'We've tried to hold up a mirror to grade cricket and see how people react'
Over the past four years, online followers of the game have enjoyed a humorous yet often telling insight into the mind of an Australian cricketer through the @gradecricketer Twitter account. Its authors have remained anonymous, but now thanks to a new book they have outed themselves. Ian Higgins, Dave Edwards and Sam Perry talk about their persona, grade cricket down under and the Australian cricket mindset.
So how did it get started?
Sam Perry: We've all known each other through cricket for a long time. Dave and Higgo went to school together, I went to uni and played cricket with Dave, these guys played junior cricket together.
The actual logistics behind it was, I started the Twitter account alone on the back of an article I wrote in late 2012 - "How to make it in grade cricket" - that got some interest from people. Gideon [Haigh] wrote back to it, which was exciting. I started the account for my own entertainment and after a while I wanted to share it. I asked the guys, gave them the password and we just Whatsapp ideas and come up with content.
Dave Edwards: It was something generated from when we played grade cricket together. There's so many things that you see, so many moments where you elbow the guy next to you and ask, "Why's he doing that?" Going to school, we all had a similar humour, and hopefully that shines through.
Now that you've got a style established enough to build into a book, have you found yourselves looking back at the early tweets and wondered "What was that?"
Perry: Definitely. The voice has definitely developed. We've shaped it a lot more tightly over the years. The basic premise of the unspoken rules of grade cricket and the way it operates hasn't really changed. Some of the dysfunction that sits underneath it and isn't spoken about is always shining through.
Do you feel it shares anything in common with concepts like The Secret Footballer or Fake IPL player?
Perry: That's the anonymity, I guess. The thing with us was that we wanted to keep it anonymous because cricket at grade level is a really incestuous thing, so as soon as somebody found out who it was, it would just degenerate and discolour the character a little bit.
The idea of the character is everyone can see themselves or someone they know in it. The anonymity was just to protect the integrity of the character… and also our jobs, which is something we have to deal with now we've outed ourselves.
Edwards: At the same time we're not anybody notable. We're just three guys who played a bit of grade cricket here and there.
Ian Higgins: I think a lot of people wanted it to be Kerry O'Keeffe or Damien Fleming. A lot of people tweet us saying, "Give it up, cock, we know it's you", and stuff like that. I think it detracts from it if we're too visible - we're just three blokes from the internet. That's all we are and all we ever will be.
What do you do in your day jobs?
Higgins: I work at Foxtel, in the music department at Channel V.
Edwards: I'm in international sales, distributing sport and television content to Asia.
Perry: I'm in corporate communications.
Given how your audience has grown, and doubtless your feedback, have you ever tweeted any suggestions from your followers, or does it all have to come from you?
Edwards: A lot of high-profile guys, actual Test cricketers, with things they can't say themselves, will get in touch with the Grade Cricketer and say, "I've got a really good idea for a tweet." Sometimes we're just awestruck at who they are, but that's pretty rare. We get a lot of stuff that we wouldn't put out there.
Edwards: The reluctance to retweet everything is also in character for the Grade Cricketer, because he's trying to be alpha. He doesn't want to give someone else a plug, because he's deeply insecure.
Malcolm Knox's cricket novel, A Private Man, has a character called Chris Brand, who seems to come from a very similar place. There's a hard surface, but there's a darkness or uncertainty underneath that must be hidden at all costs.
Edwards: It's a thin veneer, that front. Grade Cricketer's all about being the most alpha version of yourself as possible at all costs, so in the book you get a lot of access to the internal monologue of the Grade Cricketer. The tweets indicate that as well, but the book draws that out even more. It's really just a classic case of a guy in his late 20s struggling with his own masculinity, his own place in society, and this is just the society of grade cricket.
Perry: People will interpret it differently. A lot of people just take the jokes on surface value and think it's jock cricket. Others will see some commentary in here. What we've tried to do is hold up a little bit of a mirror to grade cricket and see how people react to that.
Are you outing yourselves as far as revealing where you played?
Perry: I was at Norths and Balmain, then for a brief time at St Kilda, when I moved to Melbourne. Any success I had as a junior was as a legspinner. I had the same experience so many others had, of not being good enough and getting the yips. I just learned how to bat. I've always felt like a fraud as a bat, but that's what I did. I still feel my identity is as a legspinner.
Edwards: I grew up at Gordon, started there, played at Norths, then played a little bit with Prahran in Melbourne. I started out as a seam bowler who batted a bit, then a batsman who bowled a bit, then a guy who batted No. 8 and didn't bowl.
Higgins: I'm still playing at Gordon, one-club man. It counts for nothing. I'm a batsman. I've got one grade wicket next to my name, definitely the highlight. I think it'd surprise you if we were three bowlers. Batting is a different mindset and it's funnier, I think. More paranoia.
This summer we published a piece by Tom Morris, who plays at St Kilda, about the inner struggles of James Muirhead after his rapid rise to Australian selection. I've heard it said that there's no sport where you spend more time lost in your own thoughts?
Edwards: And you can't let go of any of your anger, because it's a non-contact sport. It's a 100% mental game, so you're always grappling with so many emotions.
Higgins: I find the funny thing about grade cricket is that everyone's fighting the same battle. Everyone in the opposition is like "F*** these blokes" or "Who are we playing this week, oh the Tigers, they're f****** c****", and they're saying the exact same thing about you. But if you met them away from the game you'd be like, "I had a coffee with him the other day, really nice guy." But in grade cricket you have to hate them, and you don't know why.
Perry: Cricket's that kind of game where it's almost at odds with society, in that we're being taught more and more to express ourselves and share our dreams and feelings. But in cricket there's such a pervading culture in Australia of never telling anybody what your dreams are. If you say, "I want to play for Australia", the game will bite you on the bum and nobody will respect that, so you keep it all to yourself.
Edwards: That's why we dedicated the book to anyone who thought they might play for Australia, which is everyone.
Another book, John Harms' Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, starts with his own journey as a club cricketer and his journey relative to his own ambitions to play for Australia. He's still convincing himself well into his 20s that it might happen.
Perry: That's the journey of so many cricketers -, how to make sense of why you're still playing at this level even though your dream died. You know logically it did, but I'm still spending 20 hours a week doing it, so what does cricket mean at grade level? There's so many people at grade level who will tell you, "I don't like cricket, but I'm still doing it."
At park level you know that you play for fun. You're choosing to do that. Whereas in grade cricket they haven't opted in, they just can't opt out.
Higgins: One of my first captains was a guy called Trevor Watling. He would just bowl medium pace in fifth grade, keeper up to the stumps, bat at No. 9. He was doing some batting in the nets at Gordon one day. The coach at the time was the NSW batting coach. This coach says to him, "What do you want out of cricket?" This guy's like 33, he'd just lost his job with CityRail. He looked this NSW batting coach in the eye and said, "I think I can still play for NSW."
We were playing against St George and they chased our mediocre 160. They were four down needing about five runs and then we got two wickets in two balls. I was keeping at the time and he [Watling] ran down past me and yelled, "We are not losing this game." Next ball, waist-high full toss, six, game over.
Edwards: You're always hopeful you could be in second grade this week, four weeks left until Christmas, and you could still make the Boxing Day Test if you make four double-hundreds.
Higgins: It's so easy to move up the grades to second grade, but when you get there, the biggest gap in cricket is from second to first grade, and then from first grade to NSW is quite a big gap!
Do you think what you're doing will make the mindset of the Australian cricketer better understood to players and followers of the game from other countries? You find consistently at international level there are moments when opposing teams wonder: "Why are they like this?"
Edwards: There's a chapter where he goes and spends a season in England and it directly contrasts the ruthless Australian mentality with the polite gentlemen in English cricket. We do that quite explicitly.
The players who come over to Australia and play grade cricket or other forms when they're young, because they see it at that level, they understand the mindset. It's the ones who don't have any contact with Australia until they play international cricket who wonder what's going on.
Higgins: I think it definitely goes way beyond the cricket field. It's just Australian men. I think a lot of people focus on the sledging. It's so aggressive in Australia, whereas in England, someone called me a "jammy bastard" once when I nicked one through gully. If that happened in Australia two balls in a row, you'd be hearing, "You're a f****** c***, I hate you". You can say that on a suburban cricket field wearing white clothes, but you can't say that at your job.
Matthew Hayden said recently on sledging that it was always very clear to him - no racial or religious vilification.
Higgins: That leaves a lot else.
Perry: I think there's a belief in Australian cricket that you mustn't show weakness or vulnerability at any cost. The stronger your veneer, physically or mentally, or the less friendly you can create an atmosphere, the better cricket you'll play. And I can only deduce it's because these players themselves have experienced unfriendliness on the field and they don't like it. It's just not a friendly game. They think there's a professional edge to that.
Perry: It's hyper-professional. What edge can you bring to give little advantages? Losing that friendliness is a part of that. I don't necessarily think that's moral or right, but it's definitely how Australians play cricket.
Higgins: There's no evolution in grade cricket. You might go in there as a 17- or 18-year-old kid and you'll see a 35-year-old bank manager who is sledging a 15-year-old, and you think, "That's just what you do in grade cricket." So you start doing that yourself and you become that guy. In the book we're self-aware enough to ask, "Why am I telling this 15-year-old he's terrible to make me feel good about myself?" We try to, anyway.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig