June 16, 2008

For love of the green

From just another item of kit to an emblem of Australian excellence - the baggy green cap has come a long way

You ratty beauty: the cult of the baggy green grew immeasurably under Steve Waugh, but his own cap was a famously distressed-looking specimen © Getty Images

Twenty years ago, when somebody at an auction bought the baggy green in which Clarrie Grimmett played the Bodyline series, for A$1200, it probably seemed a lot of money. "You spent what?" you can hear his wife saying. "On a cap?" Pleas that it was an "investment" would hardly have placated her - why, the damn thing wasn't even fashionable.

Twenty years later, one can only dip one's own metaphorical lid. The 121 caps sold at auction since have fetched an average $17,254, and selling that Grimmett green would knock a fair dint in any family's school fees. Particular windfalls have awaited custodians of Don Bradman baggies: five have fetched an average $160,000.

In Bowral last Friday night the Bradman Museum hosted a function to celebrate that capital appreciation, and also to ponder its meanings. An audience of 200 heard Mark Taylor speak in honour of an excellent new book, The Baggy Green, a joint project of memorabilia entrepreneur Michael Fahey and veteran cricket writer Mike Coward, and a fascinating exhibition grouping 28 caps, no two of which are alike. For a symbol so storied, the Australian cap has been subject to relatively little historical inquiry; this book and exhibition fill the gap both snugly and appealingly.

Taylor, who is shaping steadily and surely as the next chairman of Cricket Australia, introduced himself cheerfully as a "cap tragic", sharing some samples from his collection of 100, including the distinctive headgear of the Lake Albert CC from Wagga Wagga, and of the Riverina Secondary Schools Sports Association, to illustrate his point that a cap is a repository of memories, of games and places and people. He is well placed to testify: Fahey and Coward speculate that he is one of only two 100-Test veterans to have played their whole career in the one cap. Justin Langer, to whom the cap was as his blanket to Linus, is the other.

Two other Australian captains, Brian Booth and Ian Craig, and former Test men Gordon Rorke, Grahame Thomas and Greg Matthews chimed in with their own reflections. Having consulted his diary of the journey, Booth was able to report that he was presented with his cap in the Launceston hotel room of Australian team manager Sydney Webb QC on 14 March 1961. "It's a bit hard to remember back that far," he commented. "I did well to remember to come along tonight."

In interviewing 45 past and present Australian players, however, Coward has refreshed the memories of others. Ian Chappell, for instance, divulges the origin of his habit of removing his cap while on the way back to pavilion: the experience of having his headgear snatched at the Wanderers in February 1970 as he ascended the steps. A couple of years ago, he adds, he met the cap's current Zimbabwean owner. "You're not the bastard who took it off my head?" Chappell asked. "No," came the reply. "But I might have bought it from the bloke who did!" At current exchange rates, it is probably worth 500 billion Zimbabwean dollars.

Hitherto there has been a synergy between the advance of the baggy green cult and the rise of the players as commercial commodities. But is the time coming when the cap will be a brand in competition with the players' own brands, restricting their commercial freedom, scrambling their individual messages?

The exhibition, meanwhile, is comfortably the most complete of its kind, gathering caps as antique as Victor Trumper's, as recent as Adam Gilchrist's and as ugly as Tony Dodemaide's from the Bicentennial Test 20 years ago - a white cap ribboned in green which looks better suited to a Dairy Queen dispensary. The exhibition, brainchild of the industrious cricket collector and publisher Ron Cardwell, gives the lie to the idea of the cap's precise historical continuity, while actually making it a richer historical artefact.

This is overdue. In his speech, Fahey described the baggy green, rather artfully, as "an icon and a sacred cow". For despite the fashion for lachrymose expressions of loyalty to it, the cap belongs less to the world of antiquity than to the realm of what Eric Hobsbawm called "invented tradition": a set of practices which "seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past". So it is that The Baggy Green faithfully reports the evolution not just of the symbol but of the reverence inhering in it - to the extent where, under Steve Waugh, it became like the Round Table to Australian cricket's Camelot.

We learn not only of the rituals established by recent Australian XIs - the numbers, the tattoos, the corroborees - but those not indulged in by their forebears. "In my day, they were just caps and flung into our bags," Bill Brown muses; like his fellow Invincibles Sir Donald Bradman and Arthur Morris, he gave all his away. Neither Richie Benaud nor Ian Chappell owns a cap between them. "I don't ever remember having one discussion about the cap during my playing days," Chappell insists. His contemporary John Inverarity, in fact, recalls an apathy about the cap that occasionally shaded into hostility. When he donned a baggy for the traditional Duchess of Norfolk's XI game at Arundel, he found he was the only player wearing it. "I felt a little self-conscious," he recalls, "but felt I wasn't in a position to share that thought for it was a little too earnest or conscientious."

It's not as though the players' elders taught them much differently either. Ken Eastwood recounts how before his Test debut in February 1971 he was asked to try on caps by Australian Cricket Board secretary Alan Barnes. The first one didn't fit; the second did; he was allowed to keep both, thus obtaining the unique record of one Test for two caps. Similarly, veteran administrator Bob Merriman recalls Barnes scattering caps among the team on its way to tour India almost 30 years ago "as though he was delivering newspapers from a moving vehicle". No wonder then that when Len Pascoe found a mislaid cap in an Australian dressing room at Lord's during his career, nobody claimed it.

These brisk and practical reflections are seasoned with some regrets - Doug Walters laments not having worn his more often - and some surprising differences of opinion. Incongruously, Steve Waugh comes in for as much blame as praise, especially his consecration of a cap in what, had it been a fashion accessory, would have been described as "distressed felt". Waugh's former captain Geoff Lawson says it was "disrespectful not respectful" for Waugh to wear his cap until it was so battered, his erstwhile coach Bob Simpson that the cap should always "be in pristine condition". Keith Stackpole expresses bafflement: "I can't understand why they mean that much when they don't bat in the things."

Former Australian women cricketers are honoured with baggy greens in 2004 © Getty Images

Deliciously, the players are now having reflected back to them their own public avowals of unswerving allegiance. When the Australians wore a sponsor's blue practice caps into the field against a Jamaican Select XI last month in the pipe-opener to their Caribbean tour, it must have been one of the few occasions in sports marketing where a corporation has been embarrassed at their logo's visibility. In a typically trenchant column in the Age, Greg Baum saw CUB as muscling in where corporates should fear to tread: "Plainly, they [the Australian team] were playing not for us, but for yet another franchise. This was a breathtaking contempt, not just morally, because of the campaign against binge-drinking, and not just aesthetically, because it made the Australian team look like a pack of Sunday afternoon pub players." Tabloid headlines reverberated; talkback radio hummed for days. There might not have been the same fuss had the players turned up in identical rainbow tams.

Even by the eccentric standards of Australian cricket controversies, this was a most peculiar incident. Team protests that they were simply acting out of solidarity with Brad Haddin, not yet capped at Test level, cut no ice: you tamper at your peril even with the totems you help create. Yet nobody seemed much bothered by the publication in April of an Australian Cricket Association survey revealing that almost half of Australia's contracted players would consider retiring prematurely from international cricket in order to maximise their IPL earnings potential. No wonder players are confused if the substance of change no longer bothers Australians so much as its symbols.

Perhaps, then, we are at a historic hinge point. Hitherto there has been a synergy between the advance of the baggy green cult and the rise of the players as commercial commodities. But is the time coming when the cap will be a brand in competition with the players' own brands, restricting their commercial freedom, scrambling their individual messages? A survey last week by polling company Sweeney Research reported that six of the ten most "marketable" Australian sportsmen were cricketers: Ricky Ponting (1), Adam Gilchrist (2), Brett Lee (5), Glenn McGrath (6), Steve Waugh (9) and Andrew Symonds (10). How readily does a backward-looking symbol of collective purpose reconcile with the forward-looking promotion of standalone stars? All the more reason to check out The Baggy Green, to check on where we've come from in readiness for where we're going.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer