Aug 20, 2015

The Central Australian Sun Sets On A Football Career

It has been a busy few months for the Bugler. Despite the protestations of Mrs Bugler, the football boots and mouthguard were freighted from down south to Alice Springs. A chance encounter with a neighbour enticed me to train with the Federal Demons and I jogged down during pre-season.

Federal Demons train in preparation for a game in the Central Australian Football League

In my spirited defence to Mrs Bugler, my motives were pure. I merely wanted to meet some friends in our new town and I thought playing a couple of games in the Central Australian Football League Bs would be a good way to do it. In retrospect, turning up to pre-season training not long after completing a marathon gave some people the wrong impression of my intentions. Most of the lads, more than 10 years my junior, had enjoyed the summer months as I once did. So the 4km time trial turned into a bit of a farce. What better way to make an impression than by streeting the field?

As pre-season continued, I became a regular attendee. Despite never having seen me play, my new club seemed to over-inflate my abilities. I was a lock for the As. But I also did not know what to expect. I had barely seen a quarter of footy up here and did not know if I would be capable of participating at the standard. There were no pre-season games and we had the bye in round 1. On the Thursday evening prior to our first game in round 2, the coach basically asked me where I wanted to be picked. Not being comfortable with naming my position, I awkwardly tried to describe where I could be of most value considering the players we had. I was named at centre-half forward.

I can’t remember when I have been more nervous before a game. I had never played with any of my team-mates. Some I had barely met. I had never played or seen an entire game of the competition. We were taking on South Alice Springs Kangaroos – last season’s premiers. I was acutely aware of my lack of height to be lining up as a key forward. As I stretched with a team-mate, Trig, we related our fears and worries. He was in the same circumstances as me albeit at centre-half back. But I drew strength from the conversation and the knowledge that one of the beauties of team sport is that we end up being better as individuals due to the support of each other.

Preparing for a season of footy in Central Australia

The game went as games do. The intensity ebbed and flowed. Each team had good periods and bad. Ultimately the game was decided in the third term when Souths kicked a run of goals and we could not stem the tide. The game was even aside from this but Souths were deserved victors. In hindsight, my nerves were of benefit in that I worked harder to overcome them. I ended up with a few goals and managed to use some of my wiles to catch my direct opponent out a couple of times. While we were disappointed, there was cause for optimism in the Feds camp. Against a strong opponent, we were more than competitive despite our lack of match fitness and team coherence. Moreover, a few new players showed some form.

I can’t remember being as sore following a game of football. My calves were stiff. My groin was aching. My throat was hoarse. A younger me would have recovered in a week, but the next game against Pioneer I could barely run and struggled to pick up the ball below my knees. Early in the game the runner came out asking me to ruck. I had to refuse. Not the best way to impress my new coach. It mattered not as we recorded our first win of the season.

The season continued against Wests but I sat the week out. Young players in the AFL are often “managed”. In the CAFL, this old player “managed” himself. After dominating the competition in the early 2000s, Wests have battled in recent times. We recorded our second win to give us some momentum. I returned to the field against Rovers and was serviceable in the 40 point victory. With only 5 teams in the Premier division, we had played all teams for 3 wins and a loss. We still had to play each team twice more but there was cause for optimism at Feds.

A beauty of small towns is how intertwined lives become. In the city I would play footy against people and literally never see them again. The coach of Souths and I work together. Feds overcame a half-time deficit to beat Souths in our second meeting and I had a hand in the second half turnaround. On Monday morning Talbot was a bit upset when I cheekily asked why he didn’t bother sending someone to stand me. Feds had now beaten all teams in the comp and we were firming as a premiership chance. A week later we torched Pioneer in the wet and installed ourselves safely atop the ladder.

Kicking a goal for the Federal Demons in a big win over Pioneer

And like that, my season and career are over. I took a couple of games off for a mid-winter break, missing our wins over Wests and Rovers. I returned and thought I should get some fitness in my legs. On a pre-dawn ride I got knocked from my bike. My gluteals were torn from their attachment on my cracked femur. Despite a dream of returning for a finals tilt, my life can no longer be dictated by a football schedule. Instead, my recovery is dictated by a need to pick up after a small boy and a desire to bend over to a baby girl.

This is not quite how I thought it would end. In my mind’s eye I saw Feds on an irresistible charge toward the CAFL premiership with mine one of many hands on the wheel. I was supposed to finish holding a premiership cup with my new teammates and friends. Instead I’m in no man’s land – not quite a spectator but neither am I a participant. I will be the guy who hovers at the fringes of the team. The guy who people hug and high five awkwardly. The difficult reminder that it will all end. And it might all end suddenly and with no romance.

Feb 20, 2015

A Dead Ball Winner

Picture this. The World Cup Final at the MCG. Nearly 100,000 people sit enthralled in the brisk autumnal air as New Zealand try to chase down Australia’s formidable total. With a solitary ball remaining in the match, New Zealand are a measly one run behind. Kiwi captain Brendon McCullum is on 98 and facing a fired-up Josh Hazlewood. The crowd is on their feet and baying.

Bowling over the wicket, Hazlewood runs in and bowls a full ball on McCullum’s pads. The ball drifts in slightly, skids through and thuds into the batsman’s back pad before trickling away toward fine leg. McCullum and non-striker Corey Anderson scamper through for a run, ignoring the Aussies appealing for LBW. Umpire Marais Erasmus, as is his wont, takes his time to respond to the appeal. Finally, the finger is raised. McCullum is out for 98.

 A cricket bat rest in the kit bag

Amidst the frenzied noise, the New Zealand batsmen are too busy running and don’t realise that McCullum’s wicket has fallen. They see Glenn Maxwell chasing the ball and turn for a second run. Maxwell collects the ball, turns, sees his team-mates beginning to celebrate and nonchalantly tosses the ball to square leg umpire Richard Kettleborough. All-too-late, the Kiwis realise what has happened. The World Cup is Australia’s.

McCullum touches his bat behind the crease and immediately advances toward umpire Erasmus. He creates a ‘T’ with his arm and bat, signalling that he would like the decision reviewed. The umpire obliges and third umpire Kumar Dharmasena begins to review the footage. Sections of the otherwise delirious crowd boo.

Firstly, it is clear that Hazlewood’s foot is behind the popping crease. A legal delivery. A cheer from the stands. Dharmasena zooms in on the ball hitting the pad. McCullum’s bat passes awfully close to the ball. Perhaps too close. Close enough for an audible collective intake of breath from the capacity crowd. Dharmasena checks the infra-red cameras. In slow-motion the evidence is indisputable. An obvious white hot spot appears on the inside edge of McCullum’s bat the moment the ball passes by. The ball then hits the pad and disappears toward fine leg. The crowd sighs.

An unorthodox cricket stroke to a wide ball at the Big Day Not Out 2012

The New Zealanders begin to celebrate. McCullum and Anderson hug and jump, celebrating not only a World Cup victory, but a century to the captain. Recalling a similar incident, Australia’s captain Michael Clarke quickly walks toward umpire Erasmus signalling a dead ball. The International Cricket Council admitted that England’s James Anderson should not have been given out in similar circumstances in an earlier match. The ICC stated the ball is dead the moment the umpire signals that the batsman is out. The umpires confer. The crowd simmers.

Both sides have a case to make. New Zealand can rightfully claim they were unaware of the umpire’s decision as McCullum knew all along he had hit the ball. All the batsmen did was try to make the two runs required for victory. Umpires Dharmasena and Aleem Dar concluded similarly when they gave Anderson out in the group-stage match between Australia and England.

Equally, Australia’s Maxwell could comfortably claim he would have thrown the stumps down at either end had he believed the match was still alive. Maxwell’s claim would appear to be supported by the ICC’s statements following Australia and England’s game. They quite clearly stated the umpires had made an error and the ball should have been called dead the moment James Taylor was signalled out by Dar.

It is easy to blame the umpires. Marais Erasmus made a demonstrable error. He gave McCullum out when video evidence clearly shows that the batsman was not.

Nick slogging one over square leg

Admittedly the particulars of this hypothetical incident are somewhat fanciful. For a start, one of the sides would have to get past AB de Villiers’ South Africa to make the final. And would Dharmasena have been forgiven by the ICC for being involved in the ‘error’ earlier in the tournament? Be that as it may, the real problem in this incident and the incident involving Hazlewood, Anderson, Taylor and Maxwell in the opening round is the imposition of the Decision Review System.

India were widely ridiculed on Channel Nine’s test coverage this past summer for not allowing the use of the DRS. But there was little effort to debate the particulars of the system and how they apply in the game. There is no doubt that the ability to review decisions to eradicate umpiring howlers has some merit. But undermining the authority of the deliberating umpire causes havoc with a central tenet of any sport. Perhaps by trying to understand the Indian’s position, a better system could be implemented.

The most recent statement from the ICC would lead us to believe that Australia would win the World Cup in the given scenario. The dead ball was in fact not entirely deceased, but a dot. In limited overs cricket a dot ball has value. McCullum would board a plane and fly across the Tasman empty handed, knowing he had hit the winning runs in a World Cup final. Thanks for nothing DRS.

Feb 13, 2015

The Object Of My Sporting Affections

While the Australian summer has served up no end of sporting delights, I have been finding it difficult to be enthused. In a tragedy of Grecian proportions, I have found myself falling out of love with sport. The 2015 Australian Open was, objectively speaking, an entertaining competition with upsets, crowd favourites, home-grown heroes, veterans and upstarts. But I could barely watch a game. I love cricket in all forms. But the Big Bash League is the target of much of my derision. To my eyes, all professional sport has been corrupted by money, drugs and the desire to be “entertainment”. I am only seeing my love’s flaws, not that which made me fall in love.

Facing such a test of my ardour, a potential solution presented itself. Novak Djokovic served to Gilles Müller’s backhand. When Müller slapped the return past Djokovic’s forehand for a winner, the beaten Serb applauded. In terms of loving sport, there were two pertinent actions in this moment. Müller’s shot demonstrated the physical beauty in sport of executing a skill perfectly. And Djokovic’s sportsmanship highlighted the mutual respect that exists between opponents attempting to beat each other in a sporting contest. It is only fitting that a potential solution was highlighted in a sporting moment. Perhaps by focusing on the aspects deserving of my affection I could pull myself from the funk.

Australian Open tennis at Melbourne Park

I turned up to pre-season footy training last week. In my 35th year I thought there was little that would surprise me as 20-odd guys gathered to prepare for the Central Australian Football League’s 2015 season. In the kick-to-kick before training, my partner kept trying to mark the ball with only his right hand. I inquired as to the health of his left only to be informed that it was functioning as normal. I was later told my kicking partner was on day release from a local institution. Although it crossed my mind that my new team-mate might not be the full box-and-dice, I considered his predicament. One thing that he must have missed about a free life was being able to go to footy training. Only sport could make him feel normal. And only sport could give him the sense of fun that must be entirely absent on the inside.

The Asian Cup was a revelation for Australian football. Preceding the event, much was made of how little it had captured the collective Australian imagination. That Australia was out of form and ranked beyond 100 in the world did not help. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and Australia won the final in extra time. The Socceroos appear to be a representative team that is devoid of personal ego. With the notable exception of Tim Cahill, the players seem to be low-profile. The player of the tournament was little-known Australian Massimo Luongo. They each perform their role within the team as best they can and seem to understand that representing Australia is a privilege that could end at any moment. Even this cynical Australian is proud to be represented on the field by a team such as this.

Football at Melbourne's rectangular stadium

I am excited about the cricket World Cup which is about to begin in Australia and New Zealand. While interest in 50-over cricket has been declining rapidly, the World Cup is still a competition that teams genuinely want to win. And players genuinely want to play. In contrast to the BBL where retired “stars” cash in for the purposes of entertainment, the World Cup will only contain the very best players in the world. And those players are often at the peak of their powers. Sport is at its best when two high-quality opponents are doing their utmost to win. Each time India visits Australia for test matches, there is an asterisk next to the result for there is a widespread belief India only really care about tests in front of their home crowds. Certainly this will not be the case for any team during the World Cup.

In some corners, the Tour Down Under is criticised for not being the Tour Of Australia. While there is almost certainly better cycling in other states, the South Australian government created an event that the Australian cycling community loves. From humble beginnings in 1999, the event has grown due to its popularity with spectators and cyclists. On television the racing and scenery pales in comparison to the Tour de France, but evidently the live atmosphere is something to behold. A non-cycling person was in Adelaide coincidentally and somehow found themselves watching the People’s Choice Classic. They were impressed for two notable reasons – the speed at which the pros whipped around the circuit and the atmosphere they felt part of as a spectator. In an era of over-hyped events that fail to live up to the marketing, it is refreshing to see the Tour Down Under thrive organically.

Cyclists corner during a criterium in Melbourne

Perhaps it was always to be this way. When my knowledge of sport progressed to include some unsavoury aspects, perhaps it was inevitable that my love would waver. Perhaps this has been the case with lovers of sport for millennia. (I can picture in my mind’s eye a cynical Bugler amongst the crowd in the Middle Ages, disappointed because the current crop of jousters don’t seem as authentic as those of his youth). Perhaps my method of focusing my attentions on the aspects that I love will be a success. More likely, my love will remain but will not be the same. But I also see love growing anew elsewhere. The mini-Bugler has begun to catch and throw. He identifies the cricket and tennis on television and watches enthralled by the players running, throwing and hitting. His will be a love that I encourage. For although my love is not the same, I will always recall the good times and know that sport was always worthy of love.