Even though my dad and I rarely agree on anything cricket-related, he is the reason why I love cricket. When I was young he’d bowl at me in the backyard. That lasted as long as his cartilage-less knees did. Then we moved onto cricket theory – watching on TV, or at the ground – and for years after that he coached me in junior cricket.
It wasn’t just him. My whole family were cricket fundamentalists. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone played. Very few could bat. Everyone, though, had their own cricketing origin story. My grandpa had jumped the fence at the ‘G to see Bradman (only for the little Army Lieutenant of fitness to fail). My cousin Joel and I had backpacked across South Africa to see Australia win a World Cup, and got robbed in Durban along the way. And my father was paid to work in a bar at a match that wasn’t even a Test match.
It was 1972 and my dad was 25. He had a flock of hair, a nasty eye condition that kept him out of the army, an outswinger to die for, a suspect goatee, no high-school certificate, and a love of cricket. At school he was the fast-bowling athlete others wanted to be. He was also a rubbish student, so rubbish that he was asked to leave school, which partly explains why on the third day of that January he wasn’t relaxing on holidays but was instead working a second job: as a barman at the MCG, on the mezzanine level between the Olympic and Members’ stands.
When you ask my dad how it was to be a barman at the MCG, he only ever talks about this one day. It can’t, though, have been the very worst job he ever had. It got him free entry into one of the greatest meeting places on earth and, knowing my dad, the odd free drink. On the day my dad talks about, he was pouring the beers at a largely pointless match between the Australians, who were supposed to be playing South Africa before they were turfed out of official cricket, and a chucked-together World XI. How much the spectators cared for this match can be guessed by the gate attendance. On no day did more than 38,000 turn up.
As a cricket fan I find it strange that a contest boasting Gavaskar, two Pollocks, Zaheer, Bedi and Garry Sobers could not pull a bigger crowd. As a Melburnian I get it. This wasn’t a Test. It was a hastily added fixture featuring a few bonafide stars and a few John Benaud-types. Melbourne fans like their sport a bit gladiatorial. This was a beer match; it wasn’t life or death like MCG-goers want it. For the MCG is nothing if not Melbourne’s a***hole. People talk about Melbourne being the smart left-wing city with the cool art and the alternative vibe that makes it oh-so-liveable, but all that shit needs to be blown out somewhere and the ‘G is where it happens. The ‘G pulsates through big contests, yawns at small ones, rips people to shreds and makes heroes out of those who treat them to a show.
A non-Test match involving such names as Hylton Ackerman and Norman Gifford was never going to bring out that cauldron nature. It was far more likely that only the true cricket fans would turn out. For my dad this was a good thing. The fewer punters there were, the less beer he’d have to serve and the more time he’d have to watch the cricketers he loved.
Coming out to bat at the start of that day, day three, was Zaheer Abbas, and with him was Sunil Gavaskar. My dad always admired batsmen like Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott. When I was growing up, people would ask him if he wanted me to bat like Viv Richards. And instead of grinning and going along with them, he’d say: “No. I want him to put a price on his wicket like Boycott.”
So there might have been a bit of sadness in my dad when Gavaskar got out to Terry Jenner, who back then was just another Australian legspinner yet to taste the slammer or fly around the world trying to create another Shane Warne – although maybe my dad enjoyed the wicket anyway, because he also loved spinners and was forever going on about hacks no one had heard of, people like Peter Sleep and Ashley Mallett and Trevor Hohns. When I was nine my dad decided that since I was only average at wicketkeeping and bowled slower than any other kid my age, he’d make me into a spin bowler.
Not long after Gavaskar got out, Graeme Pollock followed. This brought Garry Sobers to the crease.
It was 13 years since Sobers had made his 365, and quite a few years since his six sixes in an over. It is probably harsh to say he was over the hill; even now he’d be a better batsman for the Windies than Kirk Edwards. But he hadn’t made a Test century in 23 months. Not that he was under pressure. This was a glorified exhibition match and he was Garry f***** Sobers. He was coming to the end of a special career and giving the ‘G one of its last glimpses of his magic.
When I ask my dad who else played in that World XI, he has no idea. He has no real memory of who was on either side. He thinks Dennis Lillee was there for Australia, along with Jenner or maybe Kerry O’Keeffe (actually they both played). He’s not sure if Barry Richards was in the World XI or not. Part of this is down to age. My old man is past 60. Partly it’s to do with the way Sobers has taken over that game in the memory of anyone who was there.
The first thing my dad tells you about that day is the effect Sobers had on the bar. He emptied it, instantly, the moment he entered the ground. That was not so surprising. This was Sobers, world record-holder, suave strokemaker, ladies man, one of the finest cricketers ever. His charisma alone was probably worth 70 runs. You would leave your beer behind to watch him. Even if you only see a few balls, you’ve seen Sobers, perhaps for the last time, perhaps not, but why risk it?
Myself and Joel once had a similar experience at the ‘G. India were playing on Boxing Day and we hadn’t caught up in ages, so we decided to do something we never really did, which was to have a few drinks while the Test was underway. Early on it was easy, as Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer played two of the most defensive innings of all time. Jaffer made 4 off 27. He looked like a man waiting to cross a busy road. Dravid was going through a career-defining crisis – namely, he’d forgotten how to score. His 5 off 66 balls (which oddly led to me getting married) was more painful than it sounds. He was dropped, mocked and booed. It was too much for Joel and me so we kept on drinking.
Dravid was out on lunch, a mercy kill, and we were humming. Three beers in the first session, a couple more that lunch break and we were off to the sort of flyer Rahul Dravid would have paid good money for. There was no doubt this was going to be a huge drinking day.
After lunch, Sachin changed that. We gave him a standing ovation and I nursed my next beer. Joel drank his straightaway, then didn’t ask for another, which wasn’t like him. All the talk went to Sachin. Randomly we struck up a conversation with a young Indian father who had brought his children along just so they could say they’d seen Sachin bat. That was the moment things changed for us. We realised that we had to focus on this innings. That this might be the last we’d see.
Sachin started scratchy, not scratchy like Dravid or Jaffer, but nervous-scratchy, as if even he knew he may not play again in Melbourne. He was not exactly out of form, or in any actual danger of being dropped, but his tennis elbow and his struggles to make consistently huge runs had him looking human, and this was the closest his career ever came to fading out. A few brave people were whispering retirement.
Sachin’s batting sobered us up. From a medical or blood-alcohol point of view I cannot explain it. But while Sachin was out there I noticed every tug of his pads, every ruffle of his gloves and readjustment of his helmet. Every little thing was important to me. I could not look away. Suddenly he began playing a shot a ball. His innings went from nervous-scratchy to frantic-nervous. Boundaries were coming. He was treating the spinner Brad Hogg like Hogg was something stuck in his teeth. For a second we thought we were about to see a Sachin hundred. Then Stuart Clark bowled and Sachin played on to his stumps. From that moment we got as drunk as we could.
So I understand why, on the day Sobers took hold of the ‘G, no one came in asking for a beer – although I always push my dad on this point. Surely, I say, someone came in? I mean, I understand cricket religious reverence, but it’s the ‘G. Also, this bar was just about right behind the bowler’s arm, up a few levels. And it had a balcony. If you are going to see Sobers, why not choose that outstanding location? And when you do push my dad on this, there was, it turns out, the odd person who came into that bar. Not many, though – because the barman was out on the balcony watching the game.
My dad’s favourite quote about that day is: “If my boss had come in I would’ve been in strife, but I would’ve said sack me, I’m watching the cricket.”
I am never sure whether to believe this or not. My old man might have been a big cricket fan but to give up guaranteed income from a second job is not in line with his devout working-class ethic. Still, he believes it, and he was the one watching Sobers and the one telling this story.
When you prod my dad for details of the innings, he finds that hard as well. It’s not so much because of his failing memory this time – it’s because of how much Sobers gave him. “Forwards, backwards, front foot, back foot, he had every shot in the book, he was just a genius, over the top, along the ground, he just did it. With grace.” He is not a man for detail at the best of times, my dad.
Yet when you really drill him on it, especially if he is sober in the retelling, he remembers cover drives off the leggie, and how Sobers played Lillee, the way he dismissed balls on his pads and the way the ground lifted every time he played a shot. Mostly my dad talks about how the bowlers looked like they were coming in to feed Sobers. It didn’t matter what they tried, Sobers could see what they were trying to do. He always had the answer before they’d finished working out the question.
In my dad’s story, Sobers isn’t Sobers but Batman with Superman’s powers.
And of course once I’ve got those few details out of him, I can’t help myself: I mention to my dad that some people reckon Jacques Kallis to be the better allrounder. I don’t believe it myself. But I know it will get him upset. “Jacques Kallis,” says my dad, ‘is a great allrounder, but he wouldn’t even look up Sobers’ bum.”
Dad does not tell the story in chronological order. He does not fill in the gaps, such as whether Sobers started off strong and then consolidated before attacking the spinners later, or whether it happened the other way round. He doesn’t even distinguish between the two days, the one where Sobers made 139 and the other where he took it to 254 (or 252 as my dad tells it). He explains it more the way a born-again Christian describes their moment of conversion, as if the ground they were playing on was a pitch made of clouds.
It’s not anything like a match report, it’s all personal, like Sobers was there for his pleasure, all the stars aligned. My dad was at his ground, watching his favourite player, in an empty bar with a balcony just perfect for viewing. That’s why the detail is not important: he wants you to know how it feels.
My dad is not a big talker. I know nothing about the moment he met my mother or how he proposed. The story of my birth takes him only a few seconds. If you want to know something about him you have to get him drunk, or wait till he uses the information in a separate argument. Yet this Sobers story has been told to me a hundred times. Occasionally I prompt it, just because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it, and other times he segues into it like he’s moving into his comfy clothes before watching the Pies play on a Sunday afternoon. The details can change, depending on how drunk he is or the point he is trying to make, but he always tells it the same way, like he saw God.
The other thing that stays the same is the ending: “I got paid to watch one of the best innings of all time.”
And then he goes a bit quiet. You can see he is reliving it. But he looks frustrated, too, that he cannot articulate it better, as if the story is too much for him to ever get out. That’s he’s let me down by being vague and ethereal. He’s wrong, though. I know everything I need to know about that innings simply by looking at his face and listening to his voice.
Recently my dad found footage of the innings. He was desperate to show it to me. I held off for as long as I could, hoping he’d accidentally delete it from his DVR. I didn’t want to see it, because I thought it might ruin the memories that I had of him telling it to me. But one day, before I realised, he put it on. Even with the camera set up at one end of the ground, grainy footage, and a lack commenters telling you how special each shot was, Sobers’ 254 was one of the most amazing innings to watch. The innings that Bradman said was “probably the greatest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia”. No matter how good he was through mid-on, or slashing through point, or the way he played every single ball from the spinners, it wasn’t the innings I remember hearing from my dad. This was Sobers’ 254.
The innings I’ll always remember was the Sobers’ 252, the one that belongs to my dad.
This is an edited extract of an article included in the book Australia: Story of a Cricket Country