xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Backyard Cricketers. A dying breed.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Backyard Cricketers. A dying breed.

I may still have the right technique. 2008
But Sophie bats with such style and grace. Aged 6, 2008.

Backyard Cricket
Recently I read “First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them” by Steve Cannane.

It was a very interesting account of the backyard cricket matches played by boys who later became Australian cricket legends. Among them are Sir Donald Bradman, Keith Miller, Denis Lillee, Richie Benaud, the Chappell Brothers, Neil Harvey, Doug Walters, Alan Border, Mike Hussey, Brett Lee, Glen McGrath and Adam Gilchrist.

All of these great cricketers started playing cricket on very primitive pitches in backyards or laneways. The author makes the point that in playing backyard cricket, these future champions experienced aggressive, even dangerous, competition from older siblings and neighbourhood children that would prepare them well for the aggressive cut and thrust of Sheffield Shield and international Test cricket matches.

Not only were backyard games played in a highly competitive spirit, they were played for long periods every day during daylight hours. Martin Chappell, father of the Chappell brothers, played senior grade cricket in Adelaide. He says that in his twenty year career he never faced as many deliveries as any of his boys did in the warlike intensity of their backyard cricket matches. Greg Chappell agrees. He enrolled his two young sons in a local junior cricket competition and said that they used to get to bat once in the nets during the week and then in the game on Saturday. It was nothing like the continuous form of backyard cricket ‘warfare’ that he played with his brothers, Ian and Trevor on every long summer day in Adelaide.

Cannane also makes the point that Australian cricket may be seriously affected by the fact that Australian backyards are not what they used to be. The houses are bigger and the blocks are smaller. And parents are much more managerial of their children’s outdoor activities. Not many children play backyard cricket anymore. Nor, it seems do they play in the local parks. If and when they do play, it is generally in games closely monitored by parents or other adults.

I grew up in an era of free range children, near Birdwood Square in Beaufort Street, right opposite the Brisbane Hotel. On weekends you could not see the grass, as the park was crowded with children playing makeshift cricket or football matches, depending on the season. These days nobody plays in Birdwood Square. In most parks today, the only activity to be seen will be on the adventure playground or the skate board ramps. Not a football or a cricket ball in sight. 

Children now play cricket and football in games that are well organised and supervised by adults. As Cannane points out, this is depriving them of the harsh, but educative playing environments enjoyed by earlier generations, who often played with makeshift gear  with clear, self determined rules of engagement, well away from any parental interference.

So,  “First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them” is a book that makes me appreciate the great sporting debt that we owe to those old time backyard cricket matches that produced so many champion players for our Australian Test team. It also left me wondering why my cousins, Maurie and Raymond Carr, and I, never became champion Test cricketers, for we played backyard cricket for hours on end in the side lane at Number 8, Aberdeen Street.
The lane was a dirt strip that ran down the side of the house. At various stages it had been covered with blue metal and gravel. These stones had now partially subsided into the blue clay soil, which was possibly part of the ancient bed of the Swan River. This meant the ball would often zip off the pitch at an angle or rise up sharply towards the throat and head. It certainly was a tricky wicket. You had to watch the ball carefully as it landed and generally use good footwork to get your feet to the pitch of the ball before it darted off in various directions and at varying heights. 

Maurie always maintained that 20 runs on the side lane pitch was equal to a century at the WACA ground or the MCG. Raymond and I both thought Maurie was being conservative. Ten runs was a ton in our opinion and we raised our bats to the imaginary grandstand whenever we got that far.

I started my backyard cricket career as a very young boy living at 164, Seventh Avenue, in Inglewood where I lived with my parents, my two sisters, my grandmother and my Aunty May and Uncle Ray. Here I actually had the luxury of two cricket pitches to play on, both of them well grassed. One was a grassy driveway that ran from the front fence alongside the front garden and the house. The other was on the wide front verge between two small wattle trees, which indicated both the bowling and batting creases. We marked one wattle tree to indicate three cricket stumps.

The pitch alongside the house was generally only used when there was a large family gathering such as Christmas, family birthdays or when my grandmother was sick and all of her children and their children came to visit. My grandmother had eleven children, so such gatherings meant there was a large number of cousins from which to pick two cricket teams. The most memorable occasion was when my maiden Aunty May came out to play. She was a large lady of about 50 years. To everyone’s surprise she started belting the ball all over the place and had a particularly graceful pull shot past square leg. She reached 22 not out before retiring because she had to go and check on the  Christmas turkey.

The pitch on the verge, well watered by my father, Jack Bourke, was used by all of the boys in the street for what were always Ashes Test Matches between Australia and England. The house fence protected the leg side and fielders took up various positions on the road to cover the off side. There were not many cars in 7th Avenue in those days, when petrol was still rationed. When one did pass by the fielders all went to the closet curb until it was safe to resume.

In 1947, when I was  nine years old, the family, including my grandmother, moved to 8 Aberdeen Street. My father had a block of land in Mt Lawley, but in 1947 building materials were in short supply after the war and he was waiting for a permit to build. So we moved into a two story boarding house managed by my Aunty Millie, the widowed mother of my older cousins, Maurie and Raymond.

Cricket down the side lane, on the bumpy blue metal and gravel pitch, was vastly different from the grassy surfaces I was used to in Inglewood. Also, Maurie and Raymond were a lot older than me, by eight to ten years. They were much older than the boys that I used to play with and their bowling was much faster.

On the leg side stood our grand old two story house with its many rooms. About half way down, at mid on, was the lounge room window, which we strenuously tried to avoid by making sure that we always drove the ball along the ground in that direction. On the off side was a house belonging to Mr and Mrs Mott, in front of which was a wooden picket fence. With a brick wall on one side and picket fence on the other, all of the fielding was taken care of. One of us batted, one bowled and one kept wickets behind whatever wooden fruit box or carton we could find. Lou Pieranami, the greengrocer in Beaufort Street, was pretty generous and often supplied a wooden fruit or vegetable box, especially if it had a couple of loose boards.

We did not have an LBW rule, but you could get out clean bowled or caught. You could also be caught on the rebound off the house wall or the picket fence if the ball hit them on the full, or if it was hit higher than the picket fence and hit the Mott’s wall on the full. To score a single you had to hit the wall or picket fence past lines that were marked about half way back to the bowler. If it went past the bowler it was two and if it went past the wash house, way down the lane, it was four. On the full past the wash house was six. You could bat until you were dismissed and the bowler and the wicket keeper interchanged after every eight balls. Alex and Bobby Slater lived in Number 10, Aberdeen Street, and often joined in our games.

As I mentioned, Maurie and Raymond bowled fairly fast and generally accurate deliveries. I was quite a bit slower, although I was trying to bowl as fast as I could. My bowling hero was Keith Miller. I had seen him play at the WACA in Sheffield Shield matches. I knew all of his mannerisms. I would run in and, as I approached the wicket, I would toss my head back a la Keith Miller and let fly with what I imagined was a thunderbolt delivery. Unfortunately, my only resemblance to Miller was my long black hair. I was not 6 foot two inches tall, I did not have the body of Tarzan or  look like a film star. What is more, my 'thunderbolts' travelled at about half the speed on the Mighty Keith's destructive missives. Still, in my mind, I WAS Keith Miller.

Strangely, Maurie batted left handed and bowled right handed. Quite often, when my dad arrived home from work at about half past five, he would come out and bowl his leg breaks. Naturally, on our stony wicket he achieved a great amount of turn. Dad showed me how to grip the ball for leg spin and off spin breaks. He even showed me how to bowl a 'wrong'un' out of the back of my hand so that it looked like a leg break but actually broke from the off. However, I became best known for my 'apathy ball'. It landed on the pitch and did absolutely nothing. Another of my deliveries was the in-swinging out-swinger. It went dead straight.

At one time Maurie encouraged me to bowl leg breaks. He said a good leg break bowler could get into the Australian Test team and that I showed a lot of promise. That may have been true but I rather think that, as I grew older, my bowling had become faster and he preferred me to bowl slower, well, flighted leg breaks.

Our only real problem with our games was when a ball went between the Mott’s wall and the picket fence. The gap between wall and fence was quite narrow, perhaps no more than fifteen centimteres, or six inches in the old money.

At first I was small enough to climb the fence and lower myself down to fetch the ball. I did not have any room to turn around but could edge along the space to get the ball. However, I was a growing boy and after a cricket season or two I was too big to fit into the gap. We tried to get my sisters, Valerie and Kathleen to take over the very important job of Ball Retriever, but they very wisely found that that they had homework to do, or piano practice, or to bring Grandma a drink or some other activity to attend to.

Maurie and Raymond were quite inventive types and they soon produced a
Ball Retrieval Device that solved our problem. They obtained an old broom handle from the washhouse and one of my father’s old Wild Woodbine tobacco tins. They nailed the bottom half of the rectangular tin to the broom handle and used my Dad’s tin snips to cut the end corners of the tin and fold it down flat, in effect making a very long handled tray or scoop. Whenever a ball went over the fence, Maurie or Raymond would lower the Ball Retrieval Device and, with the delicate skill of a surgeon, slip the tin tray under the ball and bring it to the top of the fence and once more back into play.

Ah, yes, we had endless hours of fun playing cricket down that side lane. However, despite the difficulty of the pitch and our boundless enthusiasm, not to say great skill, none of us finished up playing Test cricket for Australia.

 Maurie didn’t play Test cricket, but became an excellent, very low handicap golfer. He started playing as a left hander. However, when he learned that (up to that time) no left hander had ever won the British Open, he switched to right handed and continued to play with a very low handicap. Years later, when left handed Bob Charles, won the British Open, Maurie switched back to playing left handed and maintained his low handicap.

Raymond didn’t play Test cricket for Australia. However he later became a very skilful hockey goalie for the respected Old Aquinians Hockey Team; he was also a very good good tennis player.

I didn’t play cricket for Australia either. However, when I was fourteen, Alex Slater and I  used to play cricket with several of our friends at Birdwood Square. This had some big advantages over playing in the side lane. We could play on the grass and there were quite a lot of very attractive looking girls playing in the park who used to come and watch us batting, bowling and fielding. Sometimes we even let them join in our game. We lapped up all of this feminine attention, playing as if we were all swashbuckling Keith Millers or dashing Neil Harveys. 

Eventually, with a group of mates, we formed our own team, The Centrals Cricket Club, and played in the Western AustralianTemperance League, an under seventeen competition. We even went into the Perth Sports Store in Barrack Street and had our own blazers made up. I wont say that we looked better than we played but we certainly looked very smart in our blazers. Centrals played for about three years, by which time most of the other fellows were over the age limit and I had been shipped off as a boarder to complete my Leaving Certificate at Aquinas College. 

I had attended Aquinas as a Day Boy for four years and as I had always played cricket for Centrals with my mates each Saturday afternoon, I had never tried for selection in the Aquinas First or Second Eleven sides. When, as a boarder, I turned up at the school’s practice nets one very hot afternoon in February, 1955, many of my classmates looked at me quizzically and wondered why I had opted to try out for the cricket team when I could have been cooling off with the other boarders in the Canning River, near the Aquinas rowing shed.

Well my years of experience down the side lane at Aberdeen Street paid off. I was selected in a team of Possibles and Probables to play in a game to see who would be selected in the Aquinas College  First Eleven. I made it into the First Eleven team and before long I was the opening batsmen.

Maurie and Raymond were both Old Aquinians and they felt my selection was a great honour, only slightly less important than playing for Australia. They even came out to the college with my parents on the Sunday afternoon to watch me play in the Possibles and Probables match. No doubt they both felt totally responsible for any cricketing success that I enjoyed. And quite rightly so!

After I left Aquinas I played two seasons with the Mt Lawley Under 19 side. By then I had my drivers license; the choice between playing cricket under a sweltering sun or being with my mates and our girlfriends at Scarborough Beach was a pretty easy one to make.

So, I was one of the many backyard cricketers who did not make it into the big time cricket arena, but it certainly was a lot of fun. What a shame that the closeted, fussed over present generation of young Australian boys, and girls, does not have the same Free Range fun that was enjoyed so long ago by so many.

1 comment:

  1. I am impressed. I don't think Ive met anyone who knows as much about this subject as you do. You are truly well informed and very intelligent.


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