The New Kid
Q: What happened in the team meeting before the first Test?
I’ll tell you what happened. The new kid asked whether our plans were unAustralian. Can you believe that? Sitting there in his chair with his arms crossed and his head down, huddled in the shadows, a walking and talking child, with seven fucken Tests to his name.
This sceptical suckling, whose docile, subservient, inbred parents had repacked his bags for him at the airport, piped up from the back of the team meeting room, his barely-broken voice unequivocal in its ill-earned self-confidence.
“Isn’t that unAustralian?” he asked, and both the question and the cocksure manner with which he asked it elicited from me a glare of inhuman hatred.
If the depth of my contempt for the new kid in that moment could have somehow been translated to a spell of bowling, it would have shaved ten runs off his precocious batting average. (Of course, had the bowling attacks of the world’s cricketing nations bothered at any point to rise from their inept hindquarters and deduce a method for curtailing the new kid’s precise eye and quick feet, thereby knocking his confidence down several much-needed pegs, my disdainful scowls might have been unnecessary. But as ever, relying upon global bowling attacks to solve the problem of an overly cocky young batter is an exercise in futility.)
“What?” I said. I spat out the monosyllable.
“Playing for the mankad,” he said, brazenly disregarding the depth of my fury. “It feels, y’know, unAustralian.”
I raised my sculpted eyebrows in precise, arched surprise. To which misguided buffoons had this ungrateful whelp been speaking? I placed my carbon-fibre wireless laser presenter with virtual pointer on the lectern and stepped out from behind it. The rest of the team sensibly averted their eyes from me.
I strode to the new kid, stretching insouciantly in his chair. I had never loathed him more than I did in that moment. Not even when his 82* on debut had won the unthinking accolades of the goldfishian press over my demonstrably more meritorious century.
“Was Bradman unAustralian?” I asked him.
He stared back at me.
“Sir. Donald. George. Bradman,” I repeated slowly. “Was he unAustralian?”
The new kid did not look away. A fly landed on his face and began to walk along his forehead, slowly and meticulously, knees bent. He waved it away, but his eyes remained determined. They held me under an unblinking stare, focused immovably upon my face. He took a second to consider his answer, but when he uttered the word “no” it came out with piqued finality.
“Bradman approved of the mankad,” I said. “Do you know better than Bradman?”
The new kid refused, however, to back down. This was a character trait that had won him unfettered praise among the blinkered commentariat and idiotic fans when he’d displayed it against the Pakistan pace attack last summer. But I am not now, nor have I ever been, a subcontinent seamer straining for reverse swing on a dead WACA pitch in 43 degree heat, and I would not be stared down by that petulant upstart.
“I just don’t think we should be premeditating a mankad,” he said. “It feels unAustralian.”
I saw this moment for what it was. This was a direct challenge to my power. I turned and glared at the grizzled veteran, masticating with dread purpose in the other corner of the room. Had he put the new kid up to this? I wasn’t going to stand for infighting and treachery. There were to be no coups, no power struggles, no factions in my Australian team. That kind of unwelcome dressing room behaviour had ended the moment I became captain.
The grizzled veteran chewed his gum for a few moments, before breaking eye contact. He turned his gaze instead to the PowerPoint slide showing the Brady Bunchesque grid of snapshotted England non-strikers departing their ground early.
“Are you here to win the Ashes?” I asked the new kid. “Or are you here to pass self-righteous moral judgement on the rest of us?”
“Win the Ashes.”
Close up, I could see that his eyes, though brown, were also somehow green. Was he wearing coloured contact lenses? And if so, why? No doubt yet another piece of childish social media posturing a la the Ice Bucket Challenge or complaining about climate change or that time they all stood still for reasons that continued to elude me. Regardless, I found his mismatched ocular hue hideous, and briefly contemplated using it as the foundation for fresh derision.
“Good,” I said instead. And I would have ended it there. I swear I would have. It would never have got to the point it did. Rebellion snuffed out before it even began. My standing as the Australian captain re-established. A hard but fair leader, respected by all.
But then that loathsome, mud-eyed stripling spoke once more.
“Look, I’m just saying that I know we’re allowed to mankad them,” he said, interrupting my bullet train of precise, clear thought. “But we were allowed to bowl underarm too.”
I paused in my march back to the lectern. This pimple-ridden punk was referring to Greg Chappell’s finest cricketing moment. The one where the Australian captain knew the playing conditions better than anybody else on the ground and, at the point of maximum pressure, unlocked the precise ploy needed to ensure victory at a moment when a lesser captain would have settled for risking a tie (a result for which we now know New Zealanders go crazy). Chappell had the courage and wisdom to order his brother to bowl the final ball underarm, thereby extinguishing the last embers of hope for the Kiwis in that match. Ever since, moaning New Zealand fans, players and administrators have whined incessantly about Chappell’s ingenious tactical masterstroke, sufficiently overcome with humiliation at being so effortlessly outwitted by the opposition skipper that they are incapable of letting go of the defeat. To hear the new kid slander an Australian hero for a moment of genius leadership that both won a cricket match and emotionally stunted an entire sporting nation for decades filled me with fury.
“Are you calling Greg Chappell unAustralian?” I asked. My voice was quiet. Menace dripped from each and every syllable, like perspiration from our left arm quick’s hideous headband.
The new kid didn’t reply.
“Because Greg Chappell was an Australian captain. An Australian great. And so by definition, he cannot be unAustralian.” Quod erat fucken demonstrandum. Syllogised the shit out of this snot-faced zygote.
The new kid shrugged. “By that logic,” he said. “SandpaperGate was okay because Steve Smith, Dave Warner and Cameron Bancroft are Australian.”
I nodded. “That’s right,” I said.
I turned to face him again, by now overcome with rage at his adolescent temerity. I have long maintained that the lateral-thinking heroism and fearless problem-solving of using sandpaper on a cricket ball in a doomed bid to assist a characteristically underperforming bowling unit had been unjustly maligned. The over-reaction of administrators, opponents and the halfwitted masses to this wrongly condemned ploy, and their collective attack of the cricketing vapours nauseated me. And I would be damned if I’d let it fly from this muddle-headed cherub.
“There will always be those who say we go too far in striving for victory,” I said, as I forced myself to turn my attention away from this mid-pubescent, Manichean idealist. My instinctive proficiency as a leader of men had discerned a foundational juncture. Here was an opportunity to enrich the squad’s mood with a stirring address of inspirational oration. To define the parameters of our imminent foray into the repellent motherland. “There will always be those who assert that our straining for success can occasionally push us beyond acceptable limits into irresponsible territory,” I continued, driven by renewed purpose. “Those who make such claims simply don’t know what it means to win. They don’t know what it means to compete.”
I paused and let the implication of my words penetrate the still-hardening skull of the new kid. This was not a moment for formal logic mollycoddling.
“When I hand a player a baggy green,” I continued. “I expect them to honour it. If that means calling an otherwise-esteemed opponent a virulent repository of seminal fluid, then so be it. If it means threatening them with broken body parts, then they’re the threats we’ll make.”
My voice was raised, by now imbued with a majestic timbre sourced from deep within my chest, seasoning my provocative eloquence with profound intensity.
“No. What the critics will never understand about us is that winning is important. We’re professional Australian cricketers. We are not paid to have a good time. Nor to play fair. Nor to be role models for children - no matter how gifted they may be at this divine sport.” And I paused yet again to allow the new kid to reflect on my words before continuing. A moment of silence designed to cripple his naive insolence.
“We are paid to push the line but not go beyond it, and we will never go beyond it, because we know precisely where it is.”
And that was when I turned back to the screen, effortlessly transitioning my powerful rhetoric to the overriding tactical purpose for which the meeting had been originally called.
“And right now,” I continued, voice trembling with virtuous hatred for the old enemy. “That line is 1.22m away from the stumps and so help me fucken God, if those Poms try to sneak one millimetre beyond that line, we will mankad the fucken shit out of them and who gives a fuck about what happens next.”
I raised an arm in triumph, feeling the rush of sangfroid that fuelled me in such moments. I was a king deciding which village to raze, an emperor that could inspire a nation. The light shone in through the window, casting my defined facial features in fittingly dramatic shadow. This was a speech for the ages, the kind of oral inspiration that can drive a team to greatness. As always, in a moment of crisis, I’d risen to the challenge. I’d outclassed the new kid. Outshone him, outwitted him and outmanoeuvred him.
The selector’s favourite was the first to applaud, but the others soon followed his fawning lead. Even the new kid eventually joined in, transparently attempting to begrudgingly reintegrate himself into the team unit. But if anything, I perceived his clapping as ignominious cowardice, a weak and shameful refusal to stand by his beliefs, as misbegotten as they so self-evidently were.
Right then, I knew I would be forced to destroy him. But I assure you that my intention was to wait until after the Ashes were secured.
For that moment, though, I soaked in the team’s approval, both genuine and feigned. I was their leader. I was the Australian captain and I defined the line.