Occasionally, even cricket’s lower grades throw up something remarkable. It can be a skillset maintained over a five-hour ‘day’, worthy of a stadium and onlookers numbered in the tens of thousands . . . or it may be backdrop at Angliss Reserve, Yarraville, for a dozen strollers and their off-leash dogs.
On the season’s first day of action – the opening round having been routinely called off – there wasn’t much to write home about for this umpiring ex-journo in the Victorian Turf Cricket Association’s West A1 comp. That is, until an Indian wicketkeeper of medium height squatted arms’ length from the stumps at Yarraville. Nothing unusual there, either, except that Gellibrand’s Gaurav Sharma was ‘keeping to the missiles of an opening, medium-fast bowler.
Despite having the reflexes of a younger version of his countryman M.S. Dhoni, Gaurav worried me. Normally, I’d stroll down the wicket and invite the ‘keeper to put on a helmet or insert a mouthguard — an OH&S responsibility to warn him of the obvious dangers on a still-unproven wicket.
But over after over, I hear ‘thwack, thwack, thwack’ of the ball slamming into gloves that dart left and right like a lizard’s tongue. A stumping could have been the work of Healy.
Warn him? I decide not to bother … In fact, I feel the need to share my gobsmacked appreciation. At the end of an over I ask Gellibrand captain Nick Keating, “Is this guy auditioning for Trevor Hohns [national selector]?”
Gaurav, 34, has been doing this keeping for a while, I figure, so resolve to simply determine how many votes to give him from a pool of 10 while leaving a few votes for two others of the remaining 21 players. One of them will be Gaurav’s Indian teammate, Parambir Singh, whose 110 is matched in power and skill only by Sharma’s 102 not out. In this one-day match, Gellibrand’s bowlers back their teammates in ensuring 4/239cc is more than adequate to squelch Footscray ANA’s reply (enough, with 167 runs to spare).
This ‘round two’ match has displaced ‘round one’; that having been postponed in the risible ritual of even having the season opener so soon, given curators’ usually impossible task of making grounds playable seven days after being ploughed by football boots.
My paperwork done and having been given the all-clear by the captains, I’m leaving the Angliss Reserve pavilion when a Gellibrand administrator educates me on the same Gaurav Sharma, who has made an admiring spectator of this neutral umpire. “Yeah, he’s pretty good,” agrees the clubman. “Of course, you know he was back-up to M.S. Dhoni.”
To India’s legendary wicketkeeper? Well, not quite, it turns out, but Gaurav later confirms he has met the great man a couple of times and in 2002 was on the verge of touring England with India’s 16-man under-19 squad. As one of four in an expanded squad of 20 who missed the cut, Gaurav was decreed ‘back-up’; in the event, not required. Around that time his North Zone U19 team won the national Five Zones U19 title; Gaurav’s reward was a two-year lodgement with the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Although his CV falls short of first-class experience, the talents he brings to Melbourne parks each week butted up against Indian household names in under-19 competition: stars like Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan and RP Singh. Gaurav represented his home city Jalandhar in under-16, 19, 22 and seniors, his first captain being the controversial spinner Harbhajan (‘Monkeygate’) Singh, his highest score a handy 225.
Sharma, who this day has rattled off his fifth century in as many years with Gellibrand, is among a growing band of overseas cricketers contracted with Victorian clubs.
While no one appears to be keeping strict tabs on the contracted imports, Cricket Victoria spokesman Peter Binns surmises the number in this state would be well over 100. He’s assuming that the vast bulk of Victoria’s 1107 clubs have signed up at least one journeyman import. One of the more conspicuous names this season is Colin Cowdrey, grandson of the great England batsman of the same name, now honing his craft with Melbourne CC’s 4th eleven.
October 21 brings round three in VTCA, and at J.T. Gray Reserve, Williamstown, a cold north wind gives a free ride to a pair of ibis and countless seagulls. Tweaks of muscle and sinew are enough to steer the birds southward over our ground and the adjacent tanks and towers of Altona’s oil refinery, just beyond the park’s western boundary.
A few hundred yards south of where I’m braced against the wind I can just make out white caps on the bay. The tips of yachts’ masts drift eerily, right to left, above the bayside tea trees and acacias like tin ducks in a fairground gallery.
I’m always alert to further proof of my theory that every day of every match throws up a unique situation. I’m even more alert today for the sound of snicks and sight of deflections because the tiring, physical clenching of muscles against the cold erodes the sensory perception needed to determine whether a finger be raised or holstered in answer to regular appeals.
‘Uniqueness’ this day comes secondhand, courtesy of Williamstown Congs opening bowler Troy Griffin, who hands me his heavy woollen jumper before starting an over. Troy has noticed I’m wearing just my VTCA umpire’s shirt as a top and kindly offers: “You can put this on if you like”. When I politely decline, Troy adds, “It was cold last week, too, and the ‘umpie’ wore it.” Well, that’s new, and it’ll have to do for ‘uniqueness’. Having declined the jumper, I wonder whether I’m just too fussy about other people’s clothing. I’ve taken to holding in my fingertips bowlers’ caps made filthy from the stain of 20 years’ sweat, or I shove them under my belt. And today I’ve given the finger-pincer treatment to a Congs opening bowler’s cap. He’s a swarthy, hairy type, one of those heavy perspirers whose woollen lid is sodden, at least twice its original weight. “Thanks for the hand-warmer,” I say, handing it back at the end of his over.
It got even stranger last season when Flemington captain Oli Ingham handed me a thick woollen sock to go with a bowler’s hat. I assumed he was joking. Typically squeamish, I placed what I thought was a bulky, single sock inside the hat, enfolding it within the opposite brims of the Greg Chappel-brand headware. If this was a hygiene issue, I figured, it’d have to be a problem for the hat owner, who was about to bowl the next over — not mine. Later, Oli satisfied my curiosity: there were two woollen socks, he explained, one wrapped inside the other. The outer one, with a green band, was genital protection to be worn by any fielder in one of cricket’s well-named ‘silly’ positions, often silly mid-on. Oli explained that the all-black inner sock, the one I’d needlessly been holding by my finger tips, offered extra protection and, not being in direct contact with the crouching fieldsman’s tackle, was designated the ‘hygiene sock’.
But back to 2017-18 … The rest of this opening day at Gray Reserve finished early (5.37), as it usually does when economical spinners hold sway. Seabrook lost its last wicket to the first ball of the 80th, and final, over. The visitors’ 221 on a most benign strip appeared short of what, in the vernacular, is a “par” score. I may have gifted Seabrook a few runs myself if the Congs’ body — and other — language at one of my “not outs” for a caught behind reflected the truth of the matter. I’d heard no snick, seen no deflection, and I consulted with my square leg colleague, who provided exactly the same input. You sweat and swallow hard after these incidents, hoping that the lucky batsman will get out, quickly, to save further embarrassment (to me) and annoyance (to his opponents). In fact, he was caught with minimal addition to the scoreboard a few overs later. ‘Relief’ hardly does justice to my feelings, but there was more to come, his batting partner offering: ”He missed that; you were right.” Hardly an impeccable source, but I’ll take it.
On day two, overnight rain has turned the pitch from light- to gun metal-grey, signalling a stickiness that takes the pace off the ball. Impatience in swinging too hard, too soon is punished by Seabrook’s safe catching, accounting for the Congs’ downfall (195), just 27 short of their target. Stockily built Tyronne Mitchell keeps his team in the hunt, belting two sixes and 10 fours in his 81. With a rare blend of power and a timing that suggests effortlessness, Mitchell reminds me a little of Usman Khawaja.
It turns out that rugby is his other sporting passion. Having played professionally for Yamaha in Japan in 2004, Mitchell arrived in Melbourne from his native Tauranga in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty two years later with rugby and cricket in his sights. Signing up with the Melbourne Rebels, he played in 2007 in the Australian rugby championship, a competition that bridged club rugby and the then-Super 14s southern hemisphere series. Mitchell lives just a few blocks from the Gray Reserve and is now looking for a job in sports administration, having recently added to his resume a four-year term as development officer for the Victorian Rugby Union.