The Grade Cricketer, by Edwards, Perry & Higgins
We all know the cliches. Cricket is ‘the sound of summer’. If something is unfair, or if someone is bending the rules to their own advantage, then ‘it’s just not cricket’.
If someone is being scrupulously honest then they are ‘playing with a straight bat’, and if someone is trying to play down a delicate situation then they are ‘playing it with a dead bat’.
Cricket has not just given us a wealth of colloquialisms, it is justifiably described as our national game. In many parts of the world it is a national passion.
For cricket-obsessed kids, the dream is to play for Australia. And the pathway to get there is through junior representative teams, and the through club or ‘grade’ cricket.
Grade cricket is a world of its own - a strange, tribal world with its own language and customs. The Grade Cricketer by David Edwards, Sam Perry and Ian Higgins, is a project that started out as a funny twitter account, and is now a multi-media sensation with books, a regular podcast and live shows. The whole enterprise is part comedy and part homage - but what marks it as wildly different from anything else in the sports fiction genre is its candid, brutal, no-holds-barred dissection of the toxic masculinity and all-consuming weirdness that characterises Australian grade cricket:
Grade cricket was a safe place where a grown man could happily engage in hyper-masculine banter without being branded misogynist, or negatively influencing his own five-year old son. Cricket offered him a valid reason to extricate himself from all familial responsibilities.
The Grade Cricketer is told in the first person from the perspective of a 29 year-old bouncing around between 2nd grade and fourth grade. The protagonist (who’ll I’ll refer to as TGC) exposes all of grade cricket’s dirty secrets – but with a dexterity that allows the reader to laugh along (even if in horror), and while finding room for compassion and sympathy for the players who dedicate six months of every year to the grade cricket grind.
Champ or be Champed
The narrative structure follows TGC’s journey from a youngster with dreams of playing for Australia, to the point he must face the stark reality that he’ll never make it to the big time. Like most players, TGC starts off his grade cricket career in the lower grades:
Normally, each club has four to five grades – first grade being the strongest, fiftht grade the weakest. Those in first grade enjoy a status that the fifth graders can only dream about. Being a first grader is like being a celebrity to 50 blokes whose names you’ll never know – or never even need to know – unless you end up playing with them after a severe run of poor form (or a serious disciplinary breach). The rest of the club – seconds, thirds, and fourth grade – is basically an assortment of talented youngsters and ageing desperates. The common denominator between the young and the old brigade is that they all were once told they were ‘good enough to play for Australia’. In many cases, it was the first and last compliment they ever received – and the reason why they’re still playing. In all cases it was the worst thing that ever happened to them. The ultimate grade cricketer, therefore, will possess the perfect balance of good and not good enough that will haunt them for all of their playing days. All this, of course, is something that can only be learned with experience.
Moroever, the structure of the grades also provides the framework for a strict social caste system within the club environment:
In many ways, grade cricket social hierarchy bears great similarity to the feudal systems that first appeared in the Middle Ages in Europe – something I’d learned a bit about at high school. As I remembered, kings and sat at the top, enjoying their pick of the land, women and food. They were the ones who established the rules that everyone had to live under. The barons eased their land from the king; the knights leased their land from the barons; and the knights granted the lowly peasants their land. The peasants were not allowed to marry, nor could they even leave the manor without permission. Basically they were the fifth graders of the 8-12th century.
This sounds bad enough, but more concerning is how the sheer time commitment required to play grade cricket can cut people off from other socialising/moderating influences. Grade cricket demands at least six months of the year (eight to nine once you factor in pre-season), and then it’s at least two or three nights of training a week, plus all of Saturday, and often Sunday as well for one-day or representative games. And if you’re embracing the lifestyle, then you can cross out Saturday nights for the ‘circuit’ too.
The most poignant section of the book is when TGC confronts the sheer pointlessness of this all-consuming commitment when he (finally) starts a relationship, and has to explain it to his new partner - a psychologist called Lara.
Over a Sunday morning coffee, Lara asks the inevitable question:
‘So tell me this: why do you play cricket?’
The question was delivered in good humour and with genuine curiosity. There was no hidden agenda; no malicious intent. But nonetheless, it disarmed me, thoroughly.
‘Cricket? Well, I’ve always played cricket. I’m good at it, champ.’
Over the years I had developed a worrying tendency to apply the suffix ‘champ’ when speaking to my friends, family, and now Lara, too.
The responses were never favourable but it always gave me a feeling of dominance. But Lara’s question had triggered a defensive reaction. Was I good at cricket? No, I wasn’t. But I had been trained to hide all my insecurities under an alpha sheath. Grade cricket had taught me that, when threatened, one should always react with extreme aggression. A pre-emptive strike is better than a late strike. In the grade cricket world, it’s champ or be champed.
In defending his devotion to amateur cricket, TGC betrays the relentless alpha-male belligerence that drives its culture. This aggression is often channelled into fast short-pitched bowing, into intimidating body language, and into a never-ending barrage of insults directed at opposing players (aka sledging). In fact, sledging is as integral to grade cricket as the stumps at either end of the pitch.
There’s nothing that makes me feel more alive than sledging a 15 year-old all day before getting into my 1991 Nissan Pulsar and driving to my parent’s house. Absolutely nothing.
Anyway, back to TGC’s attempts to justify his life choices:
The conversation continued. ‘It must be great hanging out with your friends every Saturday,” Lara posed.
I stifled a snigger. These blokes are not my friends. They’re more like my cellmates, if anything. Every Saturday, we report to jail for six hours before being sent home to our families. Grade cricket is essentially periodic detention. The communal showers are only the half of it ...
‘Yeah, we have a good laugh,’ I finally responded.
Starting a meaningful relationship and finding some non-cricket interests proved to be the first steps towards TGC’s reintegration into ‘normal society’. Being forced to change clubs due to an ‘off-field incident’ turned out to be a good thing as well. But even as he made progress, the gravitational pull of his grade cricket socialisation was hard to escape:
You can take the boy out of grade cricket, but you can’t take grade cricket out of the boy. Having spent years surrounded by utter fuckwits, I too, had become a fuckwit. I was a product of my environment.
Pulling up stumps
Having been sold on the cricket dream, and then indoctrinated into grade cricket culture, leaving it behind can be surprisingly difficult. Eventually, however, the grind of grade cricket wears most of its participants down. For most grade cricketers, the end of their career comes quietly, and mercifully. There’s no benefit match, and no gold watch:
The constant failures have become mentally fatiguing. The risk/reward of spending your valuable weekends on a cricket field just isn’t paying off. Unfortunately, there’s nothing idealistic or romantic about retiring from your club team. Rarely will tears be shed. In many ways, it’s a relief – for all concerned.
Or is it really over? Once you’ve caught the cricket virus, you’re never really cured. For TGC, getting dropped to fourth grade at his new club turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to rediscover a style of cricket that was not based on ‘alpha-dogging’ every other player in the field, and where ‘the spirit of cricket’ was not just an ironic joke. And so TGC left the prospect of continuing his cricket journey (and a book sequel) tantalisingly open.
A grade cricket fringe dweller
The existential crisis facing TGC is very familiar to me. I also spent a significant proportion of my ‘best years’ toiling away in the grade cricket system, having been sold the cricket fantasy from a young age.
TGC faced his cricket mortality at age 29. I stopped playing cricket at 28, satisfied that I was not going to get any better at it, and eager to spend time doing something more pleasant and productive on my summer weekends.
I was also sick of the psychological pressure that came from cricket. I found that the higher up the grades I went, the more relentless and personal the sledging became. I knew that I wasn’t all that good at cricket, so being constantly reminded of that fact seemed redundant, and in the end I decided that being routinely abused while standing in the hot sun every Saturday was form of humiliation I could do without.
Unlike TGC, I at least managed to climb the rungs of grade cricket all the way to the heady alpha environs of first grade. Although to be honest, I was a bit out of my depth when I got there. One day I was batting in first grade and my dad overheard a spectator call me and the bloke I was batting with at the time as ‘fringe dwellers’, meaning that we were not real first graders, but existed only the periphery of cricket worthiness. I have to say that it was an apt description, for me at least.
My eventual exit from grade cricket happened without fanfare – indeed, without even being noticed. I was called up to the first grade team, late in the season, and then scored a useful 42 in the final roster match of the season, which was enough to see my keep my place for the semi finals.
Our semi-final team was jam-packed with current or former Sheffield Shield (ie state) players, and others who had played at state level as juniors. I was the notable exception, but somehow I was listed to bat in the prestigious number 3 position (or as TGC says: ‘First drop. Just like Bradman.’) in the batting order.
The semi-final was also being played on Bellerive Oval (now called Blundstone Arena) – a test match venue with big grandstands, well-appointed change rooms and a huge electronic scoreboard. My name was there, up in lights, among a who’s who of Tasmanian cricket.
We batted first, and before too long one of our star batters was out, and I was in. I scratched around for about 25 minutes, without hitting a single ball off the middle of the bat, before being put out of my misery - LBW for a meagre 5. Our team was bowled out for around 200, and then Michael Di Venuto (who played one-day cricket for Australia, and is now batting coach of the Australian Test team) smashed 120 in two hours for the opposition and the match (and my grade cricket career) was over.
While I enjoyed my new-found post-cricket freedom, I always maintained the conviction that playing grade cricket was nonetheless good for me. There were certainly plenty of positives – I made some fantastic friends, and got to know people beyond my school social circle. I built social capital through sport, developing wide network of contacts across different walks of life. And there are few things as satisfying than the feeling of middling a cover drive.
But there is much to playing team sport (be it cricket or something else) than that. Team sport teaches you how to confront failure, how to handle pressure, and the importance of working together. And through team sport, you can find mentors who will not only help you develop your sporting skills, but will help you develop crucial life skills as well.
I met people through my grade cricket journey who were caring, kind, humble, thoughtful, respectful, generous and most all, encouraging. They saw their role as helping boys and girls to grow, not just into better cricketers, – but into well-rounded, disciplined and successful adults. They took joy in seeing the kids who came through their clubs go on to do good things. They were the cricket people who I most admired.
In cricket, as in life, you get good people and bad, and most people have the capacity for both. Some of the people I looked up to as young cricketer remain guiding lights for me to this day. What’s more, cricket is slowly becoming less of a boys-only enclave, with a growing number of women taking up the sport. The macho grade cricket culture will be hard to shift, but acknowledging that this culture exists, and then subjecting it to the unforgiving flame of satire - as The Grade Cricketer does – is a reasonable place to start.
Looking back now, the 13 or so years I spent desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to master the craft of leg spin bowling, through countless hours in the nets, brought me little more than a case of RSI in my right hand ring finger. My first grade career was so forgettable that the weekly preview article in The Mercury newspaper had me making my ‘debut’ at least four times. I may, in fact, hold the record for the most number of debuts in TCA cricket history.
But I can still rip a decent wrong-un with a tennis ball, and I never take a free Saturday afternoon for granted.
You can follow The Grade Cricketer on Twitter- @gradecricketer. The book is available at your local bookshop, or get it online from Fullers Bookshop.
Yet another debut ...