Cricket King's saintly gestures

Cricket Kings, by William McInnes. Hodder, 2006. ISBN 0-7336-2049-3, RRP $32.95, website.

According to one newspaper, William McInnes is unique among Australian authors. In spring 2006, McInnes had both works of non-fiction and fiction in the respective "top ten" best seller lists. The autobiographical A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby, a saying of McInnes’ father, and the novel Cricket Kings are related thematically in that both concern masculinity, inter-generational relationships, social change and Australian suburbia.

Chris Anderson is captain of Yarraville West "fourths" whose home ground is the Cec Bull oval. Chris’ tale begins on a Friday, as he intersperses his work as a solicitor for the public sector union with his passion for finding a team for the last game of the season. Although the story concludes the next day as the match unfolds, McInnes skilfully employs flashbacks and other devices to portray the life of the Anderson family through four generations. He also expands the story horizontally as players remember past experiences, from inner Melbourne to a medical mission in Africa.

The prompts and nudges are many and varied. As a wedding car cruises around waiting for a bride to be ready, Chris reflects on his own wedding. He remembers how Julie, his wife, accused him of liking cricket because it allowed him to play with himself in public. Chris’ mind drifts to his vasectomy "on the edge of eternity" as he became a "slightly sore dud entry in the reproductive race". It happens to be hard rubbish day, when "people throw out so many things. So many broken dreams and good intentions." Chris reflects that "Bull Oval had once been a tip" and now it was a playground. He ponders the suburban passion for renovations and notes that people at barbecues talk about their tradesmen and architects the way they used to talk about hobbies or pets. "Whatever happened to footy or cricket?".

Chris laments a "world of uncertainty and fear (that) we’re buying into". He wonders "why do we fear… life?" and cannot understand what there is to fear "on a day like today". Although he is big and loud and swears in front of his son Lachlan, Chris is warm, sincere and generous. He interrupts the match because an African woman, not knowing that the route is unserviced on the weekend, is sitting in the heat at a nearby bus seat. He and Doctor Michael Martin escort her to a working bus stop. Chris is also highly protective of Brian, whose intellectual underdevelopment causes the opposition team to tease him. He ponders the nature of the difference that surrounds the park containing twenty-odd players dressed in white uniform:

We all look the same but what goes on underneath?... Just the same things that went on underneath the people in the flats and the people in the pool and the people on the other side of the planet. He supposed, as he scratched his testicles in that languid way cricketers do, that understanding is the problem.

Michael Martin notices that conversations in the slips are unique, starting and stopping at random. Some snippets "came from the deep, quiet well of reflection and comfort… But sometimes the water drawn from the well can be tainted with that awful toxin of self-reflection and truth."

With just nine players, including three juniors, Yarraville West cannot compete. It hardly helps that Michael is distracted by the bride. Years earlier he had climbed the fence after the ball and encountered her dog, Atticus. Almost a passenger, bus driver Rob Orchard fields on the boundary listening to a girl having cello lessons in a nearby house. After a makeshift lunch that includes Hawaiian pizza garnished with tinned spaghetti, Chris tells his team that they cannot hope to reach the 319 for victory. What is important he tells them, is to "have a go". Together they recite a litany of heroes, including a test cricketer who batted with his jaw broken and bandaged.

The motivated Yarraville batsmen excel, but Chris makes one outstanding gesture. An opposition bowler, recruited from a higher grade, loudly disparages an Aboriginal man walking past with his son. Chris Anderson says:

We bother to have a go because it’s a way of saying that we care…. About everybody getting the right to have a go. We care about the right of everybody, black, white or bloody brindle to be able to come here on this oval and not to have to put up with somebody saying they shouldn’t be here... We have a go because it’s actually what makes us a bit better than what we are.

The reactions of many Australians to the deaths of a crocodile showman and a racing car driver suggest that media idols might one day become our secular saints. While the fictional Chris Anderson should not be canonised, his love for his family and friends, his integrity and humility are very appealing characteristics. In Cricket Kings, William McInnes has certainly had a go. Though not an iconoclast, McInnes has something meaningful to say about the significance of the ordinary, everyday person, and further, he says it with a gentle good humour that makes this book well worth reading.



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