IN OCTOBER, ALONG with the arrival of the first Christmas beetle and the distorted tunes of far-off Mr Whippy vans, I hear the unmistakable sounds of breaking voices uniting in messy appeals and anxious relatives yelling out, "Hit it, Simon, you idiot", which signals to me that another season of junior cricket has begun.
Pick up any metaphorical rock on any oval in any part of suburban Australia during summer and you'll find the complex world of junior cricket. During my eight years as manager of my cousin's son's cricket team, I experienced this world first-hand. I tasted all the food groups: success, failure and frustration, and I was confronted with the quandary that's intrinsic to the game of cricket – should one play this game fairly
or to win?
Cricket is a complex game with its fusion of time, skill and variables (like weather) to test the resolve of the human spirit. Unlike other sports, where there are few options to alter the course of a match, in cricket you can move fieldsmen, change bowlers and use the conditions to increase a feeling of insecurity in rivals. It has been said that cricket is almost as complex as Greek tragedy. For mine, cricket, especially junior cricket, is far more complicated than any theatre I've seen. Theatre is just people over 30 pretending to be other people. The only time theatre comes alive is when someone forgets his or her lines and there's panic onstage. Cricket is a multi-layered endurance test that pushes folks to the outer reaches of their limits.
UNDER EVERY PIECE of shade, in places where sandwiches are covered in flies seconds after being unwrapped, where the style of chair you use can determine your place in the pride, people who would never socialise are thrown together with only one thing in common: their children play cricket for the same team. Every weekend, parents everywhere wake up their children, load the family car with more provisions than Scott of the Antarctic and head off to barren fields in far-off suburbs where glory, disappointment and heat await in equal portions. In smelly pavilions where the toilets are always locked, perched under cruelly distended gum trees on featureless fields next to highways, families gather to watch their charges stoop and soar. Some make it an occasion, producing magical "hat style" meals from inside their tiny blue coolers. Less committed parents arrive and depart throughout the day like breeding birds with Hungry Jack's, Macca's or Portuguese chicken. Some view Saturday morning cricket as a babysitter, so they can slump at nearby cafés to soothe a hangover or catch up on some lost sexual opportunities without the children interfering. Some parents push their children out of the car while it's still moving just to create a little more time for themselves.
A junior-cricket manager needs to know what the expectations of the parents are before he or she can manage a team. For instance, are the parents ambitious? Are they sticklers for detail, demanding information on pieces of recycled paper? Are they missing-in-action parents, always making managers wait with their child long after the game has finished? Are they executive-style parents who storm onto a ground mid-game and demand their child leave immediately because they're late for an important meeting and they're double-parked? There is nothing more dangerous than doting parents: those creatures that patrol the sidelines in searing heat without hats or sunscreen just to be directly behind their prince's bowling arm.
Managers must recognise the different types of parents because they have different needs. Parents of talented kids want to win and they expect their offspring to open the bowling and batting, field in slips and be captain. Parents of less talented children say: "Who cares about winning? Just give everyone a go." They'd love to have a talented kid but they don't, so they cover their frustration by being helpful, putting out the cones to mark the boundary, scoring, praising everyone who doesn't get praised. If a manager doesn't manage these parents carefully, towards the end of the season frustration can build to volcanic proportions and in one cataclysmic moment they vent their spleen. "How come my boy never bats in the top four? We paid our $75 like everyone else." NB Embarrassment causes scarring that can last a lifetime. What does a manager do in this situation? Is it best to be honest? I could never say to a fuming parent: "Dale doesn't get a go because if he did we'd always lose." Then again, I was also a largely unsuccessful manager. NB A manager who has exaggerated his or her cricketing pedigree to gain respect must never bat or bowl in front of the children. If a child sees a lack of skill you'll be viewed differently forever more.
MANY CHILDREN BEGIN their love affair with cricket when they start watching it on television or when their parents encourage them to play. I've even heard of parents placing a cricket ball in the crib of their sleeping infant to foster a love for the game. Like ducklings, children imprint themselves on heroes and copy them, be it Dad, a brother or Brett Lee, bowling over after over in hallways and sunrooms with paper balls covered in sticky tape. Inside their homes they're the best in the world, reaching milestone after milestone. Then they progress into parks and play Test matches against unwilling parents. Older people strolling by will often stop to encourage youngsters with a spark: "Gee, Mum, with shots like that he'll play for Australia one day." With this encouragement ringing in their ears even the more hesitant parents suddenly entertain the idea that their offspring may have something a little special.
The morning of that first real match is an exciting time. Every child is full of confidence and spilling over with dreams. All the parents are expectant as well, enthusiastically telling club officials: "My son can catch a ball. Even when we throw it at him really hard he still catches it." There's always a club official, with his pants pushed low and a paunch like a cab driver, lurking about telling everyone he's a champion. This crumb of praise is often enough to make a child turn up week after week. However, it's when a child realises that there are four better players in the team, and when his team plays other teams, the other team has four better players than his team's four best players, that's when his hopes of playing for Australia fade. Cricket is cruel, after all it is a by-product of the English public school system where fair play is outwardly encouraged, but deep down we know it's about class.
This moment is a crossroads for parents, too. Do they keep encouraging their children or do they spare them the humiliation of continuing in a game that they're not very good at it? Some parents keep the dream alive by getting their child coached. The expectation that coaching brings can often amplify the pain caused by a lack of success. Some parents just can't face the truth. Take the parents of the little plump boy. Their boy is lovely; the parents are lovely, polite, enthusiastic and happy to pick up anyone who needs a lift. Sadly, their little boy's legs and splayed feet won't carry him fast enough, nor does his bat ever seem to hit the ball. When he plays, the groans from opposition and team-mates make you wish he'd quit. But every week he turns up, along with his smiling parents, with that slight look of dread percolating under his soft brown eyes.
And let's not forget the gun player because without him you'd never win. Parents of the gun player are above reproach. They're the only ones who can openly criticise tactics and selections because no coach or manager will ever drop a gun player, not if he or she wants to win. And of course there's also the manager's cousin's son, often the fourth – or fifth-best player. Since he's a relative he spends more time with the coach and gets to read correspondence from the committee, so he knows stuff – and secrets and gossip are the currency of power.
THIS QUANDRY OF weather to play fairly or win at all costs confronted me when I was the under-12s manager and our team made the semis for the first time. It was a strange year because for the first time we had a gifted player in the side and I was unsure how to manage gifted players. Like most Australians, I'm better equipped to manage losing teams or teams made up of average players. In other words, I'm comfortable with mediocrity. Admittedly, without our gifted player we would not have won many games but everyone would have had more of go if he wasn't there. Nevertheless, I do think that most boys took some pride in the success of our team that year. Anyway, three rounds prior to the semis, while fudging a few late registration forms, I discovered that our gun player was over age – not by much but enough to be ineligible. Now the quandary for me as manager was clear, do I drop him or do I play him? Do I let the team get humiliated or do I play to win?
It's history now but I decided to play him and what's more it paid off because no one found out and we won the semi. He was extraordinary, 90 runs off 60 balls and then he took four wickets in eight overs. However, during the week leading up to the final, like it was fate, the gun player broke his arm playing AFL for his school. I was devastated. It was as if my decision to cheat had caused this catastrophe.
But in the final we went extremely well without him. We got the other team out for 155 off 55 overs, a very gettable target indeed. Thanks to a wonderful partnership between the coached chap and our wristy unconfident Pakistani player, we chased brilliantly. Without the gun player around, the Pakistani chap was suddenly supremely confident and achieved his first-ever 50. The coached boy also hit them beautifully.
It was extraordinary, in one week the entire balance of the team had changed. The space occupied by the gun player had been covered over by all this new growth, like a jungle reclaiming a temporary clearing for an airstrip. Even when the Pakistani was tragically run out, which triggered a mini collapse, such was our resolve that day that we recovered. In one of the most exciting finishes I can remember in junior cricket, the little plump boy (the first time he'd batted) and the overly coached chap needed just 10 runs in two overs. It was extraordinary. All the parents folded away their chairs and were up on their feet; the kids, who never took any interest in each other's performances, huddled together like new puppies in a box, urging our last two batsmen onwards to victory. Unfortunately, the well-coached chap was bowled three short of his maiden 50, leaving the little plump boy on one not out, and we lost. Even though the plump boy finished the year without an average (you need to get out to have one) at least he could say he went the entire season without being dismissed.