November 22, 2011

Baggy green or livelihood?

Cricketers have often had to choose between cash and country. For some, like Rod McCurdy, it was a choice that raised many questions about what might have been

In 1985, Rod McCurdy had a decision to make. At 25, he was a journeyman fast bowler who had already played for three Australian states. He was married and had a six-year-old son. He needed financial security. The rebel tours of South Africa offered that.

On the other hand, he had just made his one-day international debut. A place on the 1985 Ashes tour beckoned. The baggy green was there for the taking. History shows that McCurdy chose the rebel route and settled in South Africa after the tours. More than a quarter of a century later, he still wonders what could have been.

"I pulled out of that 1985 Ashes tour," McCurdy says. "It always bugs me. I was picked on the Ashes tour. Would I have gone there? Yes, I was going there. We would have loved to have gone there, played in the Ashes, and then come out to South Africa afterwards. At least I would have had my opportunity. That's a disappointment for me."

Some fast bowlers, Terry Alderman and Carl Rackemann, for example, returned home after the rebel tours, served their two-year bans and went on to play Test cricket. But McCurdy was offered a contract to stay on and play with Eastern Cape under the captaincy of Kepler Wessels. Then another contract and another. He never played in Australia again.

"A lot of people may not like this, but being a bowler in those days, the money wasn't great, and also you didn't know if you were going to get a stress fracture in your back, was your ankle going to get stuck in the footholes," McCurdy says. "You don't know. It sounds mercenary but today the guys don't mind moving around and playing for as many sides as they can, whoever pays them.

"I had a young family and at the time it was very enticing. The money was guaranteed and back home it wasn't guaranteed. A lot of people may not like that comment, but that's the fact of it. If you look at modern-day sport, there's no loyalty anymore.

"It's every kid's dream to have the baggy-green cap. When I was a kid, I was getting Dennis Lillee's signature on the boundary when I was about 15. Three and a half years later I was playing my first game against him in Perth. That's the dream. Every kid, when they go to the MCG and see a Boxing Day Test, you just want to have the chance to run out. I had the chance to run out and play one-day internationals, but it would have been great to play a five-day game. But we all make choices in life and you live with them."

Now 51, McCurdy still lives in South Africa with his wife Donna. Their second and third children were born in South Africa and have never visited Australia. For several years McCurdy has run a security business in Port Elizabeth, marketing alarms for homes and small businesses. Not surprisingly it's a lucrative market in South Africa.

He is about to start a new job in Johannesburg, as operations manager of Tellytrack, the racing television station. McCurdy will work both behind the scenes - he shares an office with the former New Zealand captain Ken Rutherford - and on camera, at the racetrack. His love of punting came from his father, a greyhound trainer in Melbourne.

McCurdy remembers skipping a Victoria state training session early in his career - "It was pelting with rain," he says - to go and watch one of his father's dogs run in the country town of Warragul. It was a lucrative night and McCurdy returned home with a wad of cash, only to be told by his wife that Victoria's chairman of selectors had been on the phone looking for him.

"I was suspended for one game," he says. "The next day in the Sun the headline was 'McCurdy Gone to the Dogs'."

Over his career, McCurdy became no stranger to the occasional run-in with authority. During the rebel tour he was fined 1000 rand for allegedly kicking Australia's team manager, Bruce Francis, in the change rooms. McCurdy had been batting in a match Australia needed to win to level the series; not only were they playing for honour, but for the chance to play a tie-break game for more money.

"I was batting and facing Hugh Page, who was bouncing me, and my record shows I wasn't the greatest batsman in the world," McCurdy says. "I got out and as I walked up the race, the crowd was giving it to me. We were desperate to win it, not just for Australia but to load our pockets [in] the next game.

"I walked inside and Bruce was not even watching the game, he was reading the newspaper with his feet up - and he was our team manager. I just walked straight through him, he fell on the ground and then reported me to Ali Bacher. I got a hearing and a 1000-rand fine. That was big money in those days. There was contact - I walked straight through his legs, but I didn't kick him. I'd never kick anyone."

McCurdy would have been a nightmare for cricket administrators these days. Not surprisingly, he is pleased that he played in an era in which players could still be themselves.

"One day I was playing against David Hookes in Tasmania when I was about 20," he says. "I threw a mock punch at him on the field, Hookesy ducked for cover. Some of the stuff Hoggy [Rodney Hogg] and Lillee said - it was brilliant stuff. But these days you can't say a word. You can't even look at an umpire like you're disappointed, or you're fined. They've taken all the characters out of the game. People want them but how can you be a character if you're not allowed to show any emotion?"

A barrel-chested fast bowler who compares his style of bowling with that of Peter Siddle, McCurdy was the type of man who could run in all day without dropping his pace. He was good enough to take 305 first-class wickets, plus plenty on the rebel tours, including 6 for 67 in Johannesburg either side of Christmas Day 1986.

McCurdy has fond memories of the rebel matches. He recalls breaking Clive Rice's foot with a yorker in a one-day game, only to watch Rice bat on and win the game for South Africa. "After that I just had so much respect for the guy," he says. "We had the game won but he turned it around and they won it."

Rice would eventually play three ODIs for South Africa when they were readmitted to international cricket. McCurdy's official international career never went beyond the 11 ODIs he played in early 1985, before he signed the deal that would change his life.

"Would I change it? Probably not, no. Did we ever think we would live in South Africa? No, we didn't. But we've had a good time here. The people are great and the lifestyle is fantastic.

"Everyone likes to say, 'At least I played one Test.' I suppose we can always live in dreams of what could have been. But it hasn't happened and I've got to live with that. I've certainly enjoyed my time here. It's been great fun."

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo