The first Test of the 2012-13 season starts at the Gabba today.
Even after 30 years the sound of that strange word instantly fills me with very mixed emotions. In the early 80s I became the first woman, anywhere in the world, to enter the original old boys den and commentate on cricket.
It was my dream job, but turned out to be more like a nightmare.
Channel 9 Dream Team, ’97: Greg & Ian Chappell, Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry, Tony Greig.
At that time, after a couple of years writing weekly features for Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, my editor went on maternity leave and was replaced by a quietly subversive man.
He decided I should abandon the “girly stuff” and take on the boys – write about cricket and interview the players. (Several pieces I wrote for him were subsequently included in anthologies of world cricket/sports writing.)
As well as writing about cricket, I also experienced the unrivalled humiliation of being the only female “player” (a VERY generous description) in several big charity matches. These were meant to be playful one-day affairs between teams of retired world cricketing greats and tragic would-be cricketers turned politicians.
However they played the games for real. They didn’t hold back. In me, they had a non-playing, living puppet in their midst. In fact they found it amusing to deliberately hit balls as far as they could for me to retrieve, just to see me run.
As a result I came to the attention of the brilliant David Hill who was at that time, the head of Channel 9 Sport and he offered me a job.
Years later when the shock of this employment finally wore off, I realised David had been on the horns of a major dilemma.
Pakistan’s great captain and stunning all-rounder, Imran Khan, had developed a bad stress fracture and had been side-lined. As a result, an underpowered, injured, politically-divided, factional, leaderless and mostly very young, Pakistan side was about to take on Australia at the height of its powers – an “A” team with more stars than The Southern Cross.
It was going to be a “whitewash”, a “bloodbath” according to the press. (That kind of hyperbole was regularly sloshed around the cricket pages at the time.)
I believe David Hill decided he needed to do something radical to boost his TV ratings and put this – already done and dusted – Test Match on the front page.
It’s possible his reasoning went something like this: “I’ve got to do something that will shock everyone’s pants off. Something that’s never been done before. Something no one will like. That everyone will talk about. Eureka! I’ll get that actress who writes about cricket into the Com box for the Test Series…”
In his book on Asutralian Consolidated Press, journalist Gerald Stone describes an overheard vignette in which David Hill tells Kerry Packer his intention of employing me as a commentator.
I hadn’t met KP at this point, but had come to his attention a few years earlier. In 1979 I’d turned down an offer of $60K to become the first Australian Playboy Centrefold.
Apparently when David told him the plan he shouted:
“YOU WANT TO DO WHAT? ARE YOU INSANE? ARE YOU F…ING HER?”
When David replied: “No”.
“WELL THAT’S YOUR SECOND MISTAKE!”
Oblivious to all of the above, my reasons for accepting David’s offer were fairly simple – I had nothing to do for three months.
The Melbourne production of a very successful play, Insignificance, in which I played Marilyn Monroe, had a break until we transferred to the Sydney Opera House in January 1984.
The job was always a one off, just the 83/84 series. David enticed me with masses of money, first class travel, great hotels and promises of an easy life in the Commentary Box, surrounded by some of my one-time heroes, doing what I liked best, watching Test Cricket.
It’s fair to say our local heroes hated me on sight.
You have to believe me when I say that sitting behind a large plate glass window, beside a slit-eyed, snarling, almost spitting Ian Chappell is not my idea of a picnic.
Before my arrival it had been decided I should represent the cretinously uninitiated by reading the ridiculous questions I was given. I was not allowed to voice opinions or ask questions of my own.
It bore NO resemblance to sitting the Test with my grandfather, as David Hill had promised.
There were, however, some bright spots.
Needless to say, Ritchie Benaud, Frank Tyson and Tony Grieg were always gentlemen. A young man behind the scenes called Max Kruger was very kind and helpful.
My SMH feature on Imran Khan had been instantly syndicated throughout India and Pakistan. It had managed to soothe the millions at home screaming for his resignation, and silence widespread accusations of his malingering. As a result the Pakistan cricket press became my friends. They would invite me to steak houses in the evenings where we all would drink Coke, while they dissected my on air activity and offered psychological bandaids of advice, criticism and encouragement.
As for my fearless countrymen in the Com box, my former cricket heroes?
They did not speak to me unless they were forced. Only if we were On Air, and more often than not, to mock.
I was not allowed access to the bottomless and magical pool of facts figures and history compiled as the result of a lifetime’s work by the on-site statistician.
It is this detailed, accurate, and condensed information that makes some very ordinary men sound as if they are learned and intelligent, with prodigious memories. It makes them appear interested in feats and stats other than their own – about events that occurred outside the range of their glory days.
A viewer can always tell when the commentators have been banging on about themselves a little too long. As soon as the producer decides its time for a subject change, they are handed the pertinent stats and as they have a little read, there is always a very amusing period of silence, called Dead Air.
Thank God social media hadn’t been invented. People baying for my blood on the front pages of every newspaper in the country for ten days in a row was bad enough.
I can only imagine what the Troll Twits would have said.
In spite of all that my commentary experience was also fun. It rained like the biblical Deluge on the fourth day of the 1983/4 Gabba Test. That night, at either ends of the city, the Pakistan team and I prayed for the rain to continue and the pain to stop.
God heard us. The game was a washout draw and I went home to lick my wounds and prepare for the Adelaide Test.
During that period I met some very supportive Australian team members, and made a number of cricket-loving friends – none of whom worked for Nine Sport.
When Insignificance opened at the Opera House I organised blocks of tickets and invited the Australian and Pakistan teams to separate performances. I wanted them to see me in my comfort zone. They all came and they all loved it.
I am ashamed to admit it is also a door of equal opportunity I managed to slam shut for all women, for all time.
Twenty-five years after my ordeal, there was a lot of publicity about a bright, beautiful and knowledgeable young woman being employed by Channel 9 Cricket as a commentator.
She never made it inside the Com box.
She was immediately relegated to the position of boundary rider: delivering snippets to camera which are played during breaks; snatched player and celebrity comments; fashion news; and items of general interest around the ground. She admitted defeat and retired hurt to the warmer arms of SBS.
I met her a year or so after her short time at Nine. Still shattered by the experience she apologised for having said in the press that her employment by Nine Cricket could not be compared to mine, as she was a serious sports journalist, not an actress.
She could have memorised the whole 148 editions of cricket’s bible Wisden, and won Mastermind with World Cricket as her subject, and it wouldn’t have made any difference.
In fact it may have made things worse.
The Brisbane Test starts at the Gabba today.
Good luck to our boys, although I think they may have their work cut out.The wheel has well and truly turned of late. We look tired, seem to be ignoring injury, and hedging our bets, are intent on selecting former stars instead of emerging ones.
It’s as if we are running scared, back to the future.
In the Visitor’s Pavilion, Mrs Morkel’s formidable little boy Morne (pronounced mornay – what was she thinking?) and his equally quick, fearless and tireless friends, Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Vernon Philander are waiting like smiling assassins.
For me, Test cricket remains a magical experience.
To me it is wonderfully perverse that on occasion there can be no result, in spite of all the time and effort.
*Cover image. Dennis Lillee celebrates the wicket of Viv Richards. Boxing Day 1981. Image via News Ltd.