Greg Matthews bowls
Tony Feder / © Getty Images

Hate to Love

The high priest of the eccentrics

During Australian cricket's most volatile decade few tickled the imagination like Greg Matthews

Aaron Timms

In early 1987 my parents travelled to Melbourne from Sydney, where we lived, to hold a conference. I was seven years old and didn't really understand what the conference, at a hotel in Melbourne's Central Business District, was about. "It's a computer conference," my father told me, which carried enough of a suggestion of exoticism and danger to satisfy my inquiring seven-year-old mind.

My mother handled registrations and was at the front desk to welcome attendees on the first morning. With registrations complete and the conference under way, she began to pack things up when Greg Matthews - offspinner, last-day titan of the 1986 Tied Test, intrepid explorer of the frontiers of hair fashion, outfield air-guitar player, iconoclast - sauntered up to the desk. Matthews at the time was in his late 20s; Mrs Timms was about 17 years his senior, though by all accounts she was a good-looking woman. As my mother recalls today, Matthews, who was staying in the hotel and appeared to have enjoyed a long night out on the town, casually suggested that they head back up to his room for some beverages and adult entertainment. She equally casually suggested that no such thing would happen and that if he did not move away she would call security. He laughed and walked away; the Timms family's brief flirtation with cricketing fame concluded; and from that day on, my father referred to Matthews as my mother's "boyfriend". "Oh look, your boyfriend's coming on to bat," he would comment drily whenever the cricket was on and Australia were five or six down.

It's funny to think it now, given everything that came subsequently (the Advanced Hair Studio commercials, the slightly wiggy commentary on SBS during the 2009 Ashes), but Matthews was a big deal at the time. In an Australian team adrift on the chaotic seas of rebel tours, post-World Series Cricket disharmony and chronic underachievement, he offered a firm anchor in studied eccentricity. Here was a player with no shortage of what Australia needed most: talent, personality and fight.

The theatrically diagonal run-up, the wheeling arms and loose shirt cuffs, the zany, jumpy celebrations faintly reminiscent of Peter Garrett or some other royal from Oz rock's crazy-guy pomp

I was a sunny, tubby kid, as happy running around the backyard in a vain and accidental attempt at exercise as I was staying inside to read, or do homework, or watch TV. "Mo" was probably fourth or fifth on the list of cricketers my brothers and I liked to imitate most in the backyard during the mid-1980s, behind the entire West Indian pace attack (the clear favourite), Peter Sleep (such funny arms!), Allan Border (emphasis on the squat, then drive, drive the ball through midwicket with the right hand while pretending to have a moustache with the left), and Dirk Wellham (I can't really remember the attraction here, but it burnt bright).

There was something about Matthews' style, especially as a bowler, that tickled the imagination of the young Timmses: the theatrically diagonal run-up, the wheeling arms and loose shirt cuffs, the zany, jumpy celebrations faintly reminiscent of Peter Garrett or some other royal from Oz rock's crazy-guy pomp. Matthews was unquestionably cool: he danced when he fielded, bowled with his right hand and batted with his left. Who does that?

This was the world I lived in. I had only the meekest consciousness of sex or intimacy of any variety beyond the familial. So when I found out that Australia's offspinning allrounder-in-chief had hit on my mum, naturally I was filled with tiny-man rage and vowed never to rest until the perpetrator had been brought to justice and dragged through a pit of hellfire. Like the rage of all seven-year-olds, this was the best type of rage: sulphurous, ignorant and closed to all reason, but also completely self-aware and premeditated in its homicidal intent. That's why seven-year-old rage is better than, say, the rage of a two-year-old: by the age of seven, you're aware of the clear correspondence between actions and consequences. Two-year-olds get angry in such a thoughtless, unmotivated way.

This fit of anger lasted around 30 minutes. Then I moved on to fresh seven-year-old concerns. Matthews moved on as well, his career flickering as he became an only occasional fixture in the Australian team through the late 1980s, rather than the centrepiece he had been in the middle of the decade. But despite the decline, the sight of him in his increasingly intermittent appearances in Australian colours was still enough to inspire in me a flash of rage.

And two's plenty: Matthews wasn't quite the stereotypical matey, beer-chugging Aussie

And two's plenty: Matthews wasn't quite the stereotypical matey, beer-chugging Aussie © Getty Images

When I accompanied my father and brothers to the SCG for the second day of the third Test of the 1990-91 Ashes series, the faint embers of resentment towards Matthews were still there, but suppressed amid the excitement of our family's one big taste of live Test cricket for the year. As we sat high in the Brewongle Stand, Matthews put on a corrective for the ages. The series was still live, but his knock that day threatened to take the Ashes beyond England's grasp. (England, of course, would go on to cede the urn 3-0, surrendering as meekly as "a fart competing with thunder", to use Graham Gooch's memorable phrase.) Matthews came to the crease early in the day and spent the next few sessions darting down the pitch to Eddie Hemmings and dismissing Devon Malcolm with flat-batted contempt, each boundary celebrated with the pogo-pop of a 20-year-old on acid at an early '90s rave. It was thrilling batting, adventurous and wristy in an era when most batsmen favoured a more stalwart, slow-scoring occupation of the crease; his strike rate that innings was 73.14, a positively Viv Richardsesque return for the time.

Look at Matthews now and he is a harmless old fizzgig, the occasional TV appearance thrown in for diversion as he coconuts through life in search of retweets and pleasure. But on that day in early 1991, he recaptured in my eyes the heroism of his mid-'80s peak. In retrospect we can see this was the beginning not of a resurgence but of the end. Matthews, in a transitional team mixing 1980s nearly-there men (Carl Rackemann, Bruce Reid) with the strongmen of the conquests to come (Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Steve Waugh), was in fact waving goodbye - to his own career, and to Australian cricket's most volatile and watchable decade, with which he will be forever associated. By 1993 he had played his last Test and the image of Matthews as an erratic luxury who didn't justify the expense was sealed. Mostly this was about his performances on the field, but off-field issues contributed: he ate meals on his own, the accusations went, and only went out to dance clubs, not pubs like Australian cricketers were supposed to.

By 1991, Matthews' oddball star was already fading fast. But to see him that January day it was not hard to be convinced that better Mo-days were ahead. In the final session, with the home side on their way to a big total and English faces growing redder in the heat, Matthews stroked a ball through the covers for his century. And there he was, thrashing his bat in the air, goofy grin in place: top candidate for the title of weirdest person ever to play for Australia; the allrounder who never quite made it as an allrounder; my mother's boyfriend.

Aaron Timms is an Australian writer living in New York. He has written for the Guardian, the Daily Beast, Salon, and the Sydney Morning Herald