Never meet your heroes? Justin Brown salutes an exception to the rule.
I should hate cricket.
I only ever scored one fifty. I never hit a six outside of the backyard format. And in 1987, as I sprinted to get his autograph at the end of day’s play at the Basin Reserve, my hero Sir Vivian Richards told me to ‘GET OFF DE FARKING PITCH, MON!’
But I don’t hate the game. I’m in love with it. Cricket spells summer. BYC. The beach. Dodgy LBs. Cheating. Sledging. Smashed windows. Prickle injuries. Watermelon helmets.
Cricket nuts are hardy. We have to be. Our sanity is questioned daily. How can you watch that game for eight hours? For five days? For a DRAW?
Such questions don’t deserve a reply. Mostly because non-believers will never unlock the code of French cuts, chin music, or retiring hurt due to a errant donkey drop.
Rest assured, the Americans will never steal this sport.
For a fan, summer cricket commentary is a national security blanket. Words become a rolling maul of facts and figures and retired player’s lies and false conquests. Soon the commentary isn’t commentary at all, more an extended dub remix. A song. Verbal white noise, which should be dull, but becomes the opposite. God forbid a wicket or a six interrupting such euphoria.
My dad and I used to watch one-dayers on TV One until midnight. Beige clothing. Patel’s catch. Chris Pringle’s infamous over. Paddles trying to get that prick Dean Jones out. Wanting to punch Greg Matthews. What Kiwi father with half a brain could send his son to bed when there was a chance of beating the Baggy Greens?
My cricket addiction extended to playing most nights at the indoor centre in Paraparaumu. Suddenly these centres sprung up everywhere, though this form of the game would always be Outdoor’s Poor Cousin. Playing indoor cricket felt more like batting in a tyre factory. Middle aged-men fell to the ground having been struck in the balls, or pulling an achilles, having not so much as attempted a light jog since school athletics.
My father’s indoor team, the Rooster’s Revival, single-handedly kept Rheineck in business. I remember boxes of beer being heaved up the ‘tyre factory’ stairs and Rodney Rude jokes appearing a few bottles later. My dad was keeper, which had its downsides: every Wednesday morning his bruised thighs looked as though he’d been on the wrong end of a bullfight.
A Rheineck headache didn’t help.
I remember the year the West Indies came to town. Caribbean Superheroes who may as well have been from the moon. Joel Garner. Richie Richardson. Gordon Greenidge. These guys truly were the Kings of Cricket. As they strode from changing room to pitch I stared at their black faces. Their size 14 shoes. The boy from Raumati South had never witnessed anything like it.
The West Indies v New Zealand one-dayer was booked for the Basin Reserve. I was to have the day off school. There was no chance of sleep. ‘Twas the night before Christmas – Calypso style.
The day of the match it pissed down. I might have cried.
If you’re not going to make the national side in your favoured sport, the next best thing is to write about it. Following the success of Rugby Speak, I wrote Cricket Speak, a short bible for fans who have no idea what to yell from the crowd. Bowling Through India followed, a memoir of the Black Craps as we travelled through India and were thrashed by local nine-year-olds at their own game. I recently adapted the book into a screenplay. (Taika? Peter?).
If you’re not going to make the national side in your favoured sport, you can also talk about it. I’ll set the scene. Colin Maiden Oval, Auckland. Let’s cross to our Radio Sport commentary team, Justin Brown. Packed crowd of eight, one four-legged. A yet-to-be famous Trent Boult wanders about waiting for his turn to bat. I drag him inside the commentary box.
Anyone who has worked in radio or TV knows a guest means the workload is halved. I had a guest. And the now-very-famous fast bowler and I commentated together. It was a dream. We had the code down pat. Strokes it through cover for a comfortable single. Plays it down to fine leg for one. I’m embarrassed to admit we may have even talked about the weather.
Radio commentators will say they do it tough, unlike TV where moving images of stag dos and dozing spectators provide relief. There’s always a shot of the kid with a silly hat and sillier grin. That kid was me once, in the days when my sister’s bedroom wall was covered with Magnum PI and mine, cricketing greats like Martin Crowe.
For years I watched New Zealand’s greatest batsman fascinate fan and opponent. I was 12 when I met Martin and his brother Jeff at the Basin Reserve. They were promoting their book The Crowe Style. Seeing my sporting hero in the flesh was unforgettable. Even more so, Martin’s light pink Miami Vice-styled jacket. Sleeves rolled up. No one could mould him. No one would. It’s why we loved him.
25 years later my dream of bowling to Martin Crowe came true. Location: Indoor nets at Papatoetoe Cricket Club during his attempted comeback. It was a highlights reel. I bowled pie after pie as the master repeatedly hooked me through mid-wicket.
‘Come on, Brownie,’ he yelled. ‘Pitch it up!’ But he knew I was shit.
Since his passing there have been many things written about Martin: his sporting heroics, mentoring prowess and invention of T20 cricket. But I remember him differently. I remember him as someone who disproves the theory “never meet your heroes.”
Apart from Viv Richards. That loser ain’t never getting a Christmas card.
*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom