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Feature

The day my surrogate son made me proud (sort of)

What is the appropriate emotion to feel when your boy is hitting you for runs in a fathers v sons game?

The Grade Cricketer
04-Nov-2017
A view of the Carlton v Fitzroy Doncaster match, November 29, 2014

A Carlton v Fitzroy Doncaster first grade game*  •  Scott Barbour/Getty Images

One of the things I discovered I missed most about playing cricket was the stories. The banter, if you'll excuse me using that tired term that Australian and English men are so fond of (it goes without saying that the rate at which a bloke uses the word 'banter' is inversely proportional to the number of times he actually performs a witty exchange). Every good cricket team has a premier storyteller, a genuine raconteur who can tell a ripping yarn and leave the other ten blokes in hysterics.
And for much of my grade cricket career, that person was Bretty.
Last time I'd seen Bretty he was about to head off for yet another English summer. The usual informal arrangement with a mediocre village team: flight and accommodation sorted, a pound a run, substantial bar tab subsidy included. It's funny how the deals haven't evolved over the years, but to be fair, neither have the blokes. I'd asked a couple of my old cricket mates whether he was still over there, still tearing up the UK circuit with the fearsome intensity of a thousand suns, but no one knew where he was or what he was doing. He could easily have been dead, perhaps having pushed things a little too hard after a match-winning 30 not out.
I'd arranged to meet Bretty at his 'new digs' (his words, not mine). The suburb surprised me - he appeared to be residing in an exclusive, high-income postcode. I assumed he was either housesitting for a more successful mate or staying at a five-star rehab facility, so I didn't give it too much more thought. I walked up the long battleaxe driveway and pressed the doorbell.
'Championship!' he bellowed, pulling me into his chest for a bear hug, as if I'd just taken the key wicket in a second-grade semifinal.
'G'day, Bretty!'
'Come in, mate, make yourself at home,' he motioned towards the leather couch.
I hadn't seen Bretty for a good eighteen months, but he hadn't aged a day. That thick thatch of hair, the impressive bicep circumference, that famous twinkle in his eyes. He was wearing a Mossimo singlet and white underpants (no pants), a look that for most people would immediately scream 'remote coastal town rapist', but somehow managed to work well on him. All the things that made him such a loveable character, and the lifeblood of any grade cricket team, were thankfully still on show.
Some of the other fathers suggested I be given a reprieve for getting out first ball, but Dad wasn't having any of it. In retrospect, it was probably a bit over the top for him to point aggressively towards the pavilion and order me to 'pack 'em, champ'
'So, mate, any good circuit stories to share?'
A mischievous grin lit up his face. Just as he was about to answer, a black Range Rover swung into the driveway and out hopped four boys and a slim, dark-haired woman positively dripping in Prada. Half her face was covered by enormous bug-eyed sunglasses that seemed tinted to match the Range Rover windows. She power-walked towards the door as the children tumbled along ahead of her, a quartet of dark-featured scruffiness. I turned back to Bretty as she fumbled with the house keys.
'Mate, is that . . .'
'Yeah, that's Simone,' Bretty said. 'We got hitched two months back.'
In swept Simone and the boys.
'Darl, do you remember this bloke?' Bretty called, thumbing crudely towards me.
'Ah, of course! Hello lovely, how are you?' Simone exclaimed, heaving the groceries onto the counter and prancing over, her high heels click-clacking on the marble floor--click-clack, clickity-clack--to proffer a pretentious European-style two-kiss greeting.
'I'm good, thanks. Wow, congratulations!' I managed, still mentally computing the fact that Bretty--the former Chop King of our cricket club--was presumably now the legal stepfather to four young boys.
The kids bounded upstairs together, their little footsteps almost in perfect sync.
'Sooo, has Bretty asked you yet?'
I was confused. 'Asked me what?'
Simone smiled.
'Well, we've got a wedding next weekend up in Brissy, but Jaxon, our eleven-year-old, has his father and son cricket match on. We can't miss the wedding, but Jaxy needs someone to go as his dad.'
'Yeah, that's right,' Bretty interjected. 'I don't suppose there's any chance you could step in for me, mate?'
'What, play on the fathers' team?'
'Yeah, that's right. It's just 20 overs a side - Fathers XI vs the Sons XI. Don't go too hard on them!' he joked, adding a wink as punctuation.
I'd be doing Bretty a solid here, nothing more.
What harm can it do?
'Sure. What time should I pick him up?'

****

Ross McGrath was the self-appointed skipper for the Fathers XI. The founder and CEO of a tier-two telecommunications company servicing the corporate and government markets, Ross was just one of several high-flying businessmen on our team. This was a private school, after all, and I was playing alongside captains of industry - CEOs, CFOs, COOs - all on $250k-plus, at the very least. I was one of just three players not currently serving on a company board. I made a mental note to take advantage of these networking opportunities during the lunch break.
The Sons XI won the toss and had elected to bat. It was a beautiful morning - low twenties, a gentle south-easterly breeze blowing across the field. On so many occasions throughout my fledgling grade cricket career I'd stepped out onto the field on a brutal 43-degree day, wishing I was somewhere else, but today, in these beautiful surrounds, and without the self-imposed pressure of personal expectation, I found myself enjoying the serenity. I half-expected a car full of morons to hoon past and break the silence with a perfectly timed 'HOWZAT' - or perhaps an even cruder 'CRICKET'S SHIT' - but here I was, miles from the nearest grade cricket ground, in an area ranked among the state's highest for relative socioeconomic advantages, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' five-yearly census of population and housing.
The match was humming along nicely. The kids were a few wickets down now, having earlier cashed in on one particularly poor spell of bowling by Milton Hendricks, a senior counsel who specialised in a variety of different areas of law, most notably intellectual property and consumer protection. Despite his extensive commercial experience and involvement in some of Australia's most prominent IP cases in recent years, Milton Hendricks was completely useless with ball in hand. I could barely contain my laughter as Timmy Ashcroft - eleven-year-old son of Michael 'Mick' Ashcroft, a senior investment banker at one of Australia's 'Big Four' - peeled five straight boundaries off him. It beggared belief that someone could be so professionally distinguished yet lack any sort of physical coordination whatsoever.
I was thrown the ball in about the twentieth over. I measured out my run-up - six steps back and two across - and paused at the top of my mark. I came in for my first delivery, a generously flighted full toss. Timmy stepped forward and drove it straight to cover, where his investment banker father, Mick, dropped an absolute sitter. It was obvious that he'd grassed it deliberately, judging by the histrionics.
'Sorry, champion! Too much heat on that one - did well to get a hand on it!' he called over from cover.
He scurried down the pitch and slid his bat into the crease before turning back for the second run, easily making his ground. A strange familial pride overwhelmed me
I smiled sarcastically and returned to my mark for my second delivery. This one slipped down leg, allowing Timmy to swivel on his heels and punish it for four.
'Wow, great shot! Cash in on the loose stuff, son!' Mick called from cover. He was really taking the piss now.
Timmy worked my next delivery in front of square for a single, which brought his batting partner on strike, some nameless kid. I lobbed up another loopy off spinner to him and he dollied it back to me. I sheepishly accepted the catch. The mid-wicket congregation was different - there was no 'yiewing' to mark the dismissal, nor was there an aggressive send-off for the young batsman. He'd played a terrible shot and had paid the ultimate price. In grade cricket his shot would have been met with mock laughter - it was unheard of to burgle a cheap wicket and not humiliate the batsman straight afterwards. But these were kids, after all, and we were adults. Fathers, even. We knew better than to do that.
My wicket brought Jaxy - my 'son' - to the crease. At first glance he appeared a highly organised young cricketer. He was wearing his thigh pad on the inside, for a start, which endeared him to me greatly. Most kids under the age of twelve wear their thigh pads on the outside, which always causes me a certain amount of anguish whenever I happen to come across a juniors' net session. In I came for my first delivery to Jaxy, a drifting off spinner with a hint of overspin, only to watch him dance down the wicket and clip me elegantly wide of mid-on. He scurried down the pitch and slid his bat into the crease before turning back for the second run, easily making his ground. A strange familial pride overwhelmed me.
Jaxy can play. My 'son' can play!
My next ball was faster, but Jaxy was into position early. With all the time in the world, he leaned back and played a deft late cut past first slip, which sped along the freshly manicured grass and all the way to the boundary. A burst of hearty applause rang out from the pavilion, mostly from the mothers who'd come along to support this good-natured family occasion.
I was trying to establish some eye contact with Jaxy, trying to suss him out, but he was resolutely focused, determined. In truth, I was reminded of the way I used to bat - back before years of harsh personal sledging had stolen my innocence and left me emotionally bruised, unable to clear my mind and focus on hitting runs. I was impressed, but also a little embarrassed that my 'son' was taking care of business with such clinical precision.
'Your kid can play, can't he?' McGrath yelled over from slip.
I instantly flashed back to my own Fathers vs Sons match in my final year of primary school. I was the school's star batsman, a dashing player of promise with the cricketing world at my feet. I arrived to the crease just as Dad had come into the attack. Having faced him thousands of times both in the nets and in the backyard, I knew Dad's bowling inside and out. At the same time, I knew that should I lose my wicket to him, he'd never let me live it down.
Dad had brought three men - literal men, adults ranging in age from mid-thirties to mid-fifties - in around the bat, creating Hitchcock-like suspense, before casually ambling in to produce one of the most stunning deliveries I've ever faced to this day: a devastating off cutter that pitched on a good length and violently jagged back to clip my off bail. This was my equivalent of the Gatting Ball in the 1993 Ashes series, and Dad was Warney, lapping up his victory with oafish glee. In my defence, it was the first off cutter I had ever faced in my young life, since, generally speaking, eleven-year-old seam bowlers are yet to develop their wrists and fingers to the extent that they can successfully impart sideways movement. Some of the other fathers suggested I be given a reprieve for getting out first ball, but Dad wasn't having any of it. In retrospect, it was probably a bit over the top for him to point aggressively towards the pavilion and order me to 'pack 'em, champ', but he'd been made redundant earlier that week, so I can't hold it against him for wanting to blow off a bit of steam.
To make things worse, Dad still brings this story up every Christmas without fail, exaggerating certain details around the delivery and its general unplayability. Later that match, Dad proceeded to smack my pre-teen teammates to all parts of the ground on his way to an unbeaten 50-odd. Lofted drives, full-blooded pulls, each six bigger than the last. To make things worse, he had a habit of shouting 'shit ball' whenever he punished a particularly yuck delivery (a technique he'd picked up during our regular net sessions, which he claimed was all about encouraging me to bowl better). Our opening bowler, Nicholas Thornton, ran to the pavilion in tears after Dad's third consecutive six, a towering maximum that seemed to hang in the air for months before eventually settling on the roof of the PE centre and was accompanied by a maniacal laugh that echoed around the otherwise silent ground. Like so many kids that day, that was to be Nicholas's last season of cricket.
I vowed to myself that I would be a gracious surrogate parent to Jaxon. Yes, I was a former grade cricketer--and I'd wear that unfortunate tag until the day I died--but those days were over now, and I refused to be defined by my past. I'd grown a lot, emotionally speaking, since my retirement from grade cricket. In that eighteen-month period, I'd managed to successfully reassimilate into normal society. I had a full-time job. A girlfriend. A two-bedroom apartment seven kilometres from the city centre. Yes, I had recently lost all of those things, but still, the fact that I had been able to accumulate them at some point surely meant something in terms of my personal development, didn't it? This was my opportunity to break the cycle of generational dysfunction. No, I would not obliterate Jaxy's self-esteem for my own selfish kicks, as Dad had done to me. I completed my over without incident and patted Jaxy on the back and told him to 'go on with it'.
After all, this day wasn't about me; it was about little Jaxy. Or something.
*November 4, 1335GMT: The caption was tweaked to remove the mention of Sydney

The Grade Cricketer's new book, Tea and No Sympathy, published by Allen and Unwin, is out now