining Room.

 

I had been Shanghai-ed into attending the “good ol’ boys’ remember-when” back-slapping event to make up numbers at the round table set for ten.  Not eleven; ten.  A player, more astute than me, had studied the guest speaker forecast and bailed out.  Prick!

 

I like my cricket, but my vague and failing memory only reaches back as far as the 1970/71 Test Team against England: Redpole, Stackpath and so on.  OK, I’m struggling to recall all the names, but I’ll never forget the deleterious duo of Lillee, Thomson, and Marsh (RIP).  They will live in my heart till I join my namesake, Rod.

 

Having grown up in the tiny Mallee crossroads town of Manangatang, I never developed an affection for ostentatious behaviour or formality.  Wheat cockies are a scars-n-all earthy flock, so I was immediately repelled by the finery of the Members’ Dining Room – that is until I spied the bar and remembered all drinks were free since I’d paid my $100.

 

I should mention, my cousin, who roped me into this outing, gravitates towards anything with an air of pomp, and was, for sixteen years, the President of the Australian Cricket Society.  Decades later he still lives in those glory days (bless his cricketball-shaped heart) and will inform or remind anyone who might have forgotten or does not know, regardless of the location or circumstance: strangers on trains; customers in shops, etc.   In more than one way he reminds me of the literal Munchkin who accosted me while waiting in a Post Office line in the US, circa 1995.  Feeling a light tapping on my arm, I turned to see a chap who I estimated to be in his 60s and standing about 3’13”.  Before I could say hello, he announced in a falsetto voice, “I was in the Wizard of Oz.  See,” as he turned in his green silken bomber jacket to display a shoulder to shoulder Wizard of Oz scene embroidered on the back.  Before I could congratulate him, he moved forward to the next in line to share this extant historical event.  I was happy for him.  Twenty years later my cousin was doing the arm-tapping and attempting to introduce me to people, all of whom suddenly seemed hurried to be elsewhere.  While he surveilled the room, looking for more victims, I discretely distanced myself and moved towards the bar, to content myself with more of my free beer.

 

Above the noise of the room, a voice invited us to take our positions.  We obeyed.  There was a forgettable preamble with the customary lame joke and an introduction to some elderly chap who played with W.G. Grace.  (OK, that bit’s not true)  But I do know within minutes of him telling us why he was the guest speaker, I had forgotten.  He hailed from a time way before my cricket memories of the 70s.

 

While he was speaking, we were served our coarse three meals – also free – along with more beer.

 

With the monologue dispensed, we were set free to mingle again.  My cousin went forth to trap more prey while I waited.

 

He returned minutes later with a jovial, effervescent chap who he introduced as Peter – ironically also known as “Dr Sleep” despite his bouncy gait..  He was an anaesthetist.  Cousin promptly left.

 

Peter was a breath of fresh air.  No pretense.  Immediately engaging and likeable with a ready smile.

 

The following minutes are still crystal clear in my otherwise murky memory.

 

“Do you play cricket, Rod?”

 

“Not for many years, but I used to.  Yeah.”

 

“Are you over fifty?”

 

“Yes, does it show?”

 

“Can I see your driver’s license?”

 

My mind was awash with uncertainty.  What’s happening here?  Am I being scammed?  Is he going to put me to sleep right now?  I’ve heard these sorts of rapid-fire questions can unsettle a man…addle him…make him vulnerable to lewd suggestions and activities.  Where’s cousin?  I want more free beer.

 

Sensing I was already being hypnotized, I dutifully produced my license and handed it to Peter.  He scanned it, returned it to me, and said, “Perhaps you’d like to play Veterans Cricket.  I’m the captain of the Mont Albert Veterans, and we need players.”

 

“I’d love to.  Sure.”

 

We chatted.  Peter gave me the necessary details.  We swapped numbers, and agreed to meet at a time to be fixed.

 

That otherwise uneventful evening would occasion some of the most entertaining hours of my life over the following two years.

 

The next time I saw Peter was at the practice nets – Elgar Park, Mont Albert North, just south of where Elgar Rd crosses the Eastern Freeway.

 

It was a Thursday evening about 6pm.

 

A typical raggle-taggle crew was present; men of various shapes, sizes and ages, according to what grade they played.

 

Peter introduced me to a couple of the other Over-50 Vets because there were only a couple there.  He informed me most of the eight regulars only attended practice every second Thursday to alternate with game days every second Sunday.  Any exercise or robust physical movement within three days of match day could spell disaster for a man over 50.  Limbs, body parts and organs had been known to seize, malfunction or fall off all together, mid-match, if a Vet was fool enough to practice and play in the same week.

 

Peter was – and still is – a spritely, wiry chap whose body could sustain weekly practices and fortnightly matches, but as a Medical Doctor he was well aware of the physical limitations of his ailing team.  He was understanding and caring.  In fact, he was rumoured to have the “Hippocratic Oath” tattooed on his back.

 

The practice session didn’t result in any injuries to my body, other than a few sore muscles.  But with only three days till Game-1. I had another problem: no gear.

 

Fortuitously, a young fellow by the name of John Holland of Cricket Victoria had just purchased the house next to mine, so I approached him, asking if he might be able to rustle up an old bat and a pair of pads for me.

 

“Sure.  Leave it with me.”  He did more than I asked, by a country mile!

 

The very next day I arrived home to find an entire kit-bag, stuffed full of equipment on my front step.

 

It was like Christmas!  Gray Nicholls bat, pads, gloves, box (waaaaaay too small), two complete uniforms with Cricket Victoria embroidered logos, and a regulation CV helmet.  The kit-bag had wheels and was large enough to cart a baby elephant.  I replaced it with something smaller.

 

I quickly decided I needed to conceal the CV logos lest I be viewed as a tosser on my first day.  I opted to wear a plain white polo shirt that hung down low enough to conceal the CV badge on hip of the pants, and the decal on the helmet came off easily.  I was set to go.

 

I believe it was October 11, 2015 when I made my Veteran debut, but as I admitted above, my memory is hazy.

 

On arrival, Peter introduced me to the other dreamers, who, like me, were there to do what we had failed to do years before: get discovered by Cricket Australia and finally play Test.

 

At a stretch I might have played 150 games of cricket during my youth, but despite many hundreds of hours on the field, nothing was ever as entertaining, humbling, or downright funny as fielding with the Mont Albert Veterans.

 

Imagine, if you will, 8 or 9, perhaps even 10 – never 11 – middle-aged men dressed in their whites, looking for all the world like fit and agile athletes scattered around an oval.  At face value it looks very much like a cricket match is taking place.  The comparison to cricket, however, ends once the ball begins to move.

 

Sensing a call to action, some of the fielders suddenly jerk, as if they were asleep on a tree branch and began to fall.

 

Others lurch forward, or sideways while simultaneously grabbing a shoulder or back muscle as though an invisible sniper – employed by the opposition – has bounced a 10mm rubber bullet off them.

 

Another begins a light jog towards play, then snaps his head back in pain and gives the impression he has a tourniquet strapped to one leg, then reaches for his hamstring.  Ping!

 

I don’t know what was funnier: watching the older Vets doing their “St.Vitus Dance” around the field or us younger ones who believed we were nimble until we went down for no obvious reason.

 

For example, I remember fielding at mid-wicket during my first match when a ball went over slips and out to the third man who took chase.  From my in-line angle I couldn’t tell how close he was to the ball, but I saw him stoop and stoop some more, then fall flat on his face.  I assumed he tripped.  I soon found out what had happened.

 

Before too long, a ball was sent out past me which required a short dash.  As I neared the ball I bent forward, intending to pick it up, turn and throw.  But like my third man team-mate had discovered, it’s a much simpler maneuver when you’re a teenager.  It’s one thing to run.  It’s another matter to bend down.  It’s still another to turn and throw a ball.  Trying to combine all of those seemingly easy moves in your 50s, after being committed to a sedentary life spanning several decades is as difficult as performing a Cirque de Soleil hire-wire contortion act.

 

Sure, one can easily conceive of the action.  But without the mental and physical co-ordination, once taken for granted, that uncomplicated piece of fielding is destined to spear an old man head first into the cool green grass like a javelin.  And it did!

 

Once I had bent down, my centre of gravity moved, propelling me forward at a greater speed than my legs could accommodate.  Once committed, it was already too late.  Like a super tanker on a collision course, it has no hope of avoiding, over I went.  Humbling but funny stuff.  You need to be able to laugh at yourself as a veteran cricketer.

 

Antics on the field will remain in the annals of cricketing hilarity as long as I can re-tell the stories.

 

Batting was hardly more dignified.  In fact, it was my batting that caused me to give the game away.  With my eyesight failing to judge spherical, red, SAM-speed objects, I would take eight swings at the same ball and still miss by a margin of one Munchkin length.

 

Despite being clean bowled at a pitifully low score in my second season and last day, I took some pride in the loss.  The lumbering hulk, bowling at glacial speed – due not to age, but the consequence of 300 VFL games – was the legendary 5 x Premiership player, Francis William Bourke.

 

I shook his Kodiak bear-sized paw after the game and thanked him for providing me a story to tell my grandchildren in years to come.

 

He smiled and said, “just tell them you were unlucky.”

 

 

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Comments

  1. Kevin Peoples says

    A wonderful piece of writing and a ball of fun. More please.

  2. Peter Fuller says

    Rod,
    This is the funniest item I’ve read since about 1993.

  3. Great piece of light hearted writing and so easy to read.

  4. steve braun says

    It is funny when you can laugh at yourself. as far as a veteran player I just cannot picture you as over 50, I mean I think we met when you were 21. I am older than you and I’m only 46, or so feel, but then I do not play cricket. As someone above said, More Please.

  5. Roderick- you’ve captured with great humour and precision the experience of playing cricket as a mature chap. Really enjoyed it, thanks.

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