‘Selection Day’ – Aravid Adiga and ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ – Jock Serong
Once upon a time a tranny had a different definition – short for one’s transistor radio. In days of pimply yore I’d take my tranny with me everywhere. Usually it was tuned into Melbourne radio station 3UZ as it supposedly had the very latest in hit music. On Saturday arvos it would be the local 7BU when the game from West Park would be called, even if I was actually present at the ground. I often was, even in the foulest of weather, with sleeting rain and a gale blowing in from the west. But during the summer months the dial would be on 7NT, the Launceston ABC broadcaster, because 7NT had the cricket. At the beach, playing tennis or down the wharf fishing, the background would be McGilvray telling my mates and myself, in his authoritarian tones, about the action from the WACA, the ‘Gabba or the ‘G. Of course, back then it was only test match cricket. Did NT carry the Shield? I cannot recall, but probably not, as Tassie was still a long way off participating – and also it was well before the Packer schism that introduced ‘hit and giggle’. And don’t get me started on the travesty that is twenty20 – but I guess they both serve the purpose of introducing fresh punters to the game, some of them, hopefully, rising above the short attention spans required for those formats to the more cerebral world of the real game. Of course I jest, but back then I was addicted to test cricket. I have no idea why. My family weren’t remotely interested. Maybe it could have been from the enthusiasm of a pal, but I think it more likely it was the fact that, even as early as those far away days, I was an avid newspaper reader. For half a year cricket would dominate the back page of the Advocate, the local footy for the remainder of the year – yes, local footy, the VFL relegated to somewhere inside.
What ever the cause, by the time Simpson and Lawry were opening for Australia, I was hooked. I subscribed to a monthly cricket mag, purchased books on the history of the game and when not out and about with my tranny, I was fixated on a grainy black and white small screen of the ABC’s very primitive coverage of the tests – that is, compared to today’s whizzbangery and ultra-analysis). Yes! The ABC! Imagine cricket without the ads – what bliss.
So let us fast forward to today then. It’s all changed. It’s not that I have completely lost my love of it, it’s just the time it takes out of one’s life to watch a complete test as used to be the go for me. As my life span becomes shorter and shorter, it seems reprehensible to give up all these hours to focus on a game. My lovely Leigh is no fan, so it would never be a shared pursuit – me valuing so much my time spent with her. Now I simply follow it on a hand held device at intervals, turning to the tele if there’s an Aussie century or hat trick in the offing. Even my former habit of devouring the cricket reports in the Age has lessened. I always loved Peter Roebuck’s assessment of a day’s play, but now he’s gone. And on the airwaves, no more do we hear Kerry O’Keefe’s chortle. It all just doesn’t seem quite the same.
So when I was alerted (firstly by Leigh, secondly by said Age) to that fact of not one, but two, fictional tomes being published with cricket at their centre, off I went to Fullers to make purchases. Maybe, deep down, I was hoping they might reignite the spark in me.
Synchronised publishing dates were not the only aspect the two books had in common. Aravid Adiga’s ‘Selection Day’ and Jock Serong’s ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ both featured the tales of two brothers, the first Indian, the second pair home grown. These cricketing wizards had immense talent as potential stars for their respective countries, but only one brother was seemingly in it for the long haul – the other being too wayward to knuckle down. The Indian book is very, well, Indian, putting the committed sibling to the fore; the Australian one focuses very much on the larrikin brother. Both publications had a fair bit going for them, but as to which won the test, it was the Aussie effort hands down.
And I’m not the only one to hit on the notion of casting my opinion on the two novels in the one piece. Katharine England had the same idea, writing in the Mercury’s Saturday Magazine. She describes ‘Selection Day’ as the ‘messier’ of the two – and I can only concur. She is one-up on me, though, as she has read the author’s other works, most notably the Man Booker winning ‘White Tiger’. She reckons this one is his least ‘coherent’ to date.
Both books start off with the cricketers as children, relaying their battles in the dusty parklands of Mumbai or the backyard of an Altona home. Manju and elder brother Kumar are motherless and dominated by their driven father. He insists that everything else should be secondary to perfecting their prowess with the willow as a means of escaping the poverty cycle. Eventually the boys are ‘sold off’ to an unscrupulous mentor who is attempting to produce India’s next Gavaskar or Tendulkar. The elder of the duo, although perhaps the most prodigious talent, eventually falls by the wayside, but Manju presses on in an attempt to be the chosen one come selection day. But he has another tedious issue to contend with and that is the nature of his sexuality. Will his attraction to another star in the making, this one of Muslim persuasion and attracted to the wilder side of life, be his undoing? And can he wriggle out from under the thumb of his dad and the shady business men who hope to make copious coin if success comes his way? And as in the case of Serong’s tale, somewhere on the periphery is the modern day cancer of the game that will not go away – match fixing.
In ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ it is the younger brother who is at the core of the work of fiction. As it opens he’s trapped in the boot of a car heading, he presumes, to an isolated place of execution somewhere down the Geelong Road. The novel alternates between Darren Keefe’s improbable attempts to escape his predicament with a review of his career to show how he eventually came to be in that dire situation. I suppose, if you combine the more outlandish boganisms of Shane Warne and the talent unfulfilled of Glenn Maxwell, then you have some idea of what the younger Keefe is all about, that is, sex drugs and some rollicking good times. For older brother Wally, perhaps read AB or Steve Waugh – more stodgy at the crease, seemingly able to do what Darren cannot for all his gifts – to dig in in all aspects of life. Wally gets to wear the baggy-green and rises high – but tragedy strikes both brothers. Darrren loses part of his anatomy, which restricts his game, but Wally’s loss is far, far worse. As we follow this tale it seems both brothers are getting what they deserve – but there’s a twist. Hints to it are given sparingly by the author, it is true; but how the mighty fall.
Serong’s first publication was the award winning ‘Quota’. He’ll perhaps never reach the stratospheric heights of Adiga, but it was his rip-roaring yarn I far more enjoyed. It was also my first book of a mint new year whereas the Indian’s was like so many I read in ’16 – plenty of promise but ultimately disappointing – a bit of a slog. Serong’s I eagerly digested in a few sittings as I raced to see how it would all pan out.
So sadly the tests have finished for another year and the Big Bash is in full swing (poor pun – sorry) with the hit-and-giggle about to commence – ho hum. But battling those magnificent Indians in tests on their home turf is another matter. The Aussie won this little affair of the cricket books – I have my doubts whether our lads will do the same on the tour – but bring it on.