January 6, 2008
IT'S 6.30 on a pre-Christmas Thursday evening, and Melbourne is reeling from an afternoon downpour that has flooded streets, paralysed trains and sent the State Emergency Service into a frenzy. At Balwyn Park, under an angry sky that could yet have more bad tidings to spill, cricket training is underway.
Two groups face off 70 metres apart, broken into three lanes. In the middle stands Brendan Joyce, baseball glove on one hand, flicking a yellow, dimpled, all-weather ball right or left as figures weave past him, each catching and dishing at least once in the sprinted journey to the other end.
"No drops, no drops," barks Joyce. "Don't come off your hats too early. Get there, Micky, get there. Right, jog in."
They scatter to the four points of a square, and are soon rolling balls at speed to a teammate coming off the point diagonally opposite, criss-crossing in the middle.
Balwyn's ground is suffering - the council has recently laid a carpet of droughtresistant turf around the wicket square and across the practice pitch run-ups, but the remainder of the outfield is dirt pock-marked with tufts of grass. It has teeth-rattling potential in a drill like this, but they charge on regardless.
"Attack the ball," Joyce shouts as another grubber explodes to life. "Be aware, be aware." The players are as animated as their coach; the encouragement, the voices hanging in the air, the weather - close your eyes and it could be football training in June.
Even if conditions had permitted a more typical net session, this is how training would have finished, as it does for 45 minutes every Thursday.
"It doesn't matter if it's hailing," Joyce says. "We get them out there. I reckon we field as well as any team, because we do the extra work."
Statistics support the claim; last season, Balwyn's leading wicket-taker was run-outs - 22 of them, 17 from direct hits. The leading bowler took 19 wickets.
This is sub-district cricket, traditionally viewed as the fourth rung on the ladder, behind the old district (now Premier) competition, state cricket, and the Test arena. It is tricky to pigeon hole, covering a vast tract of Melbourne from Melton and Werribee in the west, around the bay from Altona to Mentone, south-east to Endeavour Hills, east to Croydon and Bayswater, and north through Ivanhoe to Bundoora and Broadmeadows.
Twenty-four teams contest two divisions, with four core groups of six rotated each season so that, over three years, a "subbies" cricketer toils as long on the road as the training track.
Some see it as a "bridging" level, and there are examples aplenty of those on the way up, those on the way out, and a middle ground occupied by the many who, like Goldilocks and her third bowl of porridge, find it just right. Others wonder if there might be fewer forks in cricket's elite pathway if sub-district and Premier Cricket came together, in a hybrid, multi-divisional competition with promotion and relegation to keep teams playing for keeps.
Whatever, it is keenly contested cricket. And keenly prepared for, if Balwyn is the yardstick.
It should not surprise. Joyce notched up 15 seasons and 216 matches with Fitzroy-Doncaster, scoring more than 7000 runs, winning the Ryder Medal in 1995-96, yet never playing for Victoria. His grounding - under legendary figures John Scholes and Gary Watts - says much about his character and work ethic; he acknowledges that contemporaries had more talent, "but they just fell out the back of the truck".
He remembers it being "a really hard school, you had to earn your stripes", but is conscious that he cannot be similarly demanding at the next level down. Players miss training for all the usual reasons - as the rain fell on this afternoon, the text messages piled up in his inbox - whereas he remembers virtually needing a family death to be excused at Fitzroy-Doncaster. "These guys don't get paid. It's a real balancing act ... you've got to be careful."
There are enough committed to the task to split into three big groups, based on team levels, with Joyce slapping catches at the firsts near the square-leg fence. The encouragement continues from all as, one-byone, they take their turn at the front of the semi-circle - flat and hard, low and wide, lofted towards the pavilion to mix it up and get the legs pumping.
When a catch is grassed, Joyce drops the bat and coach and players instinctively sprint 70 metres to the long-off fence, vault it, touch a park bench, then sprint back and start all over again. "You don't mind if they stuff it up on the weekend," Joyce says. "You know they're having a crack."
The rotational nature of sub-district cricket gives "having a crack" dual meaning; Balwyn and Brighton's middle- class stereotype is a target on the forehead when they come up against working class Broadmeadows or Werribee.
Billy Leropoulos, student of the game and skipper of the thirds, loves the cultural crossover: "You know playing Werribee, we'll be down in the gutter with them because they think we're all toffees."
Money is the elephant in the corner of the sub-district changeroom. Some clubs, buoyed by poker machines or wealthy, passionate members, have plenty of it and are not afraid to spend big to win big. Playing-coaches are paid, some players too; tales of just how much abound in Melbourne cricket circles.
Names more familiar to state or even Test arenas are dotted around the suburbs. Adam Dale captain-coaches Bundoora Old Paradians, where Joyce spent his first season out of Premier Cricket and with whom Balwyn enjoys a spicy rivalry. Ex-Victorian teammates Graham Vimpani, Shawn Craig and Rob Bartlett are with Oakleigh, Malvern and Mt Waverley respectively. There are also those who just can't give it away: Shaun Graf, now 50, captains Caulfield, standing in slip as his son opens the bowling.
Balwyn pays only the coach, but former Victorian Peter Harper has settled at Balwyn Park, and his offspinning ex-state teammate Craig Howard, now in Bendigo, was part of the club's premiership two years ago. They make wonderful teachers for those coming through.
David Bennett, Balwyn's 25-yearold wicketkeeper-batsman, remembers Howard "feeding me a fair bit that year", and admits he probably missed a few too. "You're just in awe of these guys, they're full of knowledge, always happy to pass it on, and you take in as much as you can."
It can work both ways. Damien Fleming rates the 2005-06 premiership with Noble Park, where he played junior football, the equal of anything in his career - this from a man who took a hat-trick on his Test debut. Fleming recalled recently the euphoric hour or so at the end of the final's first day when Noble Park, having been bundled out for little more than 100 and seemingly dead in the water, had the opposition 9-16 at stumps.
Jon Kerr, a junior contemporary of Joyce who has experienced the game at several clubs and levels, loves the intensity of subbies, and the ethos at Balwyn. Under Joyce, he says, the high standards set by his predecessor Cam Matthews have been built on, the communal attitude is right, and "if ordinary blokes come (to the club), they don't last".
The cricket, played on generally slow wickets where batsmen and bowlers alike must work for their supper, can still have an edge. Kerr recalls a game in which the opposition's best batsman came in lower down the order than usual.
Joyce, having just instructed his troops "not to give them any ammunition", greeted him with a withering spray.
"We're all thinking, 'so this is holding back then?'"
Bennett says it "adds another dimension - if you're out there and someone gets stuck into you, you can take one of two options really. It's a test of character."
Kerr was a consistent wicket-taker in the ones before a bad back forced him down two grades, where he plays as a batsman. A knee injury to the gangling Alex Young (a fielding-drill casualty, albeit one innocently suffered picking himself up off the ground) has left Balwyn with an undersized attack, thus the emphasis on fielding.
"Most of our guys aren't tall," says Joyce, "so they've gotta bowl pretty team-oriented and just wear them down."
Leading the attack is Paul "PJ" Janes, a sub-six-footer who exemplifies what Kerr says is the Joyce maxim: not super-gifted, but superdetermined, willing to sacrifice the individual for the team.
"PJ opens the bowling in the ones, and he's tiny, but he fields like an absolute demon, he puts in, and he's fit," says Kerr.
As he speaks Janes, the man out front of the semi-circle who has darted left-right, left-right for seemingly minutes, hares off after a high ball. "Use your wheels PJ, use your wheels," Joyce calls after him. He holds a gut-busting catch he had no right to even reach.
Joyce is steadfast in his belief that promising youngsters must be pushed up to find their level, even if it means losing a good prospect to Premier Cricket. "Some of the guys don't agree, but if I see a kid (in the lower grades) I'll take him. Then you want them to go on, to play district cricket. We're in between park and Premier, so I'm not sure where this level fits. But if anyone's any good, I'll let them go."
The latest project is Mitch Carey, a 15-year-old Hawthorn barracker who would have slipped seamlessly into brown and gold alongside younger versions of Jonathan Hay and Trent Croad. Having lured him across from North Balwyn in the Eastern Cricket Association, the club has worked on getting Carey to lift his action and run through the crease. In the thirds a few weeks ago, it clicked.
"We were in the slips," Kerr recalls, "and about his third ball, the poor kid batting, it nearly nailed him. We took three steps back; he took five-for that day."
His age means he can send down only two six-over spells per innings, a sub-district directive to protect young bowlers' backs. Joyce had no hesitation picking him for the firsts anyway.
Carey is in the team Joyce reels off when he gathers the players together at training's end ("Belly and Peter will open, myself, Marty, Looker at six, Benny seven ...") Despite the grim forecast, he tells them to prepare to play on Saturday, and calls for volunteers to drop by the ground on Friday evening to check on the centrewicket covers. "That's a good session boys, now everyone get upstairs for a beer and a bit of pizza if you can."
This is a Thursday night tradition; teams for all grades are picked as the men who fill them talk cricket and life, eat pizza or pasta, and sip stubbies. Bennett says blokes might have a drink on Friday nights too, as working people are wont to do at the end of the working week, but never more than a couple. "I know with 'keeping, it's hard enough as it is without doing it with a hangover."
The Friday night covers crew is not needed after all; the heavens open again in the afternoon, and all sub-district cricket is abandoned. They will not play again until next Saturday, although if any morsel were to spill from the Christmas dinner table in the meantime, it's a fair bet a Balwyn hand would have swooped before it hit the floor.
Competition: Victorian Sub-District Cricket Association
Teams: Four (senior) and five junior teams.
A-grade conditions: Three-to-four one-day games per season, 40 overs per side before daylight savings, 45 overs after that. Remainder are two-day games, 80 overs per day.
David Bennett, Balwyn Cricket Club
OCCUPATION: Quality analyst with Praemium Portfolio Administration Services.
PREVIOUS CLUBS: Bayswater Park, Hawthorn-Waverley.
CRICKET COMMITMENT PER WEEK: We train Tuesday and Thursday starting at 6pm, through till 8-8.30. We occasionally go upstairs on Tuesday for a drink, and everyone goes up Thursday for a couple of beers and a pizza or pasta on selection night. Matches are 1pm-6pm, with a warm-up from midday. We buy a dozen beers and have one in the rooms after play, and have a beer upstairs with the opposition after that until about 7.30pm.
TRAVEL: Melton is the farthest we'd go, over an hour, but we're not in their group this year. We're in the North-South group, against Bundoora, Kingston Saints, Elsternwick, Caulfield, Ormond, Brunswick, Moorabbin, Preston, Kew, Ivanhoe, Coburg, Brighton and Malvern, so they're all not too bad this year.
SOCIAL: We have three or four functions a year, then a presentation night at the end of the season at the bowls club over the back. The trivia night's generally the big one for the club.
EQUIPMENT: I buy new stuff all the time, it's a bit silly. This year I bought new pads (about $100), bat ($600), gloves ($85), and new whites, which were $55 for the pants and $40 for the top with the Balwyn insignia. It's generally batting stuff one year and 'keeping stuff the next. New 'keeping gloves are about $135 for top-ofthe- range ones.
ANNUAL COST: Subs are $220 for early-bird payment (before November 1), and $270 otherwise ($190 and $240 for students). We pay $10 for umpires on match day, and you bring your afternoon tea for home games. I'm the fruit man, grab some watermelons, cantaloupe, bananas.
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: The premiership would definitely be the one, two seasons ago. Being out there batting at the time that we passed them was pretty good.