Ideas for articles come from the strangest places.
One of the best recent takes on amateur level cricket is The Grade Cricketer – a searing, no-holds-barred satire on the strange world of aspiring cricket in this country, covered previously on The Roar by Dane Eldridge.
While grade cricket’s cutthroat, take-no-prisoners environment plays a key role in producing mentally tough and resilient state and international cricketers, it’s certainly not for everyone.
Aside from the atmosphere being quite brutal, it eats up a lot of time – a frequent theme of The Grade Cricketer are the numerous social outings and pleasures foregone for a full day toiling in the field under the merciless sun – and the costs of assembling all of the various kit and equipment required can be exorbitant.
For the past few years I have been playing in, and umpiring a new form of the game called Last Man Stands.
Founded in 2005 in London, it claims to be the widest reaching amateur cricket league in the world, with over 40,000 players globally.
A franchise-based competition, it is now run out of all of the major cities in Australia and some regional centres, while overseas there are competitions in South Africa, England, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the USA.
Unashamedly billed as a participation-focused social competition, the secret of its success lies in the fact a match takes only two hours to complete, making it accessible to parents, full-time employees, students, and anyone else who wants to enjoy a competitive game of cricket but is reluctant to commit to grade.
There are a few changes to allow this abbreviated form of the game to occur – games are standard T20 format, however the big change is that a team consists of only eight players, rather than the customary 11. Fewer players means more opportunities for everyone to have a bat and a bowl, as well as it being a lot easier to assemble a team (as well as more gaps in the field).
Overs consist of five balls rather than six, however only the first wide or no ball of an over is re-bowled, with any further extras after that counted as three runs to the opposition, for a firm cap of six-ball overs. (Cries of “That’s your one for the over” are common from fielders after their bowler sprays the first one down the leg side).
The net effect of these rules is that games are wrapped up quickly – it usually only takes 60 or so minutes to bowl each side’s 20 overs, meaning players can reliably set aside just a couple of hours to play the complete game.
Batsmen have to retire once they hit 50, however can return to the crease if the remaining batsmen are all dismissed, and teams bat until seven wickets have been lost. At that point the last man standing (hence the name) bats on by himself, however can only run twos, or hit boundaries. The effect of this rule is that sides aren’t out of the game until everyone is out – I have witnessed on numerous occasions one batsman winning the game solo for his team, chasing down a total with an orgy of boundary hitting towards the tail end of an innings. Such an effort is inevitably feted on Facebook, with a barrage of likes, comments and tags flooding the batsman’s profile, and the photo of him grinning, covered in perspiration, and holding his bat aloft after the game.
Given this is social cricket, standards can vary widely. In the major cities where you have numerous teams participating, the competition is graded, much as any social sport – at one end of the scale you’ll have pub teams and groups of mates getting together for a beer and a slog, all very casual and good fun, and at the other end you’ve got well-drilled outfits loaded up with big hitters, proper fielding technique, and some very brisk bowlers, with a noticeably higher standard.
The competition bills itself as being available to all ages and skill levels – we get university students, groups of friends, ex-grade cricket veterans, young tyros, teams of footballers wanting something to do in the off-season, and even members of a platoon from the army.
In Sydney, a team called Ocean 12 made the news recently, comprising entirely of Tamil asylum seekers, who arrived in Australia by boat and spent some months in detention, and their presence in the Sydney competition has played an important role in transforming attitudes towards asylum seekers and subcontinental people.
Once a year the best teams from the major cities are invited to participate in a week-long round robin and then knockout finals competition, that ends with one team being crowned Australian Champions. With teams regularly returning season after season, rivalries begin to be established – teams gradually acquire their favourite opponents and their bogey sides.
In Brisbane, where the competition has existed for about seven years, the notoriously tough to beat 2nd XI from Ipswich has bestrode the competition like a colossus since the beginning, recently collecting their seconod Australian title, while teams with such eclectic names such as The Woodies, The Unwatchables, Brisvegas Blasters and Brokebat Mountain have had strong showings. Some of the team names are almost unprintable – a great deal of ingenuity and humour goes into them, as any patron of social sports will tell you.
Most importantly, it’s fun! The fact it’s social cricket and casual means that participation and getting everyone involved is the main focus. Some teams have designated batters and bowlers, other share it all around, and mix up the order each week. With only eight players and 20 overs, your chances of getting a bowl are excellent, and depending on how good your batting line-up is, batting is usually on the cards for most players as well. Fielding standards range from excellent to execrable – plenty of guys under a high ball would give Brett Lee’s mate from the AHM adverts a run for his money – but by and large teams just shrug off drops and the games are usually played in excellent spirits.
I say usually as sometimes you get a side that breaks the mould. In 2014 a team burst onto the scene in Brisbane called Frederick Spofforth, consisting of a number of ex-grade cricketers with aging and broken bodies (their words, not mine). After getting thrashed in their first game they resolved that they wouldn’t suffer further embarrassment like that again, and in true pantomime villain style proceeded to go on an unbeaten 27-game run, lasting from September 2014 to April 2015, with a whatever-it-takes mentality towards winning (within the rules, of course) against opponents both on the field, and off-field on social media as well.
Eventually a few defeats, loss of key personnel, and sledging an opposition player who happened to also be an Australian indoor cricket player rebounded spectacularly (they’re still finding cricket balls on the roof of the school across the way), and left them content to burn out rather than fade away. But even in retirement the legend of the dreaded ‘Spoofs’ lingers on.
I never minded this sort of thing though – having played social touch football for years, I know all about facing off against the same teams, and how easily rivalries can develop between evenly matched opponents. It adds to the fabric of the competition, and drives interest and participation. Moreover, teams that were initially taken aback by the force of Spofforth’s collective personality began to toughen up themselves, and towards the end managed to inflict a number of defeats – a good example of how grade cricket’s culture was able to have an impact, and toughen up some of the teams that wanted to do better.
I guess what I like most about it is that it allows people to participate in cricket who otherwise would not get the chance. It doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s not a pathway to anything, there’s no focus on development, and it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of the ICC’s masterplan to pave the roads around their Dubai headquarters with money. It’s just cricket, for cricket’s sake.
And it is a fantastic addition to the sporting landscape – umpiring in this format I see upwards of 60 people a day passing through the ground I’m working at, with four games each Sunday, and that’s just one of the many venues around the country. I am constantly surprised with what everyday blokes can do on the cricket field, and how focused they become once they’re padded up, and the cigarette is extinguished or the beer is tossed in the bin.
I’ve seen teams chalk up their first win after 20 defeats and celebrate ecstatically, I’ve seen the most unheralded of batsmen and bowlers slog a key six to win a game, or collect a wicket no-one was expecting. The unpredictability of the amateur social cricketer constantly confounds and surprises me. Channel Nine’s commentators might talk to kids dreaming of one day playing for their country, but for us older, more realistic souls who know that ship has well and truly sailed (or never made it out of the harbour in the first place), Last Man Stands offers us our own chance at sporting glory.
At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll finish by describing my personal experience of peak cricket – July 10, 2011, when I was still playing, prior to taking up umpiring. I walked out to the wicket at 6/46, chasing 138, in a grand final against our bogey team, The Moths. Our much vaunted and so far that season all-conquering top order had collapsed in a heap. I’ll let the match report written by the umpire spell out what happened next:
Looking at the final scoresheet, deciding the man of the match on runs alone would be an easy task. However the stats don’t tell the whole story here as one of the gutsiest efforts of the day belonged to Paul, who ended up 25 not out off just 20 balls.
It would be safe to say that Paul was not cut out of the same mould as the Damien Martyns or Mark Waughs of this world, he may not have all the shots in the book or be the most powerful batter in the game, but the opposition just could not get him out, and he played his role to perfection.
Running hard at every opportunity, turning ones into twos, and rotating the strike effectively, it was a fantastic effort and gave his partner in crime Tim every chance to hit their side to glory.
Three boundaries and 7 sixes later, and Tim (79*) achieved the unthinkable, snatching victory from The Moths’ grasp with a massive six over backward square leg with just two balls remaining.
The feeling was amazing when Tim smoked that six, I remember him and I running off the field to meet our teammates running onto it. And the party afterwards back at the skipper’s place was even better.
For the vast majority of us who’ll never achieve international renown in our chosen sport, social sports like Last Man Stands allows us to have those moments, where a team can enjoy the fruits of hard work and shared success. It allows more people to play the game, and that can only help with cricket’s enduring popularity.
Much as T20 cricket has carved out its own unique brand and audience separate to Test cricket (with some overlap), so has Last Man Stands with grade cricket.
Long may it endure!