Although I haven’t always hated sport, it’s never been a pastime to which I have been naturally drawn. My early Primary School teacher, Mrs Jolly, was so convinced that I would end up a scientist that she allowed me to miss out on Phys Ed class so that I could sit in the classroom and read about primates or geology. And I can recall my mother berating me for not wanting to join my father kick a soccer ball around in the park. I liked dinosaurs and space ships. Sport just didn’t interest me.
But later on in Primary School things changed. I found myself in a group that hung around the sports equipment Store Room. During lunch and recess breaks, it was our responsibility to ensure that equipment was borrowed and returned according to School Policy. It was a position of tremendous power. All of the boys in this group were athletically inclined and played sport whenever possible. I joined them in games of cricket during summer, and football or soccer in winter.
I never excelled in these games, but I also wasn’t totally hopeless. I had good reflexes. I could move quickly and catch or kick a ball without too much difficulty. My problem was not physical – it was psychological. What I lacked was a competitive nature. If there was a fight over the ball, an argument about rules, or any sort of disagreement, I would just back down or walk away. I was not the sort of person to start cheering if we were winning, or cursing if we lost. I didn’t care enough.
Eventually, I decided that cricket was the sport for me. It did not involve much, if any, physical contact. It seemed relaxed and civilized. My best friend at the time, Kevin, had reached a similar conclusion so, for a couple of summers, we took our cricket very seriously. We practiced all day every day, regardless of the heat, and sometimes continued well into the evening. Some nights we would still be trying to bat and bowl in near darkness. There were no cricket nets in our neighbourhood, so we practiced on the concrete cricket pitch in the middle of a nearby school oval. There was only the two of us – a bowler and a batsman – no wicketkeeper. If the batsman were to miss the ball it would continue hurtling away behind them, eventually trickling to a stop near the far edge of the oval. We took turns fetching the ball. On a bad day we would spend the whole time running after the ball.
I was similarly keen to practice on my own, and spent hours hitting a tennis ball against the side of our house. At one point I decided I was going to be the new Jeff Thomson and would bowl an actual cricket ball at a strip of brickwork near the back door. If I missed the brickwork the ball would thunder into the door, to the horror of my mother, who would be working in the kitchen on the other side. By the end of that summer, there was a sizeable dent in the door and the wall was dotted with red marks.
My cricket phase culminated in the joining of a local team. Neither Kevin nor I were good enough to make the top league, but we just scraped into a ‘B’ team, a motley collection of nerds and misfits not deemed worthy of the ‘real’ team. I should have realized that things were not going to turn out well when I ended up in hospital after the first practise. I was sent to field at mid-on, and found myself facing the afternoon sun. I didn’t see the ball. Apparently, I didn’t even move my arms to shield myself. One minute I was standing, the next I was on the ground. Both of my eyes swelled up so badly that I could barely open them. When I got home later that evening my mother, convinced I would never see again, burst into tears.
After a couple of weeks, I went back to practise, and played my first game a few weeks after that. I didn’t get to bowl. I fielded at fine leg or third man. And I batted at 10 or 11. Then, the following week, someone else took my place and I watched from the boundary. This continued for most of the season. I played a couple of games, took two off, played another one, and so on. I think my highest score was about 16. Kevin did not fare much better, but at least the rest of the team knew his name. I was just this anonymous skinny kid that turned up to every practice but never got to do anything.
Once again, I don’t think my poor performance really had anything to do with ability. Given a decent chance and I probably would have done well. But the opportunity for me to bat or bowl came along so rarely that I invariably ‘froze’ and either bowled badly or got out immediately. And while cricket was not a contact sport, and did not require overt physical aggression, it did require an aggressive nature of sorts – a sense of competitiveness. The loudest kids got to bat first and bowled all game long. It didn’t matter that they were not all that good. If they were ‘pushy’ they got their way.
Kevin and I dropped out of the team after that one season, and I eventually gave up my dreams of becoming the new Jeff Thomson. My mother might have been disappointed, but I’m sure she didn’t miss the sound of the cricket ball smashing against the kitchen door.