I defy anyone to read the first chapter of The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong and not be completely sucked in:
I’m wedged towards the rear corner, driver’s side, so close I can smell the hot plastics of the tail light… The cable ties are drawn tight around both wrists, cutting into the flesh… The feet, from whom I’ve heard nothing lately, must be in a similar predicament; more cable ties drawn around the ankles… My breath is hissing in and out of my nose, my mouth tightly taped.’
And there we find Darren, in the boot of a car, on the Geelong to Melbourne road, with a bullet in his right knee, and without any real sense of why he’s there. We traverse through his childhood, growing up in the working-class western suburbs of Melbourne with his brother and his mum, through his rise and fall as a career cricketer, then back to where we started: a middle-aged man trapped in the boot of a car, with time running out.
I’m going to get straight to the point. I LOVED THIS BOOK.
I have no interest in cricket but for the duration of this book, I LOVED IT. I’m not particularly interested in the fate of dingbat sportsmen who put themselves in morally perilous positions and then expect forgiveness, but for the duration of this book, I LOVED THAT. I revelled in the way it perfectly evoked growing up in 1970s/80s Australia (‘in those days tennis balls could only be purchased new as a set of four in a vacuum-sealed can, unattainably expensive’/ ‘I smashed another Salada into my mouth and turned on the TV’) and if I grew up in Melbourne, I’d have delighted in the way the city was depicted over the decades (‘Mum came from a fabled place called the Eastern suburbs, a faraway land on the other side of the city’).
This book is definitely masculine – by that I mean it canvasses themes that men are more likely to relate to – but not unknowingly, and not in an alienating way. The foundation of the entire novel is the feverishly close, but destructively competitive relationship between Darren and his older brother Wally: ‘Wally is my idol, and yet my inverse in all respects other than our shared obsession with cricket’. Despite being so different (Wally is the responsible eldest and Darren finds himself increasingly typecast as the larrikin), the two boys know each other in a way that only siblings can (‘throughout his adult life, Wally will say ‘actually’ when he’s getting all shrill and emphatic’).
One of the best things about The Rules of Backyard Cricket is its attention to detail: ‘We get a Tab Cola to share while [mum] flips the lid off a bottle of beer with a little fft and pours it into a special glass with a gold rim’. So even though I don’t watch cricket, I didn’t grow up poor, and I don’t know what a brother-brother relationship is like, I could perfectly imagine it all. One of my favourite lines from the book: ‘The kid bowling at the other end isn’t really up to it. His face is a tangle of reluctance. One look at him and I know what his schoolbag would smell like’. And immediately, I knew too!
Sitting firmly above this detail is a meta-narrative – not just about cricket – but about professional sports as a whole. It illustrates what we all know, but try to largely forget; that it’s corrupt, driven by advertising and creates squadrons of clay-footed sportsmen (think Shane Warne and the like). Serong never goes as far as to dismiss the value of professional sport altogether, his love for cricket comes through as strongly as his critique of it, but he makes explicit its deficiencies: ‘Personal vendettas, lecherousness and racism have simmered away just below the surface for so long’.
There are surprisingly brutish moments in the book – between the brothers, with other cricketers, between Wally and his wife – and there’s a hellauva climax, which leads to an ending I’m still in denial about.
I actually can’t believe I’m recommending a book about cricket, but The Rules of Backyard Cricket is a fantastic read. It’s gripping, intelligent and brilliantly written. Plus, it’s given me something to ponder when I’m out the back playing cricket with my two boys.