This unsporting life

Steven Bradbury
(This piece appeared in the most recent edition of SundayLife, and some of my friends who missed it suggested I post it here, so that they could have a whole new opportunity to laugh at me.)
When I was but a young lad of 16, I was visiting another school for a tennis match when some friends called to me from a cricket pitch. It was the mighty Fourth XI (out of four) and, given our school’s traditional indifference to sport, they were down a player who hadn’t bothered to turn up. Would I be willing to fill in as last drop?

Would I ever. As an Australian male, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about cricket. I’d even played competitively in year 7 or year 8 (well, if you count losing every single match as “competitive”). And I once scored 12, one of the highest scores all season. So I thought it would be child’s play to put on a quick-fire, Viv Richards-style half-century so my admiring teammates could carry me off the field, triumphantly brandishing a stump.

I donned (in the sense of “putting on”, not “reminiscent of Don Bradman”) some pads but opted – hygienically – not to use the “box”, which had already been down the undies of most of my sweaty teammates. I jauntily strolled out to the middle, bat propped rakishly over my shoulder, communicating to the bowler that I was made of better stuff than the amateurs he’d been facing earlier. I took guard. The bowler began his run-up. And propelled his first medium-slow delivery right into my crotch.

Honestly, the pain was excruciating … but even more agonising for an adolescent whose manhood had just been metaphorically (and literally) crushed were the taunts. “Balls before wicket!” said one wag. My pride also retired hurt that day. And I haven’t played cricket with a real ball since. Because, despite my enduring love of it, despite my fantasies whenever I take to the field that somehow things will be different this time, I am crap at sport.

I don’t “throw like a girl” or take wild air swings and miss completely. I’m not like a scene from Revenge Of The Nerds (well, not in that respect anyway). I just mean that every single time I play sport, whether it’s soccer, table tennis or tenpin bowling, I’m invariably the most mediocre. That’s not how Aussie blokes are supposed to be. My passport is meant to give me mystical powers of eye-to-hand co-ordination as well as bucket-loads of Aussie spirit. The Australian way is to fight above our weight and bring back the glory. It’s Steve Waugh scoring that century in an afternoon at the SCG. It’s Lleyton Hewitt chasing down every damned ball on his way to a Wimbledon title (as opposed to chasing Bec Cartwright). It’s our hero Socceroos, except in the years 1975 to 2005. But the only champion sportsman I have any chance of emulating is Steven Bradbury. And I’d need a much greater number of people to collapse in a heap ahead of me before I took home any medals.

We’re not a country where you get points for trying. When Ricky Ponting’s team surrendered the Ashes, we didn’t congratulate them on getting close. We were devastated. And that’s my problem. I play soccer with a bunch of mates in the park on weekends – unfit, lazy blokes who, for the most part, ought to be just as bad as me. But for some reason, they effortlessly outclass me. So I make fun of myself before others can, all the while sobbing on the inside like a baby. And even though all of us could pretty much serve as a second Nerds FC team, the whole thing’s become ultra-competitive. I’ve been shouted at for not tackling hard enough and the girls who used to play with us for fun are long gone, tired of balls being kicked in their faces … because Australian men don’t do “social” sport. Even for toddlers at kindy, it’s war.

It’s surprising we aren’t more tolerant of sporting failures when the most revered example of Australian manhood is the Gallipoli landing. (And believe me, I get hammered on the beach just playing Frisbee.) English football fans can obsess over tiny, unsuccessful regional teams but the Sydney Swans only get crowds when they’re winning. While in Melbourne, an Essendon v Carlton match takes on the seriousness of a blood feud – even when both are at the bottom of the ladder.

Where does that leave those like me, whose genes simply aren’t cut out for it? Jealous and resentful, frankly. Since we’re already confined to the shallow end of sport’s gene pool, the least you could do is not sledge us. We’re already painfully aware that we’re rubbish and your mum could do a better job. Believe me.

Jocks ought to be careful how much they pick on my kind, though. John Howard loves cricket more than he loves the Queen – and that’s saying something. However, he’s not only the bloke who hands out that all-important Australian Institute of Sport funding – he gets to open the Olympics and pick the Prime Minister’s XI. And that truly is the revenge of the nerds.

Dominic Knight