Bob and Flynn ran onto the ground, eager to be part of the game. It didn't matter to them that they were playing for the opposition, this time their sunburnt skin was going to be earned on the ground playing a man‘s game, instead of at the scoreboard.
I think we were all grateful to see the boys get the opportunity. Every Thursday night when the teams are read out after training, they're named as 12th men. Some of the kinder men wince, and the just men take note - men with a sense of justice always take note when smaller people are slighted, but mostly there’s no reaction. The boys train every night and miss out at selection, usurped by ring ins week in, week out. The hours of bowling to older men in the cricket nets and fielding balls from over the fence count for nothing. Ring ins, they’re the drinking buddies or work mates of whoever, men who more often than not need to leave a match early, or can’t make it on time, forever leaving the team in a bind if the match is close. The boys miss out all the same because selection gives preference to men, in particular men who can drink or throw a punch. Fighting men usually throw the ball hardest.
Today is different. Even though the boys weren't selected they're out there on the ground, doing serious things underneath the fiery sun despite their inadequacies. Selection never takes account of the needs of the opposition, and through that loop hole the boys join the fray, standing with the opposition men as they pull on whites, their captain giving generic pep talk as the men respond in ocker idiom.
Bob is older, so he usually travels with the 3rd eleven, Flynn with the 4th. That means the boys are separated most days and spend the hours alone with the elements. The worst part is that they're always excited to play.
l’ve been there myself, the perpetual 12th man for the 4th eleven. The days are often hot and dry, and there’s nothing but dead grass and dust at the grounds that we play on. The grassy oases you might see as you go to church or do the shopping are reserved for better cricketers in cleaner whites. Our whites barely deserve the name. Afternoon tea is a shambles - whilst the 1st eleven has a banquet of fresh fruit, lemonade scones, and homemade sandwiches that would make the old ducks of the bowls club proud, our afternoon tea usually consists of pre-packaged biscuits: Shapes and Tim Tams. Every now and then someone drops in at the bakers and picks up an apple scroll. The younger boys love afternoon tea, gorging themselves on the sweets. And the rougher of the men, men who know the devastation of fires and divorce, they love it too. If you ever wondered why so many cricket men are fat, that distinct lack of nutrition is cause enough; and as for the gnarly men, they’re probably smoking themselves to the bone - but who am l kidding, the fat men smoke just as much as the skinny. When there’s a man with clean whites in the team, that sure sign of a monogamous or married man, there’ll be fresh sandwiches - but those men usually rise to the 2nd eleven. Selection in the 1st eleven has skill requisites, but the 2nd eleven ... well, a good sandwich is a golden ticket. I shouldn’t be so bitter though, they probably deserve to be there given that discipline is as important as skill in the field, or talent with the bat.
The job of 12th man is to not f--- up the petty chores: prepare the drinks for the men, update the scoreboard. Get a new ball, the last one got belted in the drink. Run fresh gloves out to the batsman; stand as umpire at square leg. Occasionally some fool too old to be out there gets tired and you're called out to field at fine leg, away from the action and alone under the sun. Down there at fine leg, a solitary figure on the boundary, it’s easy to get distracted. What’s worse is that there is a tendency for the leathery knob to take flight in your direction in those moments of woozy lethargy. Take the catch and you get a nod, drop it and you get the scorn of men you probably admire. Every now and then a man goes down, hurt. Boys fit poorly the shoes of fallen men, but injured men only come off when the team is losing.
Bob and Flynn know nothing of any of that though, they just want to see the bails come off with every ball. That’s all they ever want. lt’s probably why they look forward to the long Saturdays: junior cricket in the morning, followed by seniors in the afternoon. ln truth it’s longer than a standard work day. lt doesn’t bother them that they get up earlier for cricket than for school - they're still so young that they get up early on weekends anyway.
Cricket is in their blood. They'd be lost without Saturday cricket. Well, that’s not exactly true. lf l were to be most precise, l’d say that their father would be lost without cricket. That bloke is lost anyway, his wife having left him and come back with a girlfriend, only to then quit the girl for another guy all the while sharing the marital home. A country town is often a strange place. As their father retreats to the safety of the directness found in the ways of men from the cricket club, a place where he feels safe and sure, his boys soak up the atmosphere, the attitudes, and the habits. Cricket infects their blood.
That game has stuck in my memory for a long time. We were playing for a spot in finals. Some of the older men would have killed to play finals, for the change in routine, for something out of the ordinary in their lives. For a fresh and worthy story with which to regale the bar flies at the pub. Men always have fresh tales to tell, and they always have good stories too, but it’s rare that a story is both. Finals qualification is a lottery ticket, a chance at glory even if you lose. Many of the guys saw that game as the day they’d earn that ticket, and they'd said as much around town. The town's citizens had all come down to watch.
It's 15 minutes before start of play. Cricketers of a higher grade would be warming up, having already tossed the coin: the fielders doing catching practice, the bowlers choosing ends and deciding who takes first over, how the wind is to be used and all that. The batsmen would have the plebs of the team throwing balls down so they could feel their bats kiss the leather. Those men of higher grades probably have families and children to organise for family events during the off season, and therefore know how to prepare themselves and others, regimented colonels of the time. There's probably a high school teacher amongst them, taking charge. Those men don't play in the 4th eleven. Us, we’re still preparing the ground, checking the crease markings at either end of the pitch, setting up the stumps, filling in pot holes left by rabbits, and ringing around, making sure everyone is on their way. Sad to say, but we're ahead of our usual schedule.
The opposition cars arrive. They all roll in together like a road train that emerged from the dusty bush, a few shitboxes and a new ute with a canary. The men get out and scratch and stretch. Three men light cigarettes, and to our relief they’re as bedraggled as us. They've travelled a long way to be here. There’s only 6 of them - not enough to start the match, but there's still 15 minutes before play is supposed to start. Though we’re not so mean spirited as to want them to have to forfeit, we’re glad, and will seek to exploit their shortage of players.
We approach them and hurry to have the coin tossed. Victoria's face looks up at us from the dirt and twigs. We elect to bat (the only reason the men know the word ‘elect’ and feel confident using it is because it's in the cricket jargon). There's no way to better take advantage of shortage of numbers than to put them in the field. They know it too and they're frantic because their 7th and 8th men are stuck in traffic and the rest of the team is unreliable. lt’s an unorthodox question but they’re desperate: they ask Bob and Flynn to fill in until their team mates arrive, otherwise the game will be a forfeit. Four of our blokes are standing in the middle of the ground, forcing the time issue: two batsmen, and a pair of fielders who are stuck taking the first stint as central, and square leg umpire. The rules of cricket give the opposition 15 minutes grace to arrive and be ready for play, and waiting on the pitch is a good way to make an unprepared opposition cagey.
Bob and Flynn are excited and accept; their father agrees. They run onto the ground and into the embraces and enthusiastic relief of the opposition.
Our batsmen make a mockery of them, their lack able bodied fielders telling. Their bowlers try to slow play down, taking ages to bowl each ball and constantly moving fielders. It doesn’t stop our batsmen from making runs fast. Six men and two boys are no match for fresh willow and a psychological advantage.
A few other blokes rock up and run out onto the ground between overs. Eventually Bob and Flynn are relieved of their positions as more turn up. The boys run off the ground, champions. Flynn took a catch, and Bob stopped a four. They run into the rooms and boast of how they did to the lady we call Mother that works the till, selling beer and sports drinks during the game. She croaks encouragement in a smokers voice, genuinely excited for the boys. The boys rush around the ground to the nets and have a hit even though the nets open up onto the ground where the decisive game is still in action. The boys are so excited they don't even wear pads, braving hard cricket balls that nip and sometimes bite. A few balls are hit back onto the ground, but they don't distract the men. The men are as concentrated as they’Il ever be.
l remember that later that night, when the opposition left still cheering their narrow victory, the cruel men muttered about the boys having cost us a chance at finals. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in your memory.