Making sense of it

I’m not sure I have any right to be so profoundly sad. It’s not as if I knew him, or even knew that much about him. I can’t even say I watched him play very much. But the injury to and death of Phillip Hughes whilst playing cricket has affected me more than I can understand.

It made me feel physically sick when I first learned of his injury. And that’s without seeing any video footage, which I decided I simply didn’t need or want to see.

On learning that he had passed away, I cried: not in floods, but there were tears I couldn’t hold back. That’s more than I did when I learned that my nanna had died in 2012, or when a close friend of the family died after a protracted illness a couple of years before that. And the tears have returned each time I read more of Phillip’s story, or the cricket world’s reactions.

Perhaps it was the sudden-ness. The shock. The sense of injustice that someone so young with everything to live for could be gone in a split instant through a freak accident. No fault to be laid at anyone’s feet. No time for goodbyes. No time to prepare.

The ripples have already spread far and wide. I am clearly not alone in this. I can’t remember hearing before – even on the death of Princess Di, and I was living in England at the time – so many people (men particularly) openly talk about crying following the death of a public figure.

As many others have observed, I suspect what’s at play here is the stark reminder of our own mortality, and our relative lack of control over when or where or how our time is up. If someone so young, healthy, talented, determined and gritty as Phillip Hughes, living in a relatively safe country and surrounded by good people, can still be beaten by a freak accident, so can we all.

It gets you thinking…

Do I tell the important people in my life often enough that I love and care about them?

Am I making the most of my time here on earth, both for my personal sense of achievement and for making the best contribution I possibly can to the local and global community?

How am I going with those dreams I had as a child?

I reckon I’ve got some work ahead of me.

If any good can come from this, perhaps it is that there will be a heck of a lot more people thinking more carefully about their lives, and perhaps making some conscious changes that could improve their own happiness and benefit the broader community too. And hopefully a lot more people, men especially, willing to openly grieve and to support each other in that.

putoutyourbatsI have never been more than a backyard or beach cricketer, and I don’t even have a proper cricket bat to my name, but here is my #PutOutYourBats contribution.

Vale Phillip Hughes. RIP.

Feeling like I belong – the magic of membership

And I’m back!makes me smile

Bit of a break from the writing about cricket while some other stuff was going on, but now the Aussie season is getting back into swing I’m all fired up again.

It may have just a little something to do with recently becoming a WACA member and having just tripped down to Perth over the weekend to spend a couple of days in the members stands for the first Sheffield Shield match of 2014-15 season.

What a win for the WACA boys over the Tassie Tigers! I’m very sad for the lovely George though. Not a good start to his bid to make it back into the Aussie test team.

The lovely George wondering what to try next...

The lovely George wondering what to try next…

Saturday was just balmy – a beautiful warm day for my good friend Mel and I to spend having a beer or three, checking out a few different spots for cricket viewing, and a visit to the WACA museum too. Nice break from the kids for Mel, and nice change for me to have company at the cricket!

Sunny, 29 degrees, beer, wine, kicking back watching some cricket - could it get better?

Sunny, 29 degrees, beer, wine, kicking back watching some cricket – could it get better?

We both felt pretty chuffed to be there for Cameron Bancroft’s maiden first class ton – what a great job he did. Concentration did wane a bit in the second session, when it seemed like Tassie might never get another batsman out. But the third more than made up for it, with a steady tumble of wickets once the dominant Bancroft – Voges partnership of the second session was broken. So by the end of the day, although WA was clearly in the box seat, it did feel like there was a fight on at least.

As we were leaving, we shared the stairs down from the members’ bar with none other than WA coach and ex Aussie batsman Justin Langer. He even smiled and offered us a “Nice day for it” greeting. I tried to be cool about that and make a half decent reply, but suspect I failed!

It’s actually the second time I’ve had a close encounter with Langer on those very stairs – the first being when I did a really enjoyable guided tour of the ground in March this year. On that occasion, he and I did that little dance where we both tried to step out of each other’s way, only to get more in each other’s way. To be honest, it was only afterwards I realised who he was.

Later in the tour we had checked out the players rooms, only to encounter the boys just come in from a final training session before they headed to Queensland for their day-night Shield match, one of the last of the season. They were really friendly and we had a decent chat with one of the young guns, and with Captain Adam Voges.

And that is my overriding impression so far of the WACA team and scene – lots of friendly people, and very down to earth. The folks in the membership office were great. No one got grumpy with me (well not that I noticed!) for moving about a lot – I was a bit restless and keen to check out as many different areas as I could. I’m afraid I only remembered part way through about the etiquette of cricket spectating!

The bar was a little bit lacking unfortunately – super friendly staff, but disappointing that a good number of things on the menu weren’t available. I wonder is it so hard to put out a special menu for the smaller matches when, understandably, it makes sense to offer fewer choices?

Post cricket cocktails - perfect end to a gorgeous day out.

Post cricket cocktails – perfect end to a gorgeous day out.

Anyway, that aside, it was a great day. So much so I decided to go back Sunday to catch another couple of sessions before I had to start the long drive home.

I suspect that’s going to be the flavour of my summer from here on in.

That winning feeling – and inspiration

Intoxicated.

It’s the only way I can describe the way I feel since I became a die-hard cricket fan.

There are moments where I grin broadly for no reason that would be apparent to anyone around me – I’m sure many have thought I must be a crayon short of a box at times.

There has also been many a sleepless night, plenty of distraction from what I should have been doing at work, inexplicable energy for all things cricket at moments when I would normally be feeling destroyed, and I’ve driven everyone I know mad by talking about cricket incessantly.

I guess it’s a lot like being in love…

It’s not even all about the winning – I’ve been feeling odd in this way on and off since Ashton Agar’s record-making Ashes debut innings in July, all through that challenging Ashes series in England and it hit full swing by the Gabba Test in November. I’ll admit it’s intensified since then with the extraordinary success of our boys.

Taking a break from the heat day 3 to check out the view from the MCG rafters - watching Milo Kids girls doing their thing.

Taking a break from the heat day 3 to check out the view from the MCG rafters – watching Milo Kids girls doing their thing.

Only now, at the ripe age of 40 do I finally understand the joy of being a sports spectator, of  getting caught up in the fortunes of a favourite team and captivated by the complexities of the game.

If I’m honest, I’ll recognise it as another form of my favourite pastime, which til now had mostly presented in the form of obsessively watching and re-watching favourite period dramas, or devouring historical documentaries.

I speak of course of escapism.

Mitch Johnson takes time between balls to sign countless signatures for fans young and old.

Mitch Johnson takes time between balls to sign countless signatures for fans – what a come back he’s made! Super inspiring.

Going crazy in the MCG crowd on Sunday when Chris Rogers achieved his maiden test century on Australian soil – and at his adopted home ground no less – will be a moment of joy frozen in time that remains with me for many years to come, a moment when I thought of nothing else.

It will probably inspire countless crazy-woman random grins as I recall that excitement, the charge in the air and my completely unguarded happiness at witnessing first hand this achievement by one of my favourite players – and ideally this life-affirming recollection will return to me again and again at times when I most need it. That achievement of a hard fought goal by a grafting, modest and down to earth person is particularly special to me.

Similarly I imagine I’ll also recall the memory of those English wickets falling steadily to Lyon to give him his first 5fer on Aussie soil Day 3 – amidst the madness of rubbish flying around the great cauldron after the abrupt cold change swept through, whipping up the on-field tempers in the process; and that final boundary shot by Watson to seal the eagerly anticipated win at the end of Day 4. I even found the spectacular fall of Aussie wickets on Day 2 strangely enthralling: the way a long form game can shift so suddenly is a great revelation to me.

We all need something to smile about. And I seem to have found cricket, finally, and made it a key part of that armoury that provides a source of joy and escape from the everyday.

Early on in 2nd session day 4 - Rogers waits for yet another long Cookie conference between overs. But the ton still came!

Early on in 2nd session day 4 – Rogers waits patiently for yet another long Cookie conference between overs. But the ton still came!

I’d be lying if I said it was all smiles and happiness. There are moments that have made me angry or frustrated – the poor behaviour of some of the crowd; time wasting such as in the last session of this Boxing Day Test when Cookie tested everybody’s patience with his lengthy conferences between overs, which only delayed the inevitable; learning the uncomfortable truth of the brutal sledging which is apparently common on field. Frankly, I’d rather just not know! Turn off those stump mikes. Call me a girl…

Aussies in the nets before the start of day 4 - inspiring hundreds of families there as well.

Aussies in the nets before the start of day 4 – inspiring hundreds there as well.

At the end of the day though, the intoxication of being so inspired to learn, to grow and have new experiences is a state of being that I wouldn’t give away for anything.

Who knows, it may even inspire me to start playing sport. Now that would be even more life changing.

Australian international cricket touring – 1868 style

By Mattinbgn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mattinbgn (Own work) [GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Who was Johnny Mullagh?

And why is there a cricket centre named after him in a tiny town called Harrow in the West Wimmera region of Victoria?

Some cleverly positioned tourism teasers that I spied during a simple loo stop in Edenhope a few weeks ago, on my way to meet a friend in South Australia, made quite an impression. (never underestimate the value of the back of the toilet cubicle door!)

Of course, these were questions I would need to explore.

I continued on to the Coonawarra Wine Region that day as planned; but after an enjoyable day of wine tasting following that, I just couldn’t resist the lure – especially as my friend had some work she needed to get done that day.

In an act that tells the extent of my new-found fascination with all things cricket, I made a 210km round trip to visit the Johnny Mullagh Cricket Centre, as I knew I wouldn’t have time to make the detour on my way home.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first I’d learned of the story the centre tells – that of the first organised group of cricketers from Australia to tour England in 1868 – as I’d read about it a few weeks back. But until then I hadn’t twigged quite how close I now live to the seat of this historic tale.

Apart from the coach/manager, the cricketers on that historic tour were all from the south-west of Victoria; and all Aboriginal.

This tour, and the identity of the players, was quite an extraordinary discovery for me in itself. I hadn’t consciously thought of it until that time, but I realised that I wasn’t aware of any elite cricket players with Aboriginal ancestry. I’ve since learned that there have been some, but really they are far and few between – especially by comparison with AFL. It’s a curious situation.

The “first eleven”, as the team are sometimes called, was led by coach and manager Charles Lawrence, a former Surrey professional cricketer.

Johnny_MullaghAnd Johnny Mullagh? He made his name on the England tour as a star all-rounder.

During the four month tour, playing 99 days out of a possible 124, the team played 47 games in total across England – winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19. This was an extraordinarily gruelling schedule, and the results were equally impressive, given that many of the teams they played were professionals.

Johnny Mullagh’s stats for the tour are even more extraordinary – he scored 1,698 runs (just under one-fifth of all runs scored by the team) and took 245 wickets (he apparently bowled for over one third of the time played).

There were so many surprises and points of interest for me in discovering the details of the story, including:

  • The introduction of cricket to Aboriginal people had started on stations in the Wimmera district during the 1860’s, after Aboriginal stockmen and domestic help replaced the earlier workers who had headed east chasing gold. The athletic ability of the Aboriginal people was initially recognised by their startling accuracy when returning balls that had been hit beyond the boundaries in early settler games.
  • After a Boxing Day match at the MCG in 1866 that attracted a crowd of 8,000 to see a newly formed team of the most capable Aboriginal cricketers from that region, a tour to New South Wales was undertaken. However the entrepreneur backer of that tour Captain Gurnell, embezzled funds raised for the enterprise and left the team stranded in Sydney.
  • Victoria’s Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines (VCBPA) objected to and forbade the proposed 1868 tour of England taking place, because “judging from the past … after the Aborigines have ceased to be a source of profit they will be cast adrift and left helpless and destitute – unable to return to their own country.” Protective indeed! How times have changed.
  • This resulted in the tour starting by stealth – the entire team went on a ‘fishing trip’ from Queenscliff, then boarded a steamship waiting off Port Phillip Heads to travel to Sydney, out of the jurisdiction of the VCBPA and then on to England.
  • The team charmed the other passengers on the long journey by ship to England, spending much time with the women and children on board playing games, drawing, or making needles and other tools for women’s handiwork.
  • It is thought a good part of the initial fascination with the team on their arrival in England in May 1868 was sparked by the recent publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species – the first match at The Oval attracted 20,000 spectators!
  • Many of the matches were followed by demonstrations of Aboriginal skills such as boomerang and spear throwing, plus competitions of various kinds – not uncommon for the time apparently.
  • One of the team, Dick-a-Dick, impressed with his ability to ward off cricket balls thrown at him by up to six men using only a narrow shield.
  • In one cricket ball throwing competition, the Aboriginal players were narrowly beaten by a young emerging English all-rounder – none other than W.G. Grace who at 20years old threw an impressive 118 yards.
  • Not at Lords though! That venerable old seat of cricket forbade any games / demonstrations beyond the main act of the game itself.

The Johnny Mullagh Cricket Centre in Harrow tells the fascinating full story of the team and the tour of England, as well as providing lots of interactive features of general interest about the game of cricket. This includes a display demonstrating the correct hold for different styles of bowling and balls you can practise with, and a mirror so you can check your cricket bat swinging action alongside nearby guides to a range of cricket drives. They also currently house an impressive private collection of Bradman memorabilia.

It’s a fabulous centre, originally funded by a generous donation from a private donor that was matched by state and federal funding – and entry is by donation. It also includes some general historical info of relevance to the local area. The town itself is pretty charming – beautifully set in a deep valley (mobile blackspot!) and with some lovely old historic buildings lining the main street. It’s well worth the detour from the Western Highway at Edenhope or from the Glenelg Highway at Coleraine, and in my opinion the centre thoroughly deserves a decent donation from each visitor.

A strange time to become a cricket tragic

I get some very odd, disbelieving looks when I talk enthusiastically about the current Ashes series, the Australian mens team, and how much I’m enjoying it all.

Admittedly, I’m a newcomer to the joys of cricket in general – and test cricket in particular – having only just discovered it in the past year. Two years ago I would have told you that watching or following five days of sport that may end up in no win for either side was a horrific waste of time.

Now, I get it.

The tactics, the drama, the stamina, the history, the rivalry, the vagaries of the weather, sleepless nights when the game’s on the other side of the world, the loony crowd and often even loonier commentators… It all adds to the appeal.

I hear and read so much commentary about how dire Australia is; how they’ll never regain their glory days; but then again they’re not as bad as many had predicted; how 2020 has killed the game and should be abolished (can’t agree more! horrid Americanized tripe); that the selectors should just pick a top six batting order and stick to it, and then again they should keep rotating players until each is proven worthy; that Clarke is the best captain we’ve had for years, and then that he’s lucky the current team is so shite or he’d never be picked as captain, and then that he’s a power hungry gambler with our national pride…

It only adds to my obsession.

Those decades of dominance just didn’t interest me in all. Where was the intrigue, the challenge, the drama if no one could match our team and put on a decent show? Frankly, it was just uninteresting. (I’m not dismissing the greatness of the achievement of our boys! But was it entertaining? Not to me.)

The topsy turvy Ashes series of the last decade caught my attention to some extent – if only because in 2004 I married an Englishman who’d spent his younger days playing cricket – and suddenly the outcome meant so much more. The heart stopping 2005 series registered a tiny sliver of interest in my consciousness and every subsequent series has brought another chance for one or other of us to gloat – this connection having outlived our marriage as it happens. Aah, the joys of sport!

But I believe I have to thank ABC Grandstand and my decision to take a break from life last year – seven months travelling Australia with ABC Local Radio as my main connection to the outside world – for turning me onto the joys of test cricket.

Sitting in my van late 2012 at my temporary caravan park home address in central Vic, making countless job applications and always with the radio on in the background, it was Michael Clarke’s extraordinary multi-century batting achievements that first captured and intrigued me.

Every now and then I’d go and check out the TV coverage in the camp kitchen; but there was a creepy guy there most of the time who I didn’t like talking to, and the players didn’t look remotely as good in person as they did in my head! Plus the TV commentary was (and still is!) absolutely dire. Give me the extraordinary company of verbose international ex-cricketers and experts you find on ABC Grandstand alongside  our Aussie staples like Maxwell, Morphett, O’Keeffe, Alderman and Lawson any day!

(I’ve now found a happy medium in my new home – TV on but muted, ABC Grandstand giving me 5 seconds lead on the visuals, and I’m getting used to those faces now) .

The back to back Ashes series is clearly well timed in terms of capitalising on my emerging obsession. To be honest, before the start of the first test I was wondering how excited I could get, given the predictions of a 10-0 drubbing. I was so not looking forward to the gloating…

Then Ashton Agar turned everything, and everyone, upside down. It was just what the game needed. Moments like that make cricket, and galvanise the troops. His near-ton when Australian seemed all but gone, Hughes’ mature and unswerving support of the man on debut, and the almost palpable raising of spirits of the team and all the Aussie supporters – it was almost magical. I knew then I was hooked, and suspect it’s got me for life now.

True, there probably haven’t been as many of these “moments” as most of us Aussies would like in the rest of the series. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them when they’ve come along – especially Rogers’ exciting and hard fought maiden ton at last, and Harris’ dominant bowling with stumps flying left right and centre (and in a twisted kind of way, even Broad’s reply with his own devastating bowling was exciting) and finally an opening Aussie partnership where both players had put on their batting pants that morning.

I don’t claim there hasn’t been pain. But isn’t that what it’s all about? The pain makes the pleasure – when it comes – all the sweeter. And it will come. I have absolute faith in that.

This difficult phase is just what the team needs. And just what Aussie supporters need too, frankly I think some have just gotten too cocky. A bit of humble pie is necessary every now and then. It shouts out a challenge to improve, to grow, to learn and to come out stronger at the other end.

I honestly believe a turn around is on the way. And I’m so looking forward to being a part of it now that I’ve dived headlong into the Aussie cricket family.