As usual, I arrived too late. When I was fifteen I dreamt of writing for the NME: a cluttered London office, the phone receiver tucked into my chin; chatting loudly, typing mordant sentences. But Napster had kneecapped the specialist music press within a year of my finishing school, and the notion of a newsprint music paper went the way of the CD single, straight into the dump bin of stuff nobody wanted. And when I finally joined in with my maternal family’s uniting love, which is cricket, and especially Test cricket, it was to hear the pundits say that Test cricket is dying. Of course I want to write about it now, and write about it being written about, infelicitous and ill-timed as the impulse may be. They say write what you know, but I’ve never been one to take advice. 

There is much in the world that matters more. But this can always be said; a game will always be a game. That cricket matters less than any other thing I could or should be writing about is the thing that makes me want to write about it: is the thing, I suspect, that at present keeps me writing at all. I have come to be so very scared of writing, again – of my failures and prospective failures, language failing me, my failing it. The stakes appear intolerable. I feel like Steve Smith at the crease, Steve Smith as he has been in recent years while batting, crabbed and anxious, rarely finding fluency.  

Though not renowned for his powers of self-insight or articulacy outside the shapes he can make with a cricket bat, Steve Smith said something recently that moved me. ‘I look back at some of the innings I played when I first started,’ he said. ‘I had no fear and I just went out and played. Whereas now … sometimes my fear gets in the way of what I’m trying to do. I’m probably not as free-flowing, in a way. I’m thinking through different scenarios and that might hold me back.’   

This isn’t feel the fear and do it anyway. This is: I feel the fear, and now I’m fucking fucked. Every cricket writer knows that Steve Smith doesn’t sleep during a Test match; instead he lies awake in his hotel bed, imagining how he might play. Then he goes out and plays, day one, day two, day five, still figuring how it might be done as he does it, waving his hands between shots as if to chase away the thing he didn’t do, or note the thing he might do next. I’m thinking through different scenarios. I think I understand, not because I’m one of the best cricketers alive, but because I have to make decisions too, related to the practice of an art. Every sentence that I write (heck, each clause), as I write it, is crowded round with phantoms of its going wrong, my wrong decision, like being afraid that if you hit the wrong stroke to the ball you’ll end up losing your wicket. Instead you lose your mettle, piling up inert, half-finished pages, or getting out again for a middling score. To believe in perfection – to believe you can achieve it – is to stand in the way of grace. 

It was a bad year for writing; last year was a bad year for most things. 2023 gets a one-star review on Goodreads. Absolutely not for me. I didn’t find anything funny in it – or original. It was a great year for watching the cricket though, in part because there was so much to watch: a World Test Championship final, the men’s and women’s Ashes, a World Cup tournament in the men’s one-day format. The latter came replete with the brain-numbingly tautological catchphrase, ‘It takes one day’. (The tournament itself took nearly seven weeks.) Each of these marquee events happened to take place in a far-flung timezone – the World Cup in India, the Ashes and WTC final in England – which lent an enticing, faintly bootleg air to the process of following along from Sydney, reminiscent of those teenage nights I’d spend listening to cassette tapes when I should have been asleep, and with a comparable, morning-after sense of drowsiness. Somewhere in the first half of the year my friend, the writer Gabrielle Carey, died: between work, a bout of Covid, the bedevilment of grief and being hospitalised for a cat bite (was I living in a Paula Fox novel?), time went soupy. My clock was cooked. Might as well switch on the cricket.  

I could have, I don’t know, used the wracked hours to learn another language, or finally read some Proust. But this wasn’t the first time I’d turned to the cricket in a season of personal crisis, and I had to admit that the habit had outgrown whatever self-soothing impulse it started in. People who smoke only when they’re ‘stressed’ will understand me. 

The men’s Ashes – the unfiltered cigarettes of sporting contests – coincided with the early rounds of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and I kept watching the cricket. Then I watched the Matildas, too: from my sofa; in the flesh at Olympic Park when a friend had a ticket to their match against Denmark; out in public where the big screens were. All those kids! All the girls! The girls erupted off the grass when Sam Kerr scored her wondergoal in what would be a losing cause against England, green-and-gold tinsel shimmering, the screams and the cheering, the Loudly Crying Face emoji flying through the ether. Prayer hands. Let’s beat the English. Every gay man I know – that’s a twenty–team tournament’s worth – was watching football. There was something going on here more than nationalist sentiment, redundant to the nation’s claims that we be one. Be manifold. 

But on that old rivalry. Some English football writers, in response to mutterings that the England players wasted time – one was booked on field for the offence – said the problem was we didn’t understand, that the colonies were naive to the hard-nosed tactics that it takes to win an international match. This was a laugh if you, like me, had watched the Ashes, and had witnessed the fracas that took place when Australia used hard-nosed tactics against England in the Second Test at Lord’s, London’s most hallowed and toplofty cricket ground. Perhaps you heard about it: Albo joined the chat, and Rishi Sunak. Cartoonist First Dog on the Moon summarised it best: 

During the second Ashes Test an English ball-hitting fellow ‘lost his wicket’ after an Australian ball-catching fellow ‘removed his bails’ in a controversial fashion. The English fellow had wandered gormlessly ‘out of his crease’ as he thought the ‘ball was dead’ and was subsequently ‘stumped’.  

Cricket is ridiculous. Each of its idioms necessitates another of its idioms; the game defies elucidation. This accounts for why its literature is vast – the match reports, annuals, manuals, scorebooks, journalism, criticism, history, and philosophising. You’d think I would have loved it as a child who loved language, this game that needs its own vocabulary to describe where every player is in space, and their position relative to every other player in each moment of a game. I read somewhere that cricket’s names for fielding positions – gully, square leg, mid-on, mid-off, fine leg, cover point, and on and on – originate in star charts. A cricket field, like the sky, is ever-changing. Things move around, you move around; time passes. That’s true of other ball sports too, but the long duration of a Test match makes the shifts in space significant– a captain decides the field placements, and rarely upon impulse, revises them, changes them again – yet slippery. Like watching clouds, nothing happens, then it’s happened.  

But I didn’t; didn’t love it: I couldn’t map the words to a picture in my head, as I could when I was reading, and I took that as a personal affront. All those hours when the cricket would be on the radio, and I was lost. ‘Cricket is a closed book to many people’, writes Frank Tyson in the first line of his introduction to The Terms of the Game: A Dictionary of Cricket, which I bought years ago in an op shop and have barely looked at since. Now I see that Tyson’s dictionary has something in common with a thing I did love as a child: Choose Your Adventure books. ‘Whether adhering to or turning off the freeways of cricketing jargon, the reader never knows where his or her curiosity might lead’, Tyson muses:  

The entry fast bowler, for instance, might be a starting point for a journey whose sequence of interlinked stations includes swing, outswinger, bowl from wide on the crease, return crease, no-ball, intimidatory bowling, short-pitched delivery, hook, back and across, inside the line of the ball, outside the off-stump, off side, playing area, boundary, sight screen – and so on. An alternative route from fast bowler might lead through seam, work on the ball, shine, ball, out, run out, runner, square leg, umpires, short run, ground one’s bat, batting crease, mankadding, back up, non-striker’s end, leg-byes – again the pathways could be extended indefinitely, as individual entries fan out in multiple directions. The ramifications proliferate richly as the exploration proceeds. 

That’s all any essayist wants, isn’t it? The ramifications proliferate richly as the exploration proceeds. Something nudges at the edge of my memory: my Nanna with a set of alphabet magnets. I wanted to know how to read, and so she helped me. She would have been in her early forties then, as I am now; she says my question for each letter was, what sound does it make? 

It was the sound that I missed, when I first missed cricket, that December ambience as familiar as my mother’s voice, as time-honoured as Nanna’s chocolate mousse on the Christmas table. It’s just always been there, which for a long time I resented (the cricket, not the mousse). Crack of bat on ball. Shirr of gathering applause, fielders’ chat, seagulls shrieking on the breeze. The rise of the commentators’ voices WHEN SOMETHING FINALLY HAPPENS! 

Nanna, eighty-seven now, keeps a photo of her favourite cricketer, Keith Miller – debonair all-rounder, once a teammate of Don Bradman – on the lockscreen of her iPad. Papa, Nanna’s husband of nearly seventy years, still jokes that he never heard the end of praise for Miller’s looks, back when. A photo of my cousin in her playing days, deep in concentration on the pitch, hangs in my grandparents’ hallway.  

About six years ago my friend Russell Jackson posted me a book. Russell is a principled journalist who has spent years investigating abuses of power in Australian sport, including historic cases of sexual abuse in junior cricket. More happily, he has a knack for digging out good secondhand books, and for gifting the ones you’d never think to buy for yourself. 

The book Russell sent me was a hardcover published in 1953, with a scuffed, lime-green dust jacket: All On A Summer’s Day, by Margaret Hughes, who was one of the first women to author a book about cricket and the first to be admitted to the press box at Lord’s. A black-and-white photograph of Hughes forms the book’s frontispiece: she wears an expression of dawning amusement along with her finely checked blouse and necktie. ‘The Almighty’s “Glass of Blessings” was nearly empty when my turn to be fashioned came’, Hughes reflects on the opening page. ‘[B]eauty and grace and almost all feminine attributes were gone, but at the bottom of the tumbler lay a ridiculous sense of fun and an overwhelming love of any sport’.  

Hughes was born in 1919. Her appearance in the world having spoiled her father’s plans for a ‘private cricket team of sons’, she would carry on defying expectations. Raised in Kent and dispatched as a young woman to secretarial school, she soon found ‘ways of signing in at the college first thing in the morning and of disappearing without being missed during the day’. After the upheaval of the Second World War (Hughes enlisted in the Royal Women’s Naval Service), followed by a brief stint living in America, she resolved to make cricket ‘the real centre’ of her life. ‘I would work and save enough money during the winter to see me through the cricket season’, she writes, with an admirable dispassion for employment: eight months’ work to four months’ leisure was her recipe for happiness. How sensible. How impossible! 

School matches, county matches, Test matches: Hughes was at them all. It’s clear from her accounts that she loved to be part of an audience – a recommendation in any critic. She delighted, for instance, in the wit and expertise of followers of the victorious West Indies team that toured England in 1950; these Londoners, the first of the Windrush Generation, ‘knew every cricketer, every score and every record’. Hughes insisted that Test cricket should have entertainment value, a principle she shares with many contemporary observers of a sport notorious, not least among its fans, for lapsing into stagnancy. (I wonder what she would have made of Bazball?) By her measure, great players are the ones who bring ‘the qualities of life’ – humour, artistry and excitement – to the field. ‘A batsman who is dull and stolid, dour and ungainly, gives little to the game’, she pronounces. Lord’s deliver us a stylist, in cricket as in literature.  

In 1954 Hughes was hired by Frank Packer to cover the Ashes in Australia for his Daily Telegraph. Her first impression of Packer, who stood at over two metres tall, was that ‘he was the largest man in the world, but I didn’t know then that they breed Australians in enormous sizes’.  The news proprietor struck her as a man of inconstant moods: generous, miserly, hot-tempered or charming as the wind took him; she also noted, and no doubt correctly, that ‘not many men’ would have hired her. Hughes was the first woman to report on an Ashes series, and her tour of Australia formed the basis of her second and final book, The Long Hop, published in 1955. Half a century would elapse before Chloe Saltau, now Sports Editor of The Age, became the second woman to report an Ashes series for a newspaper. 

Hughes begins The Long Hop by lamenting the attention that All On A Summer’s Day had drawn: ‘At Lord’s people have been brought round to have a look at me, in the same way as they might be taken to see the Albert Memorial’.  She was the woman who wrote about cricket – an anomaly, a circus freak. I wonder what she would have made of the professionalisation of women’s cricket? Recently, amid the decorous grandstands of the North Sydney Oval, one of the New South Wales colony’s oldest cricket grounds, on Cammeraygal Country, shadowed by Moreton Bay figs, cabbage palms and free-standing Victorian mansions, I watched as one of Australia’s star all-rounders, Ellyse Perry, who was once a Matilda, greeted kids who’d gathered at the boundary fence. A young girl hared off, phone in hand, to show her souvenir Ellyse Perry selfie to her family; she couldn’t have been more thrilled. I hope it would have made Hughes smile. 

In Hughes’ day the English team and its press pack travelled to Australia by boat. Fremantle, where they docked, was remote and sunbaked enough that Hughes ‘expected the sheriff and his posse to ride down at any moment’. Melbourne she judged ‘staid and stuffy… you have to enter your son at birth for Melbourne Grammar School’, while Sydney was a ‘noisy, narrow-streeted burgh’ with the garish appeal of a funfair. ‘You could not lose your heart to the town except on a summer night, in a flat high over the harbour, watching the twinkling lights of the houses all along the coast, and the lighted ferry boats gliding like fairy galleons over the water to Manly and beyond,’ Hughes writes, like someone who had fallen in love. 

As for the cricket, and despite the efforts of Keith Miller, who was late in his career (‘nonchalant, yet full of vitality’, notes Hughes), that summer belonged to Frank Tyson – university-educated, Wordsworth-quoting ‘Typhoon Tyson’ – who, before he relocated to Australia or authored a brace of cricket books, was one of the fastest bowlers that England has produced. You can watch a newsreel of his heroics in the second innings of the Third Test at the MCG, where he took seven wickets for 27 runs, and marvel at the strangeness of his bowling action: the way his weight tilts left, like a ship listing to port, counteracted by the speed and wicked angle of his right arm as he whips it through, hurling the ball into the pitch. (Perhaps only Jasprit Bumrah, among current fast bowlers, moves as idiosyncratically?) One other thing might strike a viewer now, even apart from the homogeneity of the MCG crowd, and that’s the plainness of the scene. There are no advertising hoardings on the boundary fence, and no billboards digitally grafted onto the field for the sake of a television audience. The players’ whites are blank as paper. 

Here’s a piece of cricket writing: All lives are equal. Freedom is a human right. Usman Khawaja, one of the opening batters in the Australian men’s Test team, wrote those words on his cricket shoes – one sentence on each shoe, along the midsole – in December 2023, in the colours of the Palestinian flag. This was before the first Test of the home summer season against Pakistan in Perth; Khawaja was photographed wearing the shoes during training. He intended to wear them during the match, he said. Cricket Australia backed him, as did the current Australian men’s Test captain, Pat Cummins. But the International Cricket Council (ICC), which governs the sport, said Khawaja couldn’t wear his altered shoes: if he did, he would contravene an ICC ban on players in international matches displaying ‘political, religious or racial’ messages on the field. So instead he wore a black armband, and the ICC issued him a reprimand for breaching player uniform rules. A black armband is a routine accoutrement of the professional cricketer, to mark the passing of the game’s greats, or to mourn in unity with a teammate suffering a bereavement. It’s one of cricket’s archaic courtesies, and worth preserving – but not in the case of genocide, apparently. 

Here’s another. On the first morning of last year’s Ashes Test at Lord’s, three protestors wearing Just Stop Oil t-shirts ran onto the field, throwing orange powder paint. Their protest lasted seconds, a dispatch from our Great Annihilation cast over a pastoral mirage, for in their summons to the sport’s impending future, torched by climate change, the protestors, possibly without intending it, invoked the deep shades of the game’s pre-industrial past, where rural labourers on idle days and leisured gentry met in forest clearings to play creckett. Lord’s is sponsored by the investment bank J.P. Morgan, which underwrites fossil fuel industries to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, including expansions of oil, coal, and gas infrastructure in the Global South. ICC’s global tournaments have lately been sponsored by Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, and one of the world’s worst corporate polluters. Alinta Energy used to sponsor the Australian men’s team, and Pat Cummins, who has led initiatives to install solar panels at cricket clubs, drew ire from a certain kind of culture warrior for declining to appear in their ads. Cricket Australia found a new chief sponsor: Toyota. 

I flounder in the face of this. I think many do. One can point out the unsavouriness of a global sporting body taking money from an autocratic petrostate while punishing a player’s on-field protest – and yet to point it out feels pallid, rote. The powerful will not be shamed (and so we shame each other). ‘My heart can’t take it,’ said Khawaja, in a video posted to his social media last December, reflecting on the thousands of Palestinian children killed ‘without any repercussions or remorse’. Maybe only such an unadorned sentiment will do.  

Words fall short, yet words are still disallowed: spectators too are commonly banned from wearing ‘political’ messages at sports grounds, a condition of entry buried in the fine print of a ticket purchase. People turn to non-linguistic methods of dissent: Khawaja’s armband, flags, keffiyehs, watermelons, the powder paint of Just Stop Oil. ‘What is unsettling the system now is that the keffiyeh has become mainstream and, through its donning, silence has found a way to speak,’ Yumna Kassab recently wrote for this journal. But these methods can be disallowed, too. One protestor at Lord’s was carried from the field underarm like a parcel, to general jeers of approval, by England’s wicket-keeper, Jonny Bairstow. The message is returned to sender. And I know the outcome of the protest will be its shutdown; I’m here to watch the cricket, not to listen to your carry-on. But what else to do? With their leaf-blowers the groundskeepers disperse the orange powder, and the field is green again, and as I said, the stakes appear intolerable. 

My copy of All On A Summer’s Day came enclosed with a mildly apologetic note. ‘It now strikes me that this book is probably more “crickety” than a cricket agnostic would relish’, Russell wrote to me. (I was still an agnostic then, or so I thought.) The book sat on my to-read pile for more than a year until I took it on a train trip from Sydney to Melbourne, and, much to my surprise, read it cover to cover.  

I’d see no greenery the length of that trip. It was December 2019 and the bushfires had begun – so grievous, so destructive that I thought nothing could drive them from the headlines … and yet. Smoke hung in palls beyond the windows of the train and dust rose from the drought-strangled paddocks; between chapters of Hughes (‘Chapter X: The New Zealanders bring peace and the sun’) I chatted with my seatmate, a retired nurse, about climate change and government inaction. No one paid much attention to the cricket that summer, except for Scott Morrison, who thought that it should cheer us all up. The players, made to toil out of doors, objected to the risk to their health posed by heat and smoke pollution. As Hughes wrote of those months before the outbreak of the Second World War, ‘Peace was a daydream, really’.   

But the passage from Hughes that I keep reading out to friends has nothing to do with cricket. It occurs early in The Long Hop, when Hughes recalls a conversation she had during her voyage to Australia with travellers returning here: a PhD student, a sculptor, and an aspiring writer. Brian, the PhD student, begins by explaining to Hughes ‘that Australia’s world of arts was not run by creative artists, and those who sat on boards as judges, or who formed committees for the furtherance of culture, were mostly society people fabulously wealthy, whose only asset was their money – they knew nothing about painting, or literature.’ Hughes tries to counter: 

I asked them why they, as young people, didn’t try to do something about it … But they argued this was impossible because money was too important in Australia and individuals without a name or capital could do little about preaching the gospel of the arts. 

I read this bit aloud, and how we laugh. It’s either that or weep. Sometimes I think that I’ve surrendered to cricket just to feel a part of something that is loved, and I don’t just mean within my family. All I hear from other writers is despair; all I see is broken spirits, wasted talent, and a literature in absence, one which won’t ever be written.  

The reason they say Test cricket is dying is because cricket’s profits are unequally distributed. Few sporting bodies pursue policies that shrink their sport, but since 2014 the bulk of ICC revenue has gone to three cricketing nations that make the most money from cricket to begin with: India, England, and Australia. It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that, as a result, other cricketing nations across the world are struggling to compete with the ‘Big Three’, especially when it comes to Test cricket, which is the longest, most complex, and most costly format of the game to stage, and which is only played between national teams. Increasingly, cricketers who do not hail from wealthy cricketing nations cannot afford to play Test cricket, just as writers who do not come from wealth cannot afford to write books. 

This nation, this ‘so-called Australia’ (though every nation-state is a fiction, is it not?) could afford to pay its writers, house its growing homeless population, and stop killing the land, at a minimum.  Cricket Australia – along with the ICC, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and the England and Wales Cricket Board – could choose to redistribute at least some of its profits in order to expand Test cricket globally, including in the women’s game, and to save the Test format from becoming a luxury indulged in exclusively by three cashed-up cricketing powers. But that seems about as likely at the moment as the introduction of a universal basic income. A colleague messages: This is probably the worst time in a century to be trying to make interesting work. Wrong time, wrong place. And still I feel I’ve fucked it up somehow.  

Fail. To be unsuccessful with the bat or ball. Fail to make one’s ground. Fail to trouble the scorer.  

Falling away. 

The Second Test of the 1958-59 Ashes series, featuring a famous performance by Australian batter Neil Harvey, as scored by the author’s maternal great-grandfather.

A musical score or a knitting pattern (which, like a cricket score, involves a lot of numbers) needs interpreting to make things occur. The score or the pattern is a guide: your performance, or your cable knit sweater, will not be exactly the same as the next person’s. A cricket scorebook works in reverse, as a real-time abstract of events that will never happen in that way again. It’s a maths worksheet, too, and a roll-call of participants: the most elaborate scorebooks look a bit like a vehicle log crossed with a ballot paper, crossed with a choreographer’s notes. There are names, numbers, symbols. A more basic scorebook will at least record each batter’s name, the number of runs they scored, and how (or if) they were dismissed (How Out). You will also see the bowlers’ names and how frequently, and successfully, they bowled, listed as columns of overs, maidens, runs conceded and wickets taken: these are known collectively as a bowling analysis, or bowling figures. The scorebook will also, hopefully, include the fall of wickets, which will give you an indication of the game’s tempo: how rapidly, or slowly, each batting side was all out.  

Nanna recalls keeping the scorebook for her dad – listening to the radio, filling in the names – when she was young, if she was on school holidays while he was working. The family lived in Weetaliba then, on the central western plains of NSW (2021 census population: 67). Jack – my Nanna’s father, my great-grandfather, whom I have always heard referred to as Grandfather – was a fettler, a maintenance worker on the railways. So they could attend school, Nanna and her brother would board with a local family during the week in the nearby town of Binnaway (2021 census population: 602), on what is now known as the Castlereagh River, which flows through Gamilaraay, Wiradjuri, and Wailwan Country. Eventually their parents joined them in Binnaway, but there was a post-war housing shortage, so the family lived in canvas tents by the rail line, along with other workers’ families. 

Much later, when housing was finally built, my mum remembers summer holidays in Binnaway at her grandparents’ house. Grandfather liked to tinker in his shed, she says, fixing and making things; Nanna remembers how he made wooden lunch boxes for his fellow railway workers, which doubled as their lunch seats. Grandfather’s father was a drover and an itinerant agricultural labourer, and his mother died when he was young. As a consequence, Grandfather left school at twelve, moving with his dad from place to place throughout the year. Nanna says that he was never confident about his reading or writing, and yet he kept at it, largely self-taught – reading the newspaper each day, doing crosswords. He was a fan of The Phantom, and would buy each new issue from the local newsagent. She remembers that he taught her to recite the alphabet backwards. 

Here on my desk is one of the scorebooks that he kept, which, until I borrowed it, lived in an old suitcase with his military medals (he was conscripted into the Army Service Corps during the Second World War) and a pile of yellowed clippings from my uncle’s days playing local rugby league. It turns out the first author in the family chose cricket as their subject. Colour me amazed.  

Grandfather’s scorebook is repurposed from a memo book meant for recording the movement of trains. The printed column in the memo book for Stations has been retitled in Grandfather’s hand as Batsmen. The split column Arrival and Departure has become How | Out. Beneath the heading Description of Vehicles, the subheading Coaching is now Bowler, and Goods is Runs, with the bowling figures squeezed in at the bottom of the page, including sundries. At the top of each page, where one is prompted to record the train and engine number, Grandfather has written down the number of the Test match in whatever Test series he was listening to (a Test series may consist of two or more matches between two national teams), then the innings number. I like the serendipity of Bowler being written under Description of Vehicles, when in contemporary slang an especially fast bowler is said to have wheels. I enjoy the whole arrangement: a batter arrives at the crease, then departs, and like a train station they bear a name.  

As far as I can tell, most of the Test matches recorded in the scorebook took place during the early to mid-1950s, around the time when Nanna left Binnaway, having answered a newspaper ad for trainee psychiatric nurses, board included, and hopped on the train to Parramatta. But Grandfather has often neglected to include the match dates at the top of his pages, which, considering that some of his entries bristle round with everything from gate takings to attendance numbers, seems an odd omission. Maybe he thought dates were redundant? A match heard on the radio back then would have involved no replays; to listen, and to score one’s listening, was an engagement with the present. Every page records the present, as it happened. 

Reading a cricket score, like reading a plot summary, won’t convey the intangible aspects of a game: those questions of mood and atmosphere, character, dynamic shifts, moments of tension or flow. Cloud drift. It will tell you what happened – who did what, and in what sequence – but not what time felt like as it passed. And a Test match, which can take up to five days, clearly has an unusual relationship to time.  

Most sporting contests feel like time apart from ordinary time, time set aside, during which extraordinary things may occur. If you watched the Matildas’ World Cup penalty shootout then I imagine you recall just what it felt like – those twenty minutes of ratcheting tension and escalating stakes, followed (for Matildas fans) by exaltation. Time set aside: water usage data shows that people held off going to the loo until after Courtnee Vine had kicked the winning penalty.  

But a Test match is not time set aside, for no one ever had five days to set aside from their life, not even when they’ve spent those days at the cricket. There’s still getting up and getting there, getting home, sleeping (not if you’re Steve Smith, admittedly), and drinks, lunch, and tea during the game. (Test cricket’s the only sport with built-in meal breaks.) The great Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakkara once observed that a Test match lasts long enough for a government to fall while it is played – as happened in July 2022, when Sri Lanka won a Test against Australia in Galle, while, simultaneously, and after months of popular struggle, protestors occupied the President’s House in Colombo.  

Frank Tyson’s seven wickets for 27 runs in the New Year’s Test of 1954-55 at the MCG

Cricket’s presence in my family’s life, our shared time, is one reason I disliked it as a child. If there was a Test match being played then someone would be watching it, or listening to it, or going to the game, and this is still the case. Like any child I was curious, asked questions – I must have had Leg before wicket explained to me a dozen times. Dim memories of tufty moustaches, maroon floppy hats, Richie Benaud’s tie. As Nick Whittock writes in hows its, his collection of cricket scorebook poems, or scorebook cricket poems, ‘cricket makes its home in benaud’. (I might also say that home – our several homes, as my mum, my brother and I moved from rental to rental, early on – was made in Benaud: cricket was our domesticity.) A standard response to my incomprehension was for someone to say that I needed to spend time with the game. But it seemed to me I already had to spend an awful lot of time with cricket, and enlightenment continued to evade me. There was no conversion moment. It was more like a slow realisation that I did understand how cricket worked – that I could read it, and speak it. (And how could I not, eventually?) Time passes. 

The early 1950s was the dawn of the transistor radio – is it plausible to think that by the time Grandfather was keeping the scorebook I now have in my possession, he might have carried a radio with him, to listen to the cricket as he worked? Nanna says no, that radios were still too heavy then to be easily portable, but she does think it’s likely he would have taken his scorebook to work with him for smoko, when chat would have turned to what was happening in the match. And then there were the public holidays – Boxing Day, New Year’s Day – which remain the prime dates for Test cricket in Australia even now. I look and find it: the New Year’s Test of 1954-55, with Frank Tyson’s seven wickets for 27 runs, duly recorded in Grandfather’s hand. Train No. 3rd Test. Engine No. 2nd Ins.  

Grandfather’s handwriting is cramped, and his pencil was blunt, and the various coloured biros that he used have faded now. Some pages are smudged with ancient moisture, or hatched with crossings out, the whole about the length of my hand and its cloth binding ready to disintegrate. Despite the carefulness involved in keeping cricket scores, it has an ad-hoc feel, like something filled in with whatever implement was to hand. A curiosity: the scorebook has been kept from right to left, with the earliest entries appearing at the rear of the book. 

There are also interruptions, pages given to things other than cricket. I find a very faded list of dates from 1951 headed ‘Days I have missed from work’;  lists of horses that ran in the Melbourne Cup; ‘Wheat loaded for bay marks’, followed by a column of figures for loads and a column for bags. Occasionally there’s a spread where a cricket score appears to have been written over the traces of an earlier match, as if paper were a thing in short supply. Australia vs India (undated). Australia vs South Africa (undated). Tucked inside the leaves are cricket scorecards clipped from newspapers – clipped without their dates – and a receipt from the Australian Railways Union, N.S.W. Branch, and, spotted with age now, Grandfather’s union welcome letter:  

WELCOME! You are now a member of the A.R.U. We welcome you, and in doing so, desire to point out that the A.R.U. exists to give you service, to watch your interests, to improve your wages and conditions.   

For some years my great-grandparents were members of the Communist Party; Nanna and her brother went to Party youth camps sometimes, in their school holidays. In the fifties, Grandfather and Grandmother joined the Labor Party. Where this undated union welcome letter fits into a personal chronology of shifting political ideals, or practical hopes, I cannot say. For the entirety of the decade that is covered in the scorebook, and for longer, Liberal stalwart Robert Menzies was Prime Minister – Menzies’ own father had started as a locomotive painter. One of the reasons why Australian cricketers are paid so well is that their union, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, is very strong, and has been strong for years. WELCOME! You are now a part of the Union, the Union is YOU.  

How time passes. Most of the writing I have done in the past year was for a union, while the book I have been failing to write – on work and time, housing and class, what we inherit and do not – remains a pile of notes, which is maybe all it wants to be, or can be, at a time when I don’t have a lot of time to write, and with the future barrelling towards us.  

Test scores clipped from newspapers in the scorebook belonging to the author’s great-grandfather

How time passes, or, the final hours of the Fifth Ashes Test of 2023 as recorded in Direct Messages, reproduced with permission, edited for clarity, and minus emojis: 


                     We’re gonna lose 

Head is probably exactly the person you want out there to swing the momentum back 
But yeah he could easily get out and then we’re a draw or fucked 

                     True. Unless he hooks it and is out on 10. 

Chances for that are strong lol 
Nice smudge : ) 

                     Smith, SHOT 

That is a brand new fucking ball
Lol bairstow running to the boundary was a delight to watch 

                     If we win on extras I would laugh for years. 

Beautiful smudge
Head needs to treat it like a T20 or something. So so nervy. 

Mark Taylor on comms saying ‘This ball will get older’.
A philosopher for the ages.

I can’t deal with him anymore 
Have the Matildas on commentary instead. 

                     At least the Matildas are winning! 

They’re playing soooooooo well 

Ok, so the chase is now 198. Put that way it seems…
not insurmountable.
And yet probably insurmountable.

Totally not insurmountable. 
Not to get all mark taylor about it but the bowlers will also get tired 

                     ‘The next hour will be crucial.’ 

‘Australia will be looking to score runs but England will try to take wickets. And if it rains it will be a draw.’ 

How can I also get employed on Channel 9 for massive bucks

Unfortunately I think the answer to that is ‘be popular with men who remember the 80s’ lol 

                     Oooooh Travis is firing  

Fuck yes head 

They’ve just mentioned ‘a couple of hours of rain’
Potentially on the way

Right as we get the momentum back 

                     We’re under 150 runs to get  

Omg trav get off strike pls

Not in complete control of the catch!

Holy fucking shit
That is the funniest fucking shit ever  

                     This is soooooooooo funny

’m dying 
That is truly hilarious 
I feel bad that it’s stokes though cos I quite like him 
Better if it was broad 

                     Oh ffs and now it’s raining  

If you happen to stumble awake right now like I did, turn the cricket on! 
Oh god and broad too
Wow I am bewildered by how that happened, will to have watch the highlights solemnly lol  

I watched it alllllll happen. 4 wickets in 15 balls! Absolute scenes. We were doing so well. UNTIL WE WERE NOT.

I woke up and was like ‘am I reading this right??? The fuck??’ Then I saw the fall of wickets and had flashbacks to your collapse prediction 

And then Alex Carey and our man Murphy started playing in a fashion that made me hope (again) for about 15 minutes that they could actually win. Murphy hit a 6! Maybe even two! I’m so tired!

I took my mum, a high school teacher, to the New Year’s Test this year. Days off work, brought to you by the historical achievements of the union movement. I think this might have been the first time that I’d been to the Sydney Cricket Ground in thirty years, not since mum took me and my brother there in 1993 so she could watch the Sheffield Shield (I sat reading a music magazine). Notwithstanding my great-grandfather’s scorebook, or my older uncle’s knowledge of the game, it is the women in my family who’ve attended the cricket, who’ve attended to the cricket, who’ve played cricket. This is still an underwritten aspect of the game’s reception: the assumption is that cricket runs from father to son. My father, from whom I am long estranged, professed to loathe cricket, and I don’t doubt that some of my own infant hostility towards it stemmed from a strong desire to please him, a desire all the stronger for his having left, when I was young. 

Recently I saw a photograph that dates to a time in the sixties when the family – my mum and her parents and her brothers, plus a dachshund – relocated temporarily from Lalor Park, outside of Seven Hills, to northern Queensland, so that Papa, who drove cranes, could be part of the crew that built the coal-fired Collinsville Power Station. Collinsville was a mining town, but there’s not a hint of coal dust in this black-and-white snap of my mum, who is about nine years old, in a garden nearly swallowed up by tropical growth. She’s by the garden gate, bent over a cricket bat: I assume the gate is serving as the wicket. (This is where wicket comes from, incidentally – a wicket gate.) Her younger brother, bowling, has paused to point his finger, as if to set a team of unseen fielders (the dachshund?) in position. The scene is overwhelmed by blurriness, humidity. That’s how I think of cricket, and how I remember it – a wash of sound and image overlaying the day. 

On the first morning of the New Year’s Test of 2024, the sky is a cyanic blue, and the breeze enough to make the sunshine feel beneficent. We take our seats as Pakistan are stretching on the field; Australia are practising their catches. TV commentators, deep into their pre-match chatter, are shadowed at the boundary by camera crews. Looking out from concourse level of the Victor Trumper Stand at Centrepoint, perfectly framed between the green, cast-iron roofs of the nineteenth-century Members’ pavilions, I can pretend for a minute that the decades haven’t vanished, that the city hasn’t changed, that I’m still the surly pre-teen I was when I was last in this place.  

We are joined in our row by four ebullient women who tell us that they’ve flown in from Pakistan for a wedding; the Test match is a bonus of timing. One of their party keeps up a useful running commentary on the domestic playing records of the Pakistan team members as each batter arrives at the crease, and at first, that’s with some frequency. Abdullah Shafique is bowled for a duck (c Smith b Starc), as is the Test debutant, Saim Ayub (c Carey b Hazlewood). Babar Azam, the figurehead of the Pakistan team, looks to settle things – perhaps he’s on for a big score here? It looks likely until Pat Cummins (‘Captain Planet’ to the Murdoch press) begins his bowling spell, at which point the energy shifts, like the light changing before a storm. Babar Azam lbw b Cummins, out for 26. 

This is my inheritance, I’ve come to understand: not property or wealth but this daft game, imported with the colonists. I don’t regret the years I spent disliking cricket. I regret the time squandered in denying to myself that I could speak cricket’s language, when I could. For too long I spurned the pleasure, and the simple generosity, of asking the people I love: have you been watching the cricket? The answer will be yes. It will always be yes. Get on the front foot and open the face of the bat.  

Works Cited

  • First Dog on the Moon. Was it in the spirit of the game? A NATION CRIES WHITHER CRICKET?!. July 3 2023, The Guardian.
  • Fox Cricket. My fear sometimes gets in the way – A candid Steve Smith reflects on his EPIC career. January 2 2024, 
  • Hughes, Margaret. All On A Summers Day. Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd: London, 1953. 
  • – – –          The Long Hop. Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd: London, 1955. 
  • Kassab, Yumna. The Rooster and the Watermelon. December 13 2023, Sydney Review of Books. 
  • Khawaja, Usman. December 13 2023, 
  • Tyson, Frank. The Terms of the Game: A Dictionary of Cricket. Houghton Mifflin: Ferntree Gully, 1990. 
  • Whittock, Nick.  hows its. Port Hedland: Inken Publisch, 2014.