The Grassroots: An exploration into the history and importance of grassroots sport in Australia – Part I: Cricket.
I was riding my bike on Saturday afternoon, committing to the time honoured tradition of a half-arsed preseason in preparation for another long footy season, when I came across a bunch of tired, overheated cricketers battling it out at Victoria Park in Kew. Being a part time amateur cricketer myself, I placed my bike down, took my helmet off and started watching their game. Kew and Coburg were slogging away in game that I had next to no contextual background on. And yet, within a few balls I was witnessing a captivating contest between bat and bowl. Aggressive shots were being played, the bowlers were glaring off the two seemingly in form batsmen and the fielders were chirping away with your token cricket one-liners that must be as tired of being used as we are of hearing them.
Cricket at a grassroots level is a bizarre mix of talented wannabes, men who simply play for the beer at the end of the game, the fellas who couldn’t give the game up due to their alignment with it from a tender age and the Mr. Cricket’s of the world. The various Mr. Crickets of the world come in all different shapes, sizes and temperaments. The podgy middle aged bloke who sledges like it is going out of fashion but can’t handle it when it comes back his way, the consummate professional who would fit in well in London, particularly when considering his single digit batting average (a harsh but fair comment when considering current English cricketing standards in my defence) and the larrikins who do everything at 110%. Without these men (and women) at grassroots level, cricket would feature a bunch of meandering, bored and lifeless lads wasting their Saturdays for no apparent reason. Instead, the game is brought to life by these weird and wonderful characters who keep the game fiery, spicy and entertaining… at least for the players participating in the game itself.
Judging on the seventeen non-participants whom I counted witnessing the Kew-Coburg Sub-District 1st XI game, cricket at a grassroots level is something that takes place without affecting too many people in the outside world. Potentially it is due to the fact that the game is slow-moving and people can cruise across from time to time without as much as a couple of sweaty chases to the boundary by unfit and underutilised hairy bohemians taking place. Or it is just because it is far more exciting to participate in the game than it is to watch. Having played in my first quasi-full season of cricket since I finished school back in 2008, I can support this claim. Despite my early season admissions to a fellow team mate that I ‘truly hated the game’, I have since withdrawn that statement and turned full circle. Unfortunately for my sanity, I have fallen in love with playing the game again. I’ve missed the small battles, the politics out in the middle, the smell of fear when you make a batsman play and miss, and the sound of the willow crunching that cherry to the cover boundary. It truly is a remarkable game.
However, the thing I have missed most, that I will forever cherish when considering both my amateur career in grassroots Aussie Rules and more relevantly, cricket, is the simple, yet charming camaraderie that comes with the package of committing to a team sport. You can’t simply pop your head in from time to time if you want to achieve something at grassroots level. You have to immerse yourself in the team’s culture, the lingo, the banter and the nights out. Without this odd immersion in a club’s grind up or down the ladder, you are merely another unremarkable figure in your teammates’ lives. With it, you are crucial to the makeup, whether you are the clown, the hero, the weirdo or the villain.
So as I watched a man with an odd habit of tucking his arm close to his chest as he chased another ball to the boundary on Saturday afternoon, I came to understand his battles with the game he loved. As I engaged in a ferocious verbal stoush with Melbourne University’s captain on Sunday after I backed up out of the crease with a little too much vigour, I felt the adrenaline pump and the potential for a story to be retold for years in the clubrooms as new life was breathed into the tale with every retelling. And as I spewed up during the lunch break on account of dehydration from a long innings in the middle combined with a more substantial innings of another kind the night before, I recalled the other side of the cricketing culture. The Australian way made famous by our professional brethren of the ilk of Boony, Andrew Symonds and Shane Warne, and immortalised by the men who have persisted on the days when the rain doesn’t stop falling or the sunscreen doesn’t block out the rays. The men who continue to return to the field of battle as the cost of subs keep rising as the back gets a bit tighter and the waistline gets a little more rotund.
As I pick my bike up and returned to High Street for the commute back home, I hear the scream of catch and the roar of approval that follows a successful snap up. Ten players sprint to the catcher, the batsman drops his head as he walks back to a muggy dressing room and the umpire files in to take the ball back from the elated fieldsman. No one else in Kew seems to bat an eyelid, but perhaps they just don’t understand. As a wry smile escapes across my face, it becomes perfectly clear. We don’t give up our Saturdays in forty-degree heat to understand. We do it because there’s no greater relief than those five seconds after removing a batsman, there’s no greater joy than creaming a ball through the covers and there’s no greater taste than a beer with a side of banter after a day apparently wasted playing this stupid game. This stupid, fickle and utterly compelling game of cricket.