A good backyard cricket story
It’s no surprise that Australia has dominated international cricket for the past decade. Every one of those exceptionally talented players in the test and one-day squads was moulded by an informal cricket academy as tough as any in the world: Aussie beach and backyard cricket.
The only problem for today’s Aussie world-beaters would have been adjusting to the rules of international cricket. ICC regulations insist on giving batsmen out when the ball raps them on the pads as it heads for the stumps, and they expect fielders to catch the ball on the full instead of one hand off the gum tree. Until recently, our international keepers and slips fieldsmen assumed the umpire’s finger would go up when they’d caught the ball with one hand after it bounced off the turf. For some, like Ian Healy, old habits died hard.
The ICC has made today’s cricketers soft. For starters, they all take off Christmas day, a traditional date for scheduling in a game of backyard cricket, if only to gee you up for the Boxing Day test in Melbourne and make you earn your plum pudding later on. The ICC also rewards batsmen who hit a ball over the fence on the full instead of giving them six runs with an automatic dismissal and making the batsman fetch it. And just to emphasise how tough beach and backyard cricket is compared to the international game, test and one-day cricketers require drinks breaks only twice a day, whereas a fresh can of beer at the end of every over in the suburban game is mandatory to avoid dehydration.
Truth is, however, rule changes going from the backyard to the international arena would have required little adjustment for our lads. That was something Australian cricketers would have been well versed in, having experienced variations from one beach or backyard to the next, often depending on the topography in each.
A sea cliff on the off-side is as good as 10 cover fieldsmen with catches possible off the rebound provided they are taken with one hand. Hitting a ball into the rose bushes counts as an instant dismissal on account of having to whistle the dog into action to retrieve it, and over the fence is six-and-out because of the likelihood of it landing in the neighbouring German Shepherd’s kennel or Mrs Stink’s freshly-baked apple pie cooling on the kitchen window ledge.
But whatever obstacles stand in the way of the batsman, regardless of the venue, backyard pitches are to be played as they lie. There is no sissy mowing the lawn unless your plot of land is the MCG of backyards, with room for a full-length pitch and enough space for a flock of seagulls between the garden shed and the lemon tree. Good length deliveries should always be able to rear up at the batsman’s chin and bouncers able to shoot through at ankle-height. Honestly, we Aussies can’t understand what those Kiwis are still kicking up a fuss about. By heck if it wasn’t a good-length delivery that just skidded on a bump.
A pitch’s unpredictability helps develop a batsman’s eye in the same way His Highness Sir Lordship The Legend King Donald Bradman esq. honed his by hitting golf balls against a corrugated iron fence as a youngster. Latter-day Bradmans are likewise rewarded for seeing the ball early and placing their shots well.
Stroking the ball to the backyard fence is four runs. Hitting the trampoline on the full is three. Breaking a window is out and means early morning paper rounds for months to repay it, which isn’t nearly as bad as having to face your mother. Or even worse, having to face someone else’s. Mrs Looker from down the road is a lovely woman, unless you hit a ball through one of her windows.
But before you even get to that stage, a gear inventory is required. A tennis ball is mandatory as the chosen projectile, with a backup supply for those lost in the veggie patch. If the cabbage leaves are destroyed playing glorious cover drives, bonus runs are added, ’cause only sheilas eat vegetables.
Tennis balls can be wrapped in electrical tape for extra pain when it smacks against the batsman’s thigh or for extra skim off incoming waves, or it can be half-taped to give it more swing than Austin Powers. Bowling with a wet ball adds pace and weight to a delivery, with the incentive of spraying water or spit in the batsman’s eye. This is a favourite tactic when the dog has slobbered all over it.
True beach and backyard cricket bats look like they have been thrown into a cage with a frightened cat, displaying more nicks and scratches than a 16-year-old boy after his first shave. The bottom is worn down and frayed and the rubber grip torn off two summers earlier, revealing a handle partially wrapped with a piece of string whose loose end tickles the inside of your thigh when a northerly blows. When given out, it is expected that the batsman will spit the dummy and hurl the bat into the surf, resulting in more Australian fatalities by the bat than in the jaws of great white sharks.
Stumps must emit an audible thump when hit with the ball to nullify doubt over a batsman being bowled. Not only do rubbish bins sound like Polynesian war drums when hit, but add in the convenience of a place to put empty beer cans and you have a much underrated tool with multiple uses. It’s a wonder the Swiss Army never cottoned on.
Likewise, the esky (effeminately known as a cooler box by Poms) can substitute as stumps at the bowler’s end. The esky is arguably even more valuable than the rubbish bin, and holier than the Ashes, for it stores the beer.
Beer has always been an essential ingredient in beach and backyard cricket, having shaped many of the rules enforced today. The automatic caught-behind and one-hand one-bounce rules allow a game to be played with a minimum of participants. More importantly, it means a fielder doesn’t have to put their beer down.
Beer cans also count as fieldsmen. If a batsman knocks over a can placed at silly mid-on, he is automatically given out. And they have to replace the beer. Not doing so is bringing the game into disrepute, incurring a six-beer fine.
When it comes to enthusiastic fielding, dogs are almost as tireless as beer cans, which can field all day. Some dogs can be overzealous though, particularly kelpies and blue healers. Many has been the time when a bowler has raced to the backyard crease after starting his run-up in the front yard and steaming through the hallway, down the back steps, around the swing and over the garden rake only to see their magnificent beam ball snatched in mid-flight by a dog with more spring than Captain Snooze. The upside is that the dog will sleep for three days after.
Most of the time, umpiring is self-governing, leading to the outlawing of the LBW rule and begging the question of how Terry Alderman ever made it to test ranks. The no-LBW rule means that canny batsmen can shuffle across the crease like they are test driving a zimmer frame, shielding the stumps with their legs. Still, if they are rapped on the pads, which only sheilas wear, a loud appeal will erupt from the bowler, followed by an order for the batsman to “walk, you mongrel!”.
Games last until all batsmen are out, and the length of a bowler’s over is whatever he can get away with. Bowlers never count their own overs, always hoping to sneak in more than the standard six deliveries. When questioned “how many left?”, there are always two.
Often, teams are divided up to represent the different cricketing powers around the world. Obviously, everyone wants to play for Australia, but not everyone can. So with a flip of a coin or spin of the bat, the loser must be England.
When I was a kid, the four Daffey brothers played many an Ashes series against the three Lookers from down the street. When they weren’t getting tattoos, the two Rayners were also drafted in as the Windies in tri-series tournaments.
Games were extremely competitive, mimicking players of the day by batting with the finesse of a Greg Chappell or the aggression of a Gary Gilmour. David Boons would step down the pitch between balls to pad an imaginary mound with the bat, and Gus Logies threw themselves around in the covers. Spectacular catches were accompanied by a Richie Benaud quote from the catcher. “Just like plucking sparrows out of the air”, he’d say, before wiping the blood from his knees.
Bob Willis’s approached the crease waving a hand behind him like he had just broken wind. The Lookers mastered Max Walker’s ‘tangled’ bowling style like it was natural, which it was. Phillip Tufnells would throw punches at the air and draw on fags between overs. Richard Hadlee’s delivery stride included more sidesteps than John Travolta, and Jeff Thompson’s slingshot deliveries were copied by every kid at school, resulting in quite a few dislocated fingers from over-extending themselves on the follow-through and, this being Australia, plenty of flies swallowed mimicking his open-mouthed bowling action.
Of course, sledging was in integral part of the game. Bowlers unable to master the straight-arm action were called Muralitharans, and if you no-balled, you were labelled Lenny Pascoe for the remainder of the over. Anyone who blocked a ball or let it go through to the keeper was a Boycott.
Boycotts were responsible for the introduction of ‘tipperty’, or hit-and-run, cricket. If you hit it, you ran, with batsmen who blocked guaranteed to run out more teammates than Graeme Wood. Of course, that tactic could be used deliberately against the non-striker who had repeatedly bowled at your head earlier in the game.
The only time tipperty wasn’t used was if your fat mate insisted on invoking the little-known Rule 41(d) of the backyard cricketers’ code that recognised the impracticality of running in thongs (not the Brazilian type). This was known as the ‘Arjuna Ranatunga ruling’.
Depending on his age, the game’s youngest player was given one or two extra chances when batting. Sheilas were afforded the same privilege. As we grew older, girlfriends were increasingly invited to summer barbecues in which cricket would inevitably figure.
Much to the chagrin of the men present, some of the sheilas would ask to join in. When it was their turn to bat, they would glide to the pitch instead of stride, taking up their stance hunched over a bat placed half a metre from their feet, and begin to tap it against the ground like they were chopping wood.
Being the worst batter in the team, sheilas should have been put in at number 11, where they belonged. The problem then was that she would get her ‘tucker’, allowing her to bat on alone when all her teammates had been dismissed, thus prolonging the agony. Until you bowled a yorker. Sheilas – and my older brother – could never hit yorkers.
But yorkers weren’t the problem when it came to chicks. Fast bowlers had to curb their natural fiery instincts by bowling ‘dollies’ down at them so they could hit the ball, thus keeping them interested. Sheilas have been responsible for ending more games of backyard cricket than balls lost down storm drains, just because their boyfriend was enjoying playing cricket, drinking beer and talking about girls more than actually hanging around them. And that, my friends, is just not cricket.