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Nothing left in the Shed

When Monique Schafter asked me to participate in the ABC 7:30 Report’s series around the theme ‘Advice to My Younger Self’ I accepted without hesitation. Apart from anything else, I was incredibly flattered to be selected in a batting line-up bristling with living Australian Legends. Some of the others were Jimmy Barnes, Ita Buttrose, Michael Kirby, and Tom Keneally. I admire every one of them. And each is an icon. My own life has been fairly chaotic and punctuated by failures. So, I felt something of an impostor in such company. My single greatest triumph is that I am still here at all, having planned to die by my own hand on numerous occasions, including earlier this year. But I managed to hang on until fading light forced an adjournment enabling me to reset before batting on. Batting, like life, is done one breath at a time.


Too often when I appear on television, I receive a torrent of Twitter abuse for bering transgendered. But not this week. The better angels of our nature seemed to prevail. Note to self. Only, ever talk about pain, loss, regret failure and cricket. Monique and I discussed all these things. They have provided the texture of my turbulent, crowded hour of fleeting life. They seemed to touch a chord among the audience. People responded with love and acceptance and mutual recognition of my reflections on failure, loss, regret and pain. They are as much our shared language as cricket. And perhaps unsurprising in a nation which marks the anniversary of a painful military defeat with more gusto than the formation of our Commonwealth or the adoption of our Constitution.


Perhaps, as the man in the Shawshank Redemption so eloquently put it, we need to “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Just for today, I am vividly alive. Life and death provide an epic quality to every life. That bell tolls for all of us. The cosmic umpire’s finger is raised to every last one of us. What I tried to impart was what I have gleaned on the way to an unconquered 62 years. Foremost is that I have known deep love, deep loss and extravagant failure. Yet, so has every other person alive or has lived. As the Greek poet, Aeschylus wrote, even before Christian sanctification of suffering in Gethsemane and Calvary, “Man must suffer, suffer unto truth. But ripeness comes as well. And even in our sleep pain which knows no forgetting falls drop by drop upon our heart. Until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us through the awful grace of God.”


I lay claim to no singular wisdom or achievement. But I chose life over death and continue to do so as a conscious act of survival every day. Like taking guard to face the next delivery, when your body is rebelling with pain and fatigue. You only ever have to face one ball. We live by the breath, never really knowing which one will be our last. Best not to die with any runs left in the shed as I clumsily put it to Monique Schafter.


So, why all this cricket chatter and analogies? Why cricket? Well, the game has sustained me. I love it now more than ever before. It has rewarded me richly in friendships, travel and experience of triumph and belonging spiced by failure and loss. And cricket has done this more so than any other area of my life. It has been the constant in a life of shifting sands and allegiances. I transitioned political parties before I transitioned genders. It may have been more therapeutic to merely transition genders. One set of enemies is enough.


Over time my feelings for the game have matured. These days I write about it better than I play it. Today my love is without illusion. As it did when the scandal at Newlands erupted, the game can shatter our romantic fantasies. But when it rises to its loftiest heights it is without peer. And that can happen at Harrison Oval out in sunburnt Canberra suburbia, just as it can at Lord’s or Trent Bridge. The game has a rich poetic heart. It has saved my life and nurtured me in my darkest despair. My dear friend and fellow commentator and cricket author Jarrod Kimber recalls one arid summer trek more vividly than I. He penned a delightful piece titled ‘The Night Marcus North Saved Cate McGregor’s Life’.


Cricket provided succour to a confused kid who had lost an adored father at the age of eight. The game provided the therapy that no one could afford in that era. Every once in a while, I felt complete harmony, complete congruence, complete bliss at the crease. Everything around me seemed to slow down on its way to dissolution. It was akin to deep meditation or the transcendence that I have fleetingly experienced in a religious cloister as the monks chanted in Latin amid the midnight gloom. To slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God….


That timeless champion of steel and dignity, Rahul Dravid, described this very phenomenon in almost identical language during his Bradman Oration. His gentle, lilting delivery reduced me to tears and gave me a sense of connection to him when my life was unravelling in pain and confusion. Through an amazing coincidence, I had discussed my gender conflict with a psychiatrist earlier in the very day Dravid delivered that speech. I had described to them the still, quiet, refuge that the crease had provided to me in my grief and uncertainty five decades before as I wielded the bat my deceased father had left under the Christmas tree in 1964.

All of this flooded back to me during the television interview with Monique Schafter. It gave me a reason to look at the past with fresh eyes. To feel the pain of the loss of a marriage, a home and a lifetime of expectations. But I also was able to pause and look back at the heights ascended and the depths left behind. It is a bliss to be alive. Today I am still playing cricket.


Sadly, I can no longer guarantee to occupy the crease long enough to go into a deep state of congruence and peace. But it still happens. Nowadays, it is safer to book a lane with my coach Mark Divin. The nets are the land of the second, third and fourth chance. I spend as much time in the nets as I can. I am still playing for my Canberra Club, Norths Gunghalin, though I hope to round out my career in Hobart with the South Hobart Sandy Bay Sharks at their exquisite home ground. Mark Divin is located in Hobart at the Hobart High-Performance Cricket Centre in Kingborough. He is an incredibly talented coach whose passion is infectious.

My shot selection and decision making have markedly improved under his tutelage. Very much an orthodox red ball cricketer from the last century, I have a tendency to dig in and only play inside the V for too long. In white ball, limited over cricket that is indulgence the team cannot afford. Score off every ball. While once an elegant leave could inspire a string of invective from a frustrated fast bowler, today it hands them a small victory in the war of attrition. Try to work every ball and avoid allowing any ‘dot’ balls. Each ball is a contest, just like traditional cricket. But the clock ticks faster. Like life in the seventh decade really.


Tomorrow I am will join Andre Leslie on News Breakfast to preview the coming Test series against India and the World Cup final between the Australian Women and England. Summer beckons. Women’s T20 cricket and a red ball epic against India in Adelaide. Later this summer, I will explain how that sentence literally brackets the peaks and troughs of my life. Until then…