A gentle rain is falling at Digman Reserve, Newport, as a 194cm behemoth batsman scores 90 off 30 balls then bowls gentle off-spin to a 12-year-old schoolboy.
Welcome to the open-age, enthusiastically multicultural Mid-Year Cricket Association’s fifth annual competition.
Played from noon to 4.45pm on Saturdays on reliably green synthetic wickets, usually surrounded by gumbos of mud, the nine-week competition is for a growing army for whom too much cricket isn’t enough.
About half the 1400 players enlisted in 70 teams occupying four divisions across Melbourne’s suburbs are from the subcontinent where, famously, the game is played and watched with a quasi-religious fervour.
It’s been a startling growth from the MYCA’s initial year, 2010, when just nine teams filled a single division in the carefully named “mid-year” association, “winter” having being eschewed for its negative connotation.
With a respectful nod to the flannelled fools of England, a term coined by Rudyard Kipling in his 1902 poem The Islanders, Melbourne’s winter players of 2014 are sensible dressers. Hoodies are allowed, even encouraged.
But they must be uniformly coloured, so if one player’s in orange, they’re all in orange, a motley crew of a dozen umpires, of which this writer was one, was instructed a month ago amid the oak paneling and historic photos of Cricket Victoria’s boardroom in Jolimont.
The open-age nature of the winter competition throws up some odd juxtapositions. I prepared to duck or fling myself to the turf on a Saturday last month as the aforementioned behemoth batsman, South Australia-contracted allrounder Trent Lawford laid waste to some rather ordinary, even damp-squid, bowling at Digman Reserve.
The straigtht sixes of Lawford, who was visiting family and friends in his home town of Werribee, south-west of Melbourne, were of a frightening velocity. He smashed 11 of them in his whirlwind innings. Never in the hunt for its 288 target, Gellibrand sent in Ryan Caiger, aged 12, at No.11 to fight a rearguard action.
With the Wyndhamvale bowlers halving their pace, Ryan, not much taller than his bat, took a single to mid-off and departed, not out, as Gellibrand succumbed for 128.
The conquering Wyndhamvale had hit 25 sixes. Encircled by mud, its batsmen sent crunching drives and pulls over fences, up a residential driveway, on the first bounce into a parked car, and on to the roof of a tall factory whose gutter made it, surprisingly, just the second of only two permanently lost balls.
While sodden outfields require boundaries to be cleared on the full or first bounce, the winter version can cause players to be painfully grounded. Last year, a pace bowler performed an agonising splits as his front foot skidded on a slippery synthetic surface. While his teammates celebrated a win, he lay on a hospital bed nursing torn adductor muscle fibres in his groin.
There’s another difference to the summer game, whose forms are summed up as “white ball” and “red ball” cricket. Winter players use yellow Platypus balls, which on recent showing held their shape well, if becoming soapy in the wet along their six-stitch seam.
An unwritten rule governing the mid-year comp is, come off the ground if it’s dangerous or anyone drowns. The matches are played for fun. Why else would you play in the rain? When stumps approached at Newport, a catch-cry was, “C’mon on, guys, it’s beer o’clock”.
Mid-year cricket was started by sports innovator and former motel owner-operator John Hammer, of south suburban Brighton. In 1980, Hammer devised a Super-rules football competition for retired players in four age groupings, from over-35s to over-50s. Still running and peaking with a national carnival in October, the competition has had up to 350 teams.
In 2003, Hammer, now 78, launched an over-60s Victorian competition for cricket tragics, like himself. Last February, over-60s and 70s Victorian teams played Tasmania.
Holder of an International Cricket Council medal for “services to cricket”, Hammer has founded a cricket club, East Keilor CC; conducted a publicity campaign to help save what was, in 1972, the dying town of Peak Hill in NSW; run seminars on emu-farming and starting a vineyard; and built seven motels in rural Victoria and NSW.
Although most of the competition’s players also bat and bowl in summer, a few are neophytes, motivated by curiosity about the game that dominates the media from October to March.
Secretary of Strathmore Heights Cricket Club Stephen Fielding never much liked cricket as a young man, but when his two sons took the game up at school, their dad, regretting that his football retirement narrowly ruled out playing with them, took up the summer game at 42 to achieve that aim.
Fielding snr, an industrial chemist with Boeing Aerostructures at Fishermans Bend, never quite mastered batting or bowling, but now, at 58, he occupies the most stationary and important of positions.
As a wicketkeeper he’s quietly chuffed that, in summer and now winter cricket, he holds his club’s record for most stumpings: 64. A handful of them have come in the winter chill and slush when most boundaries happen aerially, requiring batsmen to leave their crease if they’re to get under the ball and hoist it.
Postal worker Robert LaRose, 45, has handed Fielding a good share of his stumping fortune with the siren call of his high-flighted leg spin.