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  • John Gascoigne

At the soggy grassroots


For cricket's fanatics, no conditions are too hostile.

As welcome rain tumbled down around Melbourne on Saturday afternoon, motorists may well have marvelled at cricket’s putative ‘flannelled fools’ gambolling in the parks they were passing.

That so many cricketers were ‘happy’ to play through drizzle or deluge can only mean winter cricket is back again. Cricket-in-the-rain is an expanding phenomenon. Catering to fanatics who say the game’s season shouldn’t be restricted by footy’s ever-tightening pincer, the Mid Year Cricket Association (MYCA) kicked off its tenth season on Saturday. From 10 teams at its inception, MYCA now caters to 132 teams whose approximate 2100 players compete in 10 divisions on 68 parks around Melbourne. For this umpire, now in his sixth year with MYCA, arriving early to get a parking spot close to the playing oval has become one of winter’s Saturday rituals. It allows time to settle in with the Saturday papers’ wrap of world news and views…to enjoy a takeaway breakfast with coffee, get a feel for my workplace for the next five hours…and, until Siri took care of it, to avoid failure of actually locating the park I’ve been assigned to. Even now, with my GPS, the entrance to some grounds reveals itself only after circuiting a grid of suburban streets.

Saturday’s round one takes me to Viewbank Secondary College, in Rosanna. My parked car and I overlook an oval in a shallow basin. But where there should be grass, dust-covered dirt covers about 40% of the oval. As I read the sports pages, showers spatter my windscreen. As dirt turns easily to mud, it’s a worrying portent as the 12 noon start counts down.

This is winter cricket at its most real.

I have to sweep bird (and other) droppings from the synthetic wicket before play can start. At each end, the small rectangle cut into concrete where the stumps will be set has hollowed out during the preceding three seasons. If the holes aren’t filled in, almost 20% of the stumps won’t come into play; won’t be visible to the bowler or a target for the ball. I’ve anticipated this perennial problem by buying a trowel and small bucket at Bunnings, and I feel a tinge of guilt as I shovel in some mulch under the trees where the scorers are setting up their table. Then I gather up the six wickets to fill the aforementioned holes that are now capable of nourishing indoor plants.

And here’s the next problem, described in the online report that I file – compulsorily – that night. “A common problem in MYCA is that stumps have been driven in directly by hammer on to the wood, resulting in flattening of the groove that is meant to hold the bails in place. The importance of striking directly onto metal fitted into the grooves should be re-stated to the clubs. Without this, anything stronger than a breeze simply blows the bails off.”

Oh…and then there was the actual cricket. The result of this North Division encounter was a steamrolling by the visitors, Banyule Bears (7/274), over locals Rosanna (10/103). On the way to this outcome we all get drenched, twice. Between the clouds taking a series of short breaks, I discover the remarkable drying qualities of cotton-polyester; at least as they apply to my shirt.

I admire the anti-bullying, equal opportunity rules of the MYCA, which require that batsmen upon reaching 50 retire and return to the back of the queue; that, is they return to continue their innings, if they want or need to, at the fall of the ninth wicket. So it was that Bears opener Joel Crook (53) retired after 27 minutes, to be followed five minutes later by his captain, Nick Murray (51). Each batsman had struck 10 fours, throwing in a couple of sixes for good measure. As understatement, they were no longer required. It helped the Bears’ batsmen’s cause that the oval is a bit on the small side. And as I remarked, sympathetically, to a Rosanna bowler, “This is like playing on a concrete bowling green”. All up, 40 balls cleared or rolled rapidly between cones delineating the boundary. For a considerable period, every third ball, on average, went for four.

As the rain fell, so did the temperatures; and as the showers intensified and the grey dust slid into a darker hue, it occurred to me that this was a pale copy of what happens in more serious forms of physical contending, where nature’s harshest treatments, being shared equally, subvert rancour. Not a single harsh word was said between the players, who were only following their captains’ demeanour. Rain or not, this was always going to be a friendly match, and the glut of dropped catches ensured a universal tolerance and sympathy. Naturally, as is the way with blokes, no one raised the question of abandoning the field of play to a bit of rain. Knowing these were (eventually) passing showers, no one was going to be the sissy who made the first move, so we all dripped and shivered in harmony.

The game’s second stanza delivered an unusual sight as 16-year-old Bears bowler Josh Neilson tore in for the second over of Rosanna’s virtually impossible run chase. Belatedly, I realised that Josh, having just scored 44, was now bowling in a hoodie, with the hood peeled back. You won’t see that at Lord’s!

Over No.1 had been bowled by a gray-haired veteran, who was swinging them towards the slips. Josh, on the other hand, was bowling big medium-pace leg-cutters. How do you do that?, I asked him, after his opening over matched his partner’s as a maiden, thus decoupling the “virtually” from the “impossible” in Rosanna’s equation. To make it easier for Josh, I added to my question: “Is it the wrist action or the way you grip the ball?”

His answer: “No idea. Wish I knew.”

It’s an amazingly complex game this cricket, but quite simple at its core.

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