Sunday, 13 October 2013

The First Day

Cricket at the grass roots
It’s pretty much the average rural oval.

From centre wicket you can see the pastiche of tiled roofs which make up one of the newer sub-divisions and the boring older reds roofs down by the main road into town. It has no fence, just one of those blue council boundaries painted along where the developer’s bulldozers called it quits. On a bad day, fieldsmen chase leather to the boundary and then down the slope beyond and on into the car park and across the road: every extra step an injustice. Even on the roughest back yard grounds, you rarely have to go beyond the fence.

Just as pickets are absent, so is a grandstand … benches, tree stumps … there’s nothing to sit on and nowhere to escape into the shade. The only facilities are a tin shed to pee behind when hydration reaches it end products. This isn’t first grade where the pampered superstars are comforted when they fail and lauded from structures with echoed applause. In the stead of such amenities - only imagined by poets and dreamers - players, scorers and adoring parents bring camp chairs and shade structures and water in those big twenty litre coolers … and sunscreen. Dead fathers and uncles have convinced them not to smoke and not to fry their skins.

Beyond the immediate, mountains climb through the heat haze, a backdrop far enough away to cause lingering thoughts, between deliveries, of exotic places and cool breezes but none of which would have any man jack among these twenty two, be anywhere else.

Not on the first day of the season.

By the time the compulsory innings change over came after 40 overs, it was hot. It was hot and unpleasant because the cricket God – there is only one – had decided that a dry, blustery wind should whip in from the west as well. There was only dry paddocks full of dead grass beyond the western boundary and generous supplies of easily loosened dust, judging by the whilly whillys which raced across the ground like angry spirits.

"Young Sam" was eighty odd when I pulled up at the ground, having played what was, by consensus of those old enough to know and others young enough to agree, a good dig. As I listened to their individual assessments forming the corporate opinion, he lofted high over long on, making my belief an easy transition.

The temporary sunshade, its collection of spider legs shaking under the strain of the wind, suddenly rose up and over heads, just as one scorer checked the figures for the over with her opposite number – in between recipes and the news on children - and a small group of sages pondered on how many runs would constitute enough. Earlier, they talked up the winter gossip as though it had become October fact.

When Souths left the shade and went out to field, 195 would have to be enough. Bowlers were roused into action with shouts of “at the sticks Langers” and slaps on the bum from mid off in between deliveries. Intermittent claps came in threes or fours, followed by cricket clich├ęs yelled as encouragement to their team mates by those in the more isolated reaches of the oval. Their shouts were to everyone and no one, allowing them to feel part of the game, even at deep fine leg. They shouted mostly for themselves, for concentration wanders when you're in the deep. At least in slips you can try out a new joke and chit chat the twenty seconds between balls.

The next hour or so reminded me why I love the game and why my adoration grew from the roots. After the first blooms of love when Dougie did the double in ’69 and swept me into my first matches from a wooden seat in the old Sheridan Stand, several seasons made me wait until anything which tasted like success. Until then, batting at eleven for ducks that would take hours to describe to my patient father, I just soaked up the advice from old Len Roy. My first coach had a face like a Google map of the Australian Alps, yellow fingers from smoking and told me all I needed to know of the game in two seasons. Very little of it had to do with the physical skills of the game.

Here in this bare, hot rural city, Len’s maxims were being played out to remind me of their truth, forty years later.

In between overs, it was a senior man setting the example to youngsters by jogging down to fine leg to meet the new bowler half way and retrieve his hat to give to the umpire and save the bowler some energy. It was more than that. It was showing the bowler – a new man that season – that he was valued: that he was welcomed.

It was the batsman practising the shot he didn’t play the ball before, as if it passed the outside edge due to a problem of rusty technique rather than the bowler’s skill. At the other end, the seasoned campaigner practised his dreaded and favoured square cut, issuing threats with every swing. Both were gone within a few overs and not a cut was played.

As the afternoon wore down into the real heat that lives out there beyond four o’clock and fielding batsmen began rolling their shoulders between deliveries in order to provide the captain with options and reminders, old Len would have been well pleased to see an opening bowler fed cold water at the boundary’s edge by his opposite number. No side in the lower grades has the extravagance of a 12th man, made up as they are of old men and young boys just grateful to be picked and a few beer barrelled men in their thirties ... so when a big man is parched, he must wait.

North met South at deep backward square, passed a drink bottle to him and waited in case a refill was required. Fast bowlers union? Perhaps, but if you stop and listen, that’s Len whispering in your ear telling you that’s how the game should be played.

It all ended in handshakes and good humour. One side won, both sides competed and it would be trite and inaccurate to say cricket was the winner. It may have been but only if those twenty two took a piece of her away to think about and improve for next week. The old dear is only as good as the custodians who cradle her week by week.

These are the grass roots Don Argus sought to tend a few years ago but he handed good advice to lazy gardeners who haven’t tended their patches with real care or real attention. They have spread their bullshit in order to promote growth, without attending to weeds. All it has created are ugly hybrids, grown to flourish and then wither in twenty overs. The big gums – the likes of Australis Eucalyptus Peter Siddlis – are rare, hacked down by limited over chainsaws to provide firewood to keep the inane and mindless happy in their plastic seat, dressed in their tribal colours and screaming the froth from their plastic beers. The game, once long wood grains and rich substance, has become a collection of long chain polycarbons.

Luckily, there a few still left standing in the garden beds pulling weeds: Richies and Terrys and old men with obvious nicknames who turn up smiling in October and cry in March. What they say doesn’t change much, year by year. It doesn’t have to. It works. Eternal truths are like that.

This is what I saw happening on the first day.

I have no idea who won.