Letter from... Cranbourne, Australia
Dear Cricket Monthly,
I became a cricket fan at the age of nine. I was aware of cricket before then, naturally - a vague notion of who Allan Border was filtered down from my father, and I'd already gained the impression that beating England was of supreme importance. But it was at nine that I found the magnet within that drew me to the game and would not allow me to tear myself away from it. It was the summer of 1988-89, a season when the green shoots of Australian cricket's renaissance were showing through even while the team was being battered into submission for the umpteenth time by the astounding West Indies. My first clear memory of cricket fandom was Geoff Lawson's jaw being broken by a typically on-target bouncer from Curtly Ambrose: like all Australian cricket fans, I would spend the next decade having nightmares about Ambrose's loose-limbed bound to the wicket and his brutally relentless accuracy.
As a kid, my favourite Australian cricketer was Dean Jones. He wasn't the team's best batsman - he lacked Mark Taylor's calm solidity, David Boon's gritty authority, or Border's gravitas - but he played with a dash and arrogant flair that spoke of a man who walked to the middle every time dreaming of being the hero of the day. As a nine-year-old I watched him flay the Windies in a rain-shortened one-day final: at a time when four an over was a respectable run rate, he turbocharged the Aussie innings: 143 runs came off the last 15 overs. West Indies still won, but 26 years have not wiped the memory of Deano whipping, hoicking and slogging the normally terrifying quartet of Marshall, Ambrose, Bishop and Walsh to every corner of the SCG.
Jones' flick off the pads was especially memorable - the stride down the pitch, the wristy whirl of the blade, the back foot kicking in the air in a classic showman's flourish. Deano was daring, frequently to the point of foolishness, but whether his attack ended in success or failure, he would be sure that the bowler knew he had come to fight. Jones in full flight encapsulated the romanticism of cricket that in remarkably short order hooked me, intoxicated me, so that within a year of first taking an interest in the game, I was a true obsessive. As only a fan of this grandest and most venerable of games can, I became a walking encyclopaedia of records and averages and cherished anecdotes. I pored over the lives of Miller, of Bradman, of Trumper, of Spofforth. I learnt that Lillian Thomson were two men, not one. Cricket had me. At the time I could not imagine my adoration ever dimming. Today, I've not been given any reason to revise that view.
It's a curious thing that not until the age of nine - the age when cricket found me - did Jonah begin to take a serious interest in bat and ball
Now I am the father of a son myself. Jonah recently turned 10, and it's no surprise that his dad's sporting obsessions have trickled down. But it's a curious thing that not until the age of nine - the age when cricket found me - did Jonah begin to take a serious interest in bat and ball. Is there something about that age? Is it at nine that a child develops the capacity for cricketing devotion? Maybe before that age children lack the patience for cricket. Perhaps it's only in the tenth year that they develop the capacity to focus on statistics to the ludicrous extent that marks apart the cricket tragic from the normal, sane person.
Whatever the case, it is passing strange to see history repeat. People say Jonah looks just like me. They say the resemblance is startling. I don't really see it myself, except… except when I see him walking casually across the living room, and his arm wheels over to deliver an invisible ball down an invisible pitch. It happens unconsciously, by a mysterious reflex that I remember taking hold of my limbs in 1988. Even now I have to restrain myself from launching phantom cover drives or googlies - it's the sort of thing that, when indulged in respectable grown-up company, gets a fellow marked as eccentric. I wouldn't have thought such a propensity was genetic, but here is Jonah, coming home from school, dropping his bag and flicking his wrist like Shane Warne without even knowing he's doing it.
We pass on a lot to our children. We hope we pass on the good in ourselves, and hold back the bad. We lie awake at night worrying that we have not done enough to see that the people we brought into the world find happiness. Parenthood can swell you with pride and cripple you with fear all in the same minute. What am I giving my children to equip them for their expedition into the world?
In those terms, cricket can seem irrelevant to the point of silliness - of all the parts of ourselves we pass on to the next generation, an affection for the absurd pursuit of leather and willow is among the most pointless. I doubt my father knew what he was doing when he, quite by accident, bequeathed me this lifelong fixation. And I doubt he knew how much happiness and comfort it would give me down the years, all the times when cricket would provide a blessed refuge from life's horrors and hardships.
Peter Lever dishes out some filial technical advice
© Getty Images
Peter Lever dishes out some filial technical advice © Getty Images
I have no idea if Jonah will find the succour I have in cricket. And it's not like I'm trying to give it to him, anyway. I don't think a love of cricket is something you can give someone deliberately - it's something you let loose whether you want to or not, an uncontainable enthusiasm that can't help but spill out. If my kids catch cricket from me, it's not my plan - it's just that the virus is so damn infectious.
That's how cricket keeps alive, and always has. From the greatest champions to have played the game, to the suburban dreamers unburdened by playing ability who end up writing about it instead, each of our torches was lit by someone else's, and once lit it's near-impossible to extinguish.
The game, as the great Alan McGilvray said, is not the same - 2015 cricket is another planet to the game that sucked me in in 1988, when West Indies were a superpower, 20-over games would have seemed an absurdity, and umpiring decisions going to video replay unthinkable. It's as strange as that summer would have seemed to my father as a boy growing up in the '50s - or as bizarre as the post-war era must have appeared to survivors of the turn-of-the-century Golden Age.
And yet, when baby-faced Steven Smith skips down the wicket and clips imperiously off his pads, his back leg kicking the air with gleeful flair - there is something so powerfully familiar about it that I can only hope it thrills my son the way another audacious showman thrilled another boy 26 years ago. And if he grows up to be as grateful for the gift of cricket as I am… well, I may end up being a half-decent father, when all is said and done.
Ben Pobjie is an Australian writer whose columns appear in the Roar, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and the author of The Book of Bloke
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