'Cricket's traditions live on in grassroots'

Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh delivered the annual Bradman Oration on Wednesday where he dwelt on the importance of club cricket and its influence on Australia.

The 2012 Bradman Oration:

I need hardly say what an honour it is to deliver the tenth Bradman Oration. I won’t say it’s daunting. That would be unfaithful to the spirit of perhaps the most dauntless cricketer who ever lived. But it is a privilege and an onerous one.

Last year, Rahul Dravid delivered perhaps the best and certainly the most-watched of all Bradman Orations, a superbly crafted double-century of a speech on which, I remember thinking at time, it would be hard to improve.

Now I find myself coming in after Rahul, a job so huge that India has traditionally left it to Sachin Tendulkar. By that marker, I can really only disappoint. All I have in common with the Little Master is that we are both grimly staving off retirement - although, of course, the potential end of Tendulkar’s career is a matter of moment to 1.2 billion Indians, while the potential end of mine concerns only my wife who would then need to find something for me to do around the house at weekends.

I’m a cricketer. The game is the longest continuous extrafamilial thread in my life, and I’m attached to it as tightly as ever. I started pre-season training in April. I own a cat called Trumper. And while it’s hardly uncommon to have a cricket bat in the house, not everyone can claim to have one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one in the bedroom and one in the outside dunny.

I represented my first club, the St James Presbyterian under-12Bs in Geelong, when I was 9; I played my first game at the mighty Yarras in 1993, and I’ll play my next one this weekend. The rest of my life has been contoured accordingly. I married my wife during a Christmas break; we became parents during the next Christmas break; on neither occasion did I miss a training, let alone a game. We delayed our honeymoon until it was a bit more convenient. Until an Ashes series in England, anyway. I certainly thought it was convenient.

They do say that the first step to dealing with addiction is admitting you have a problem. OK, here’s my problem. I’m no bloody good. Oh, I’m not terrible. But, I mean, you can be terrible in a hilarious and companionable kind of way. Me, I’m just mediocre in a hanging-on-for-dear-life-oh-God-let-it-end-soon kind of way, one of those park cricketers who answers to the designation ‘all-rounder’ because I basically do nothing very well, everything equally badly.

The ineptitude, moreover, is now exacerbated by physical decrepitude. I don’t even need to playing now to be reminded of my age. This was brought home to me a few years ago when the Yarras were joined by a gangling youth, name of James Harris. Following my time-honoured philosophy that the lamest and most obvious nickname usually has the best chance of sticking, I naturally dubbed him Rolf – which I quickly regreted, as a look of incomprehension crossed his face.

Anyway, I’m hanging in there. Sir Donald’s contemporary Ernie McCormick once said that the moment to retire came when you took off one boot, then the other fifteen minutes later. I’m stable at around about ten minutes.

And, y’know, lack of ability can add something to one’s cricket experience. When Michael Clarke hits one through the covers, he’s simply doing what he and everyone else expects; me, I’m getting a pleasant surprise. The top level player inhabits a world of pitiless absolutes; for me, and the likes of me, for we are legion…we’re in the realm of the relative, where ‘not-so-bad’ is good enough.

That’s particularly so because of what I might call the compensatory pleasures. A few seasons ago, I broke the Yarras’ games record – a triumph of availability over ability if ever there was. On doing so, I was forwarded a spreadsheet of all the guys I’d played with in that time: about 400 of them. A few brought back no memories at all – that’s another function of getting older. But so, so many brought back happy memories, of shared struggles, shared gags, moments of joy, of disappointment, of relief, of redemption. There were a couple of dickheads in there too – no club is without them, I dare say. But the proportion I’ve encountered at the Yarras has been vanishingly small. And, well, as we also know, that club dickhead might be a dickhead, but he’s your dickhead. I’ve always liked a remark by Freddie Jakeman, who played for Nottinghamshire in the 1950s. He said: ‘Out of every hundred cricketers there’s probably two shits. And if the 98 of us can’t look after those two, we’re a poor bunch.’

I’m sure you understand what I mean. The club. We all have one. We might not see it much any more. But it’s like a first love – never forgotten.

As a junior cricketer, I always took for granted that there would always be a game for me. As a senior, the most rewarding parts of cricket have been keeping the show going at a club that’s mainly had moths in its trophy cabinet and IOUs in its till.

For grass roots cricket in the twenteens, I can tell you, is as precarious as it ever was. It’s not so long since we had a $3500 utilities bill turn up when we had $50 in the bank. Could we, wondered the president, become the first club to operate without electricity? Really, added the treasurer, the most profitable option would be to play no games at all, and simply to hold barbecues. The secretary rather liked the sound of this, having himself been unanimously elected at the annual meeting while on his honeymoon in Bali, and still to evolve an exit strategy. Alas for him anyway, we dug deep and found a way, which you tend to over time.

Clubs are dependent on the goodwill of sponsors, who ask for little, offer much, and deserve whatever exposure you can give them. And I think everyone gains from knowing that the friendly staff at the Windsor Community Bank can assist with all your financial needs, that the calamari at the Union Hotel is delicious, that Lachlan Fisher at Fisher Cricket Bat and Willow is a prince among men…and that FlosFlorum is not only tops for flowers but lent us their van so we could retrieve our new bowling mats. Of course I may be wrong about that, but when you’re personally in charge of your club’s sponsorships you have to be a bit shameless, don’t you think?

Clubs are likewise dependent on the good offices of their local council. Sometimes these remind me of an old gag. How many council recreation officers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: none because it’s no longer their job to change lightbulbs; there’s an independent contractor for that, but his tender was so low that you’ll get a candle only if you ask nicely. Actually that’s not an old gag – I made it up. But it sounds like it resonates with a few people.

Mainly, of course, they’re dependent on people, and it’s often where you find those people at their best, because they are putting others’ interests first, and giving the gift of time, in which we generally these days feel so poor.

I find the generosity of people towards their fellow man and woman through the medium of cricket deeply moving, and motivating. Behind the apparently ordinary individuals who volunteer their aid to the cause of sport, furthermore, unsuspected gifts can also lie.

I like that story that Tony Greig tells about arriving in Adelaide for the Rest of the World tour in 1971, and being met at the airport by this dowdy, bespectacled old chap whom he took as some local association gofer there to carry his bag. When they had a bit of a chat, the old codger seemed to know a thing or two about the game. (South African accent) ‘Play some cricket, did you, old man?’ Greigy asked. (Reedy voice) ‘Oh, y’know, a bit,’ said the old bloke. Just then Garry Sobers arrived and headed straight towards Greigy’s companion. ‘Hello Sir Donald,’ he said.

Sir Donald’s epic career, in fact, was bookended by administrative roles. Some of you will know that his first job at Bowral Cricket Club was as the first team scorer; I dare say that his books added up too. He was picked for his first game as a twelve-year-old, in the time-honoured tradition, when the XI was a man short.

When Sir Donald’s playing day was done, the master of the game became its foremost servant. While everyone revels in 6996 and 99.94 - and we were never going to get through the evening without an invocation of those totemic numbers - a stat I love is that he also attended, for nothing, 1713 meetings of the South Australian Cricket Association. I also love the fact that someone bothered to make that into a stat.

We inhabit a modern world in which vast and minute attention falls on a very thin layer of highly paid, wildly promoted and hugely glamourised elite athletes who regard the attribute of ‘professionalism’ as the highest praise. I mean, everyone wants to be a professional nowadays: to do a professional job, to obtain professional standards, to produce work of professional quality, to exhibit professional pride. The porn star Randy Spears has explained that he manages to work up some lust for 30 per cent of the women he has sex with in X-rated movies; the rest of the time, he is ‘just being a professional’.

Yet even now, amateurism endures, and mightily. About a quarter of Australians participate in a sport organised by a club, association or other organisation each year. What proportion are paid for it, do you think? Probably closer to 0.1pc than 1pc.

Club cricket remains our game’s biggest participation sector, with 3820 clubs in 570 associations enumerated at the most recent cricket census. And I suspect there’s something about battling through and totally arseing everything, just scraping teams together and barely making books balance, that becomes part of the pageant. You’re aiming to keep petrol in the roller, beer in the fridge and change in the till. But you’re maintaining a preparedness to laugh when, due to a breakdown in communication, it ends up that there’s change in the fridge, the till’s full of petrol and the roller’s full of beer.

We like our clubs to be successful, of course, but maybe not so successful that they become big, rich, complex, impersonal. That might become a little too much like everyday life – from which, when we take the cricket field on the weekend, we are usually seeking some distance. There’s an interesting contrast, I fancy, between those groups we form ourselves, for our own enjoyment and beneficiation, and those formed for us, for maximum economic efficiency. The modern corporate world has developed to a fine art the act of building empires of strangers. For our own parts, we seem to prefer environments where it remains possible to know everyone’s name, where we’re connected by the intangibles of friendship and mutual reciprocity rather than by the formality of titles, ranks, reporting lines and organisational matrices.

I’d go further. This is something Australians have historically been good at. The theory and practice of forming cricket clubs is in our blood and in our history. Within two years of this city’s settlement, citizens had founded the Melbourne Cricket Club, dedicated by one of its founders to ‘men of all classes, the plebian mingling with the peer, in respectful feeling and good fellowship’ – a character which it’s arguable it has maintained…assuming you can wait twenty years to find out.

Melbourne’s first significant rival was Brighton Cricket Club, still prospering, 170 years young. Tasmania’s oldest surviving clubs date from round the same time, South Australia’s oldest surviving clubs from about a century and a half ago. They are older, therefore, than a majority of Australia’s legislatures, an overwhelming number of our municipalities, and all but a tiny handful of our commercial enterprises.

The overwhelming proportion of clubs, of course, do not endure anywhere near so long. They rise and fall because of geography, demography, availability of participants, accessibility of organisers, facilities and funds. But the habits they instil are those that build communities: of giving and sharing, of volunteering and responding, of balancing interests, nurturing culture, respecting history and generally joining in common purpose. Grass roots cricket can even, I fancy, claim an influence on the foundation of the Australian commonwealth.

Cricket has always taken a certain pride in having provided an inspiriting example to the inchoate nation, the idea of a unified Australian team pre-empting that of a unified Australia. But there’s more to this. When you focus on the political actors in the period around federation, it is striking how varied and how deep were their cricket connections.

Four key figures in federation, George Reid, Edmund Barton, Charles Kingston and Thomas Playford, also served as at least vice-presidents of the cricket associations in their respective states. Whilst a 22-year-old assistant accountant in the colonial treasury, Reid was elected delegate to the New South Wales Cricket Association by the Warwick Cricket Club - the same club, incidentally, as Dave Gregory, Australia’s first captain.

After nine years, Reid became association treasurer, and he continued serving as association president whilst he was the premier of New South Wales, resigning only in the year before he became prime minister. Reid was not himself a noted player although he might have made a handy sight screen, being roughly as wide as he was tall, and he certainly sledged like an Australian cricketer. Once while addressing an audience from a hotel balcony in Newcastle, he nonchalantly propped his belly on the balustrade. ‘What’ll you name it, George?’ called a heckler. Reid replied: ‘If it’s all piss and wind as I expect, I’ll name it after you, young feller.’

Consult the NSW Cricket Association annual reports in Reid’s time, furthermore, and you’ll find three future premiers, James McGowen, Joseph Carruthers and John Storey, acting as delegates for their clubs, Redfern, University and Balmain respectively. Carruthers and Storey, interestingly, were born rivals: Carruthers a hot-shot lawyer and dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Storey a state-school-educated boilermaker and a self-described ‘evolutionary socialist’. What made them unlikely lifelong friends was representing the same parliamentary XI. As Carruthers wrote in his memoirs: ‘There were other men of different shades of political belief in the cricket team, and I can say of them as I say of Storey and myself, that the bitterness of party strife disappeared during contact with one another in the cricket field.’

In this city, around the turn of the century, the presidents of the St Kilda, East Melbourne, Richmond and Prahran Cricket Clubs were respectively also Australia’s first treasurer (Sir George Turner), Melbourne’s first federal member (Sir Malcolm McEachern), and the local members for their suburbs (George Bennett and Donald Mackinnon). Again, cricket exerted a surprisingly broad appeal: Turner was a stolid bookkeeper, McEachern a bold entrepreneur, Bennett a radical Catholic from Banffshire who championed the eight-hour-day, Mackinnon a silver-haired Presbyterian educated in classics at Oxford, later to become both president of the Victorian Cricket Association and Australia’s wartime director-general of recruiting.

Admittedly, the era’s foremost political figure, Alfred Deakin, professed no great love for cricket. But when he wanted to describe Australian politics in the era of its split between Labor, free traders and protectionists, Deakin deployed a famous cricket metaphor: it was, he said, like a cricket match featuring three XIs – an idea so outlandish that it has not even occurred to Mike McKenna yet.

In Deakin’s ministry, meanwhile, was a Queenslander rejoicing in the name Colonel Justin Fox Greenlaw Foxton, who in cricket rose highest of all: he was simultaneously chairman of the Australian Board of Control and Grand Registrar of the United Grand Lodge of Queensland after nearly thirty years in local and federal politics.

While researching this oration, I dug out press reports of the Athenian Cricket Club which Foxton helped to found in Ipswich in the 1860s when he was a teenaged articled clerk. There obviously wasn’t much happening in Queensland a hundred and fifty years ago, because Brisbane’s Courier gave extensive coverage to the Athenians’ inaugural annual meeting, held in Ipswich’s Church of England schoolroom in March 1867, where Foxton, then just seventeen, presented the treasurer’s report, which was deemed ‘most satisfactory’.

The report continued: ‘There has been a decided improvement in the play in the last twelve months both on account of the accession of new members and the natural result of practice. It is to be regretted that practice is not more numerously attended; the ground has not been in good order and this has rendered play unsteady.’ Colonel Justin Fox Greenlaw Foxton would not have recognised what cricket has become today, but he would have been right at home at the Yarras committee meeting I attended last week. Ground’s a bit rough – tick. Attendance at training a bit spotty – tick. Unsteady play – big tick. Otherwise, ticking over well.

Cricket and politics have never interpenetrated in this country as deeply as in others – thankfully so. But there is something significant, I think, about club cricket having loomed so large in the lives of so many involved in the early fashioning of this nation. As I observed previously, in order that everyone bats, bowls and fields in club cricket, some must get organised, elect officials, hold meetings, weigh interests, manage finances, and delegate responsibilities - skills readily transferable to wider fields.

We can couch this more generally too. For numberless millions of Australians since, a sports club has been their original and most tangible experience of day-to-day democracy, and their greatest means of investment in civic amenity. The historian John Hirst has called Australia’s a ‘democracy of manners’. Australia, he observes, is short on inspirational rhetoric where democracy is concerned: our constitution is silent on citizenship; our curricula have no great tradition of civic education. What we have instead, says Hirst, is a way that ‘Australians blot out differences when people meet face to face’ and ‘talk to each other as if they are equals.’ In no environment has this tended to happen more spontaneously than when individuals band together in pursuit of a sporting goal. Club sport remains, I would argue, the most inclusive, evolved and constructive means by which Australians express their instinct to associate.

Better yet, our clubs are distinguished to this day by actually working. In our daily lives we are regularly beset by institutions that leave us feeling powerless, voiceless, helpless. Government institutions. Commercial institutions. Financial institutions. Religious institutions. Media institutions. It’s easy to think: What does it matter what I do? What influence can I possibly have? At the little sporting institutions we make for ourselves, we aren’t powerless; we can and do make a difference; we can put a shoulder to the wheel and feel the thing move.

It’s a sorry reflection on the times that so few, outside an immediate circle, seem to grasp that. As if the thrall of the television remote and the atomisation of the working week were not enough, community sport has suffered gravely from the climate of financial stringency and sterile users-pays philosophies.

‘But we subsidise sporting clubs in our community,’ complain local governments, oblivious to the way sporting clubs subsidise local governments by mobilising free labour and local expertise, contributing to social cohesion and civic texture. In fact, the minuscule funding support local sport receives has colossal multiplier effects. And if this can’t readily be ascertained by economic models, then the answer is new models, because the old ones aren’t working any more.

But I can’t hold local governments wholly responsible. I also fear that from time to time a sort of mechanistic view of grass roots cricket prevails within cricket itself. It is regarded simply as kind of squeaky and unpainted front gate to one of those glorious ‘pathways’ one hears so much of – ah, the pathway, paved with gold, strewn with primrose petals. ‘New markets’ is the clarion call; but what of the old? All we’ve got to recommend us is that we love the game – and we wonder, from time to time, whether the game still loves us.

Some of you would have seen the figures of the recent Australian cricket census, which were touted as showing cricket to be the country’s biggest participation sport at the same time as it disclosed a 3.5 per cent decline in the club cricket population.

We don’t have the advantage of exist interviews, of course, but I wonder how many of those individuals passed out of the game because they don’t like the way it is run, and promoted, and headed. I don’t wish to spread alarm, but this would not wish to be remembered as the cricket generation that grew so obsessed with flogging KFC and accumulating Facebook likes that it let its core constituencies fade away.

Tomorrow, an annual meeting of Cricket Australia will finally phase out the system by which it has been governed since 1905, under which its board has been composed of the nominees of state associations drawn from the delegates of their premier, district and grade clubs. It’s a system that has had a lot of critics, me among them, and I’m not about to mourn its passing. But it has always exhibited one particular virtue – that of recognising the integral role of the club in the cricket of this country, and the value of the volunteer in a sporting economy that could not otherwise function. And it would be remiss of cricket if it simply marched into its corporatist future without a backward glance, or a sideways acknowledgement of cricket’s hardiest faithful.

In that spirit, I’d like to close this speech the old-fashioned way, by proposing a toast. To the club. It’s the beginning of us all. To your club. For all that it has done for you; to all that you have done, and might yet do, for it.

Ladies and gentlemen: to the club.

Transcript of the Bradman Oration courtesy: Cricket Australia

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