Looking After a Mate’s Bat

 

The first time I got drunk was New Year’s Eve, 1985.  A group of high school mates gathered at Jason Jabba Ball’s house in Oak Park and drank whiskey because Bon Scott did, with a few beers as throw down.

 

I’d known Jabba for a few years.  He was a tall brown-headed kid, solidly built without aggression.  A lot of girls at high school fell in teenage love with Jabba.  He was kissing girls long before I did.

 

He opened the bowling for the school and batted middle order.  I played twelfth man, occasionally in the second 11, with some of the girls he’d been kissing.  He played centre-half-forward.  I usually played not-selected or bench or wing.

 

Jabba and I went to a different primary schools so it wasn’t until midway through Year 7 when we became close.

 

We went to see North Melbourne play Sydney at Arden Street in round 14, 1983.   It was seven degrees and rained all day.  Warwick Capper was goalless on debut.  North won by 32-points.

 

Jabba had a South Melbourne flag he waved seven times, with each Sydney goal.

 

We liked the same music.  We went fishing.  We stayed overnight at each other’s house and went into the city.  As summer neared, I suggested a hit in the nets after school.

 

Jabba sized me up.  ‘Will you back away if I bowl fast?’

 

‘No.’

 

That was good enough for him.  We played cricket.  I was good enough for him but he was quicker, more accurate and a better bat.  That year we played junior cricket together.  In 1986, he captained Pascoe Vale Central under 16s.

 

A year later, our friendship as it had been no longer was.  We simply drifted to different groups of mates.

 

I moved to Queensland in 1988 and we lost contact.

 

In 2005, when Sydney won the 2005 grand final, I thought of him briefly.  Jabba was the only South Melbourne fan I knew at Oak Park High.  I wondered if he was at the MCG, or at least celebrating somewhere.

 

The first time I watched Dale Steyn bowl it was like watching Jabba.  Their actions were almost identical.  Steyn is taller and slimmer, but I felt I was watching my high school mate.

 

Over the years I’d heard a few snippets about Jabba from Russ.  They’d been childhood mates and hung out in high school but Russ had also lost contact.  He told me Jabba became a father at 19 but split up with his partner.

 

Jabba had been dead for years before we found out.  It was either 2010 or 2011.  I was in Melbourne for the grand final.  We decided to visit his mother, Cynthia.

 

Russ and I debated the merits of the visit.  We’d both lost contact.  I hadn’t seen Jabba in 23 years.  Russ hadn’t seen him in 20-years.  It took us seven years to find out he died.

 

As we drove to the house in Oak Park, our conversation was filled with worry.

 

I don’t know what to say.  I don’t either.  But we were his mate for years.  Let’s just talk about Jason.  She’s probably still upset.  She’ll be upset forever.  Parents should die before their kids.  I feel silly because I didn’t know he died.  I feel silly too.  We don’t even know if she still lives in the same house.  If we see the XB hard top in the driveway, she’s there. Such a small woman driving a muscle car.  Did you ever go for a drive in it?  Yes.

 

The car was there.

 

‘This could be difficult,’ Russ said.

 

‘It will be,’ I said.  ‘She’ll understand.’

 

We rang the doorbell.  The front door opened.  We couldn’t see through the security door.

 

‘Hello,’ was the soft greeting.

 

It’s Matt and Russ,’ I said.  ‘I know it’s been a long time but we were mates with Jason.’

 

The door opened.

 

There was Cynthia, older but no less slim.  And she was smiling.

 

‘It’s good to see you,’ she said.  ‘Come in.’

 

We talked in the kitchen.

 

‘I know it’s been a long time,’ Russ said.  ‘But I only found out recently and Matt was here so we thought we’d come over.’

 

Cynthia told us what happened.  Jason had been feeling sick, a pain in the guts.  A blood test revealed liver cancer.  A biopsy gave him three months to live.

 

‘He was my rock,’ Cynthia said.  ‘We’d have our moments and he’d call me and say are we okay?  Of course we were.’

 

The doctors didn’t know what caused the cancer.  It just happened.  She looked at us, eyes wide, still searching for answers.

 

‘There was 400 people at his funeral,’ she said.  ‘Mostly people he played cricket with.  He was such a good player.’

 

She described further tragedy.  Jason’s partner, who’d been pregnant, miscarried shortly after he died.

 

Russ and I stood in the kitchen as former mates, long removed from his life, talking about his death with a woman who grieved for her son more than we ever could.

 

Losing and forgetting mates is a part of life.  So is remembering them.

 

I told Cynthia things she didn’t know.  That the first time I got drunk it was in her house.  I was witness to her son’s first kiss.  It happened at Oak Park Primary School with a girl called Wendy.  About the day I dropped a simple catch in under 16s and Jason barked at me after the match, how did you drop that catch?  About how he coached me in the nets when we played after school and at training and listened to music and trusted each other.

 

And his words leading into the first game in 1986.  ‘You’re a good bowler.  You just need to get your confidence up.  That’s where I come in.  You’re not going to open but you’re gonna be first change all season.’

 

Russ talked about weekends spent together, going to the footy and countless hours playing sport after school.

 

When Russ and I left, we felt drained.

 

‘Jabba would’ve had good memories of us,’ Russ said.

 

Jabba was senior coach of St Francis De Sales cricket club when he got sick.  The death rocked the club but they honoured his memory.  The A-grade turf side made the finals for the first time, and four of the five senior teams made the finals.

 

He loved cricket more than football.  As a teenager, he had a Gray-Nicolls cricket bat.  At some point he got a new bat and left the Gray-Nicolls at Russ’s house.  Jabba never asked for it back.

 

Russ still has the cricket bat.

 

It probably hasn’t hit a ball since the eighties when they last played cricket together.  It has Jabba’s name, Jason Ball, written on the ridge.

 

The bat is a reminder to childhood, how kids can merge with our lives in friendships that never get beyond the brief.

 

Russ was going to give the bat to Cynthia during our visit but forgot it.  We’ve talked about seeing her the next time I’m in Melbourne and giving her the bat.

 

Russ wants Jabba’s son or grandchildren to have the bat.  He thinks it would mean more to them than it does to him.

 

He says it’s time it went home…

 

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Lovely stuff, Matt. Wonderful. Thanks.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Brilliant Matt.

    The clubrooms located at Rayner Reserve [are named] the ‘Jason Ball Pavilion’ as a fitting tribute to a great person and clubman ( http://sfdscc.vic.cricket.com.au/content.aspx?file=1157%7C38018k )

  3. ned_wilson says

    Magic stuff. Beautifully written.

  4. Christopher Harms says

    Terrific read Matt. Charms

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Jabba would be proud Matt. Evocative, heartfelt and beautifully written. Great stuff.

  6. The People's Elbow says

    …superb.

  7. Keiran Croker says

    Beautiful Matt. Thanks!

    I feel very grateful that, except for one who has departed, I am still in contact with and close to all my mates from school nearly 40years on. I still play Vets Cricket with some of them.

  8. matt watson says

    Thanks everyone.
    Swish, I didn’t know they’d named the clubrooms in his honour.
    That’s wonderful.
    Thanks for letting me know.
    Cheers

  9. Well played those men.

  10. I was greatly touched Matt. That bat is now magical.

  11. Mickey Randall says

    Poignant, funny and fitting. Thanks Matt.

  12. That’s a beauty Matt. His Mum is a star too.

  13. Peter Fuller says

    Brilliant writing Matt. I’m moved by what a great thing you did for Cynthia, conquering your misgivings and apprehensions about the visit. It would be a tonic for her, because what the bereaved need more than anything is to talk about the lost one, and to learn how much that person meant to others.
    Well played!

  14. Beautifully worded piece of writing. Genuine.

  15. Magnificent writing. Magnificent story.

  16. Jamie Mason says

    Thanks Matt… No matter how old we are we share the first half of our life with our school friends.

  17. Trevor Blainey says

    That’s terrific Matt. the small things matter. let us all know when the bat goes home.

  18. Chris Bracher says

    What a moving insight into authentic mateship Matt.

  19. Gareth Andrews says

    Matt Harmsy’s weekly wrap directed me to your beautifully crafted story. It’s about life in the raw and about real relationships. Social media will never create a friendship of such depth.

  20. Peter Hannan says

    Terrific read.
    Great idea to return the bat……An old cricket bat is much more than a piece of wood !

  21. Beautiful piece.

  22. sweet read Matt, quality stuff, loved it

    sean

  23. Thanks Matt – a poignant precis of memories of mateship, growing apart and reuniting through sport. Something in their for all of us.

  24. Matt, my only regret is how long it took me to get around to reading this. Beautiful piece.

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