The Rules of Backyard Cricket, Australian author Jock Serong’s second novel, is a ripper.
I’ve only recently finished Quota, Serong’s Ned Kelly award winning first novel and would ordinarily have waited a few months before starting his second novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. However, these books are on loan to me from Aunty Gwen and I can’t keep them forever, so decided to get a move on.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket starts with Darren Keefe, a former Australian cricketer, gagged and bound in the boot of a car, presumably on his way to be murdered. As the car travels Darren does his best to break free of his binds and while he is doing so, he tells us his story.
Darren’s backstory is told chronologically, which I liked. He starts with his childhood, playing cricket in their Melbourne backyard and fighting with his older brother, Wally, as they are brought up by their single mother after their father up and left one day never to be seen again.
The Keefe boys are good batsmen who grow up to be great cricketers. Their tempers and personalities are completely different, as is often the case with siblings. Darren is a larrikin who takes pride in his reputation as an impulsive bad boy, while Wally’s personality is so measured that the media find him boring. The brothers are enormously competitive with each other. Darren makes the State Team first, Wally follows soon after. Wally makes the Australian side and Darren is a sure thing to be picked next to wear the baggy green cap but loses his chance when he breaks his thumb batting a bouncer bowled by a riled-up West Indian player. The description of Darren’s broken thumb, called a Rolando fracture, had me squirming.
Wally went on to captain Australia, while Darren’s broken thumb left him playing one-dayers, giving the crowd their money’s worth and getting up to no good the rest of the time. Images of Shane Warne being photographed smoking, texting women who he wasn’t married to, and generally misbehaving kept springing to mind, but Warnie was a great cricketer and a larrikin, rather than a would-be great cricketer who missed his chance.
Darren was involved in quite a few dodgy sidelines outside of cricket, any of which could have led to the situation in the car boot, but I was kept guessing to learn what had actually caused this until the end of the story. When it came, I was left gasping.
Darren’s most formative relationship, other than that with Wally, was with his mother. She loved cricket too and encouraged her sons to make the most of their talent. Darren was unable to continue a long-term relationship with any other women, probably for the same reason as many other sportsmen; too much temptation in the form of other women while living out of a suitcase.
What I keep thinking about though, a few weeks after having finished the book, is sibling rivalry. My understanding is that the first child in a family takes on a particular role or set of characteristics, then when the next one comes along and because some traits are already taken, they find something different for themselves to set themselves apart from the first child, and so on and on with all of the following children in the family. So the first child might be the responsible (or bossy) personality, the second might be the rebel, the third the funny one, the fourth the easy-going child and the fifth child so far under the radar they might as well not even be there, etc. Darren and Wally certainly exhibited character differences, but their competitiveness with each other when it came to cricket was extreme.
This story could have used any sport for the setting, but I enjoyed the use of cricket. While I’m not a fan I’m as familiar with cricket as most Australians, having played backyard cricket, filled in on my brother’s team when they were short of players and scored their games when they had a full side. I’ve attended a one day game at the MCG (possibly the longest day of my life) and the sound of a Test Match on television in my parents and my parent in law’s lounge room’s is constant.
So, the rules of backyard cricket are generally the same all over Australia. Over the fence is out, break a window and you’re out, plus you’ll eat dinner off the mantelpiece for a week! Anyone younger than six can’t go out on the first ball and older brothers aren’t allowed to bowl bouncers at their younger siblings. Otherwise, it’s just not cricket…. (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
Jock Serong’s third novel is On the Java Ridge and I’ll read it sometime soon.