Last Saturday, bleak but rainless, a Test bowler bowled eight overs from the Ralph's Meat Company Grandstand end of Toorak Park. And because this bowler was a Test bowler - Bryce McGain - an elderly couple in windcheaters on a park bench behind the bowler's arm stopped talking, and bent their two heads forward, expecting… magic?
Bryce's Test, just the one Test, happened in Cape Town three years earlier. In a break in play Michael Clarke, who'd been fielding at slip, said: "You're so close, Bryce, so close." Bryce bowled 108 balls that game. None were wicket-taking and nearly a quarter clunked into or cleared advertising boards: savage stick, of seldom-seen dimensions, but that did not make Clarke's words banter or empty well-meaningness. You can count up to infinity, any minute of play, the unlikely yet imaginable scenarios by which a wicket might fall. Rare is the falling wicket that does not alter a game's mood. So to be bowling - to be not yet dragged out of the attack - is by definition to be "so close".
One ball in Cape Town, Bryce's 13th, still sits in his head, a legbreak, nicely flighted, tempting Ashwell Prince to scurry down and hack at it. Prince swivelled - a split second's fright - and watched. The ball looped over backward point's head. Worse: upon evading the fieldsman's clutches, it bounced away for four.
There was a ball, Bryce's 15th, at Toorak Park on Saturday that spat out of his hand and skidded, nearly grubbering, a topspinner, and in a whirl of pads and bat Bryce yelped out an appeal for lbw or caught behind. Not out. Bryce crept uncomplainingly back to the top of his run-up. Before turning again, his face crinkled a little, and his eyes closed.
When he was picked for Australia three years ago he missed the connecting flight from Melbourne to Sydney and landed in South Africa the morning after everyone else. What was that? It's a pretty important plane flight in your life. Was that… something? Someone I know went for a job recently and after much tugging of instincts at an educational institution. This person dreaded the box-ticking and hoop-jumping of being at an educational institution but they could do with the fixed income. Then the day of the interview came and she drove to the wrong campus.
Magic was not on the bowler's mind at the Ralph's Meat Company Grandstand end. Bryce's way is patience. He mixes his trajectory, keeps batsmen adjusting and readjusting, and in the over after that shooting topspinner it almost worked. A clumsy drive, then a wail of "catch it"; a pull and a miss; another miscued drive screwing to Bryce's left. "Bryce-ee!" his team-mates cried. By now we were late into the first afternoon of a two-day district semi-final, Prahran hosting Dandenong, Prahran's batsmen long-gone for 119 and Dandenong plodding up into the 60s, the openers still in.
Next ball, Bryce tossed high.
The batsman blocked back carefully.
Bryce hopped an eager jig.
Something seemed about to break.
But already the umpire was yanking hands out of pockets and calling "Over".
Bryce likes to feel the ball in his palms, motioning for it to be hurled his way when a team huddle splits up. If he is not bowling he looks after the shine on the ball. He plucks a white towel out of his tucked-in trousers to mop away some greasiness. He is thin - not a cricket player's build, an entomology professor's - so thin the sight of him takes a while getting used to. Every move is gentle. He is no big spinner of a cricket ball, and the longer he bowled the less cagey Dandenong's batsmen grew about deflecting him into gaps. When somebody was needed to clamber over the fence and scrape the sightscreen along its metal rails in readiness for the new bowler, a young offspinner, it was Bryce who did the clambering and scraping. No one much noticed that the bowler who the young offie was replacing was Bryce.
In the occasional interviews he gives - including a warm one with journalist Ken Piesse - tinges of confusion, never bitterness, seep out about Cape Town. The coach had cautioned him pre-series about not over-drinking or socialising. That dumbfounded Bryce. Who, he thought - me? His selection for that Test was a secret to him till 75 minutes before play. Others, he says, were aware the night before that he'd be playing. After South Africa he experienced an absence of communication. During South Africa he sensed a shortage of trust - also, the team "wanted a certain conformity, for people to be a certain way". He wondered how much of a world beyond cricket the people knew.
Older, worldlier, a big-time cricketer relatively late in life, Bryce is well placed, perhaps, to see cricket's little disappointments for what they are, which is to say, scarcely disappointing at all. Three quarters of the balls he bowled in Cape Town did not go for four or six. When stumps were drawn last Saturday night, Dandenong were 2 for 117. Prahran needed to strangle 8 for 2 or better for a first-innings tie and probable grand final berth - a hopeless cause, but you never know - except when play resumed the captain threw the ball not to the one Test bowler on the park, but to his two quicks.
"The point of a midlife crisis," historian Tony Judt believed, "is to demonstrate continuity with one's youth by doing something strikingly different."
Sounds exciting when you put it like that: anything goes and anything's possible. And when Bryce woke from sleep that morning, Sunday morning, it was his 40th birthday.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country