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MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY

Mystic chords of memory Abraham Lincoln called them. That mix of emotions, perceptions, and fluid, evolving interpretations of the past. Our life stories change because, over time, we can integrate losses and grief and pain and imbue them with meaning. Life is lived forward but understood backwards. One religious tradition says this world is a “valley of tears.” I believe that because that has been my experience.  I do not need scripture to convince me. But all of us suffer. The Greeks tell us that human beings must suffer, suffer unto truth. “Yet in even in our sleep, pain which knows no forgetting falls from by drop upon the heart. Until, in our despair, against our will, comes Wisdom to us through the awful Grace of God.” Thus, have I been able to make sense of suffering in my life. If it did not reveal meaning or prompt change it would be futile. And the life of man nasty solitary brutish and short.

Pain, Loss. Memory. The Adelaide Oval has been both a field of dreams and a cauldron of nightmares for me. There, I planned to end my life on the evening of Australia Day 2012 during the final Test of India’s 2011-12 tour. Virat Kohli scored his maiden Test century, heralding a career that will probably entail eclipsing the immortal Sachin Tendulkar’s Test Aggregate. Both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman played their final Test Matches on the Adelaide Oval in that Test. They never played another Test Match. But I went on to see a few more as a woman. Rahul Dravid, synchronicity, fate, God, call it what you will, conspired to divert me from my own tortured mind that night. I flushed the load of sedatives and sleeping pills down the lavatory and tentatively affirmed life over death. Nowadays, I invariably sit alone at the end of play in Adelaide in the shade at the River Torrens end and reflect on what has been and what so easily may have been.

As I wrote here in the opening blog of this summer Dravid’s grace, humility and transcendent calm touched a chord inside me when I was in the audience for his Bradman Oration. I dedicated a chapter of my account of that tour to him and the impact his words had on me during the most trying ordeal of my life. He somehow transmitted hope amid despair. He reached me when no-one or nothing else could.

I made my debut as a cricket broadcaster at the Adelaide Oval when India played there in December 2014.Last Friday I gave my last broadcast about Test cricket for the ABC, from their Adelaide studio. In 2014, I shared the ABC media box with Dravid, whom I had met for the first time after transition at Trent Bridge in Nottingham the previous July. We have since become friends though he looms larger in my life than I do in his. Every moment I have spent with him has been a joy because he is good man. And an inspiration because he is also a great man.  A moving account of our personal correspondence and the talismanic presence he has provided in my life was dramatized in a production by Sydney Theatre Company earlier this year. Still Point Turning described the significance of cricket as the thread connecting my life. As a bereaved kid it gave me a quiet solace and a respite from bullying. As a trans woman it has given me acceptance and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity. By choosing to live that night in Adelaide I earned a second innings. I am following on. But it could have been much worse. And as Dravid and Laxman showed at home in 2001 if you hang on you can win following on.

Thus, Adelaide dominates my memories of the game. That relentless bright summer of 2011. India’s return in 2014. The death of Philip Hughes. The death of my male self. And fittingly, my final Test Match as a commentator.  The match concluded yesterday but I learnt that I was surplus to requirements on Friday evening. I went to Adelaide nominally a cricket commentator. I returned without any real prospect of working in the cricket media again. It has been that sort of liminal place for me. Endings. Beginnings. Rebirth.

Commentary is like playing. You get dropped without explanation. It has left me sad and perplexed. The camaraderie of the media box is wonderful. Cricket has given me golden friendships and joys that I would never have dare anticipate.  On Saturday evening I joined Gideon Haigh, Andrew Faulkner, Peter Lalor and Malcolm Knox for a ruminative dinner at an alfresco restaurant in the Adelaide twilight. I knew that I would not be returning to the media box. I was too sad and empty to bid them farewell. We have been on the road together for what seems like an eternity, including three Ashes tours to England. From them I have learnt so much, not least about obscure Australian rock bands. But most importantly I learnt much of human decency towards an outsider. They have been wonderful friends.

William Faulkner, the American novelist wrote, in Intruder in the Dust, “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.” That may sound sound unintelligible to you unless, like Faulkner and I, you have never suffered from the delirium tremens after drinking around the clock for several days. Alcoholism and drug addiction are vastly under rated methods of achieving creative apotheosis. And, yet they pale beside gender dysphoria. Out of darkness light and life. Out of pain and mental torture wisdom. Gethsemane. Calvary. Resurrection.

But I was not hallucinating on Monday evening when I returned to The Australian War Memorial where India’s tour of Australia was formally launched by Cricket Australia back in December 2011. That is when Rahul Dravid delivered his memorable Bradman Oration. His oratory and presence were worthy of both the majesty of the venue and the prestige of the occasion. Fate. Coincidence. Wisdom through the awful grace of God? Take your pick. But Monday night felt eerily like that night. And Monday night has not even begun yet. And it does not even have to begin at all. So, wrote Faulkner of Gettysburg. William not Andrew.

And so, I ended my journey as a cricket journalist precisely where it began, in the sepulchral gloom of the aircraft hall at The Australian War Memorial. Almost seven years to the night I occupied that same podium where my friend had stood. I spoke to a group of 150 school principals of Life. And Love. And Regret. And, of course Cricket. If I had submitted a manuscript dramatizing the past seven years this ending would have been dismissed as too cheesy, too improbable. It would have joined my sedatives in the cistern. From that bottomless nadir of despair in 2011 I could never have imagined that I would eventually speak to a capacity crowd at the Australian War Memorial as a trans woman. Malcolm nearly extinguished Catherine. But she ultimately lived to follow Rahul Dravid to the middle. That task was so challenging the BCCI had to invent Sachin Tendulkar to discharge it. I could not have scripted my farewell better. Malcolm would have been proud of her.

The game has a rich poetic heart. Now I will watch cricket from the stands as I did as a kid. No more the luxury of the media box. But that Rich Poetic heart of the game beats elsewhere. This Saturday I will return to the grassroots to play for Norths in Canberra. One more time. I never dreamt that I would play cricket longer than I commented on it. But the game continues to amaze and charm to the very end. Like the Test at Adelaide. One more improbable twist to remind us of our human limitations for prophecy. Harrison Oval is not the Adelaide Oval. But it is my home ground. It looks more beautiful than Lord’s. And be assured that is not an hallucination.

 

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Coming In From the Cold

Australian cricket came back in from the cold. Literally and metaphorically. Under a relentless azure sky in searing heat Australia’s three-pronged pace attack blew away India’s top order to leave the tourists reeling at 5/86.
A resolute century from Cheteshwar Pujara stabilised India’s innings. Given the question mark over Australia’s batting, I believe the match is evenly poised at the end of the first day with India reaching 9/250.
India elected to bat after Virat Kohli won the toss. The pitch contained no demons and in ordinary circumstances, the team batting first would regard 400 as essential to exert any degree of scoreboard pressure. But these are not ordinary times and the Indians confected demons in their own minds. The first four dismissals were all due to poor shot selection by batsmen indecisively pushing outside the off stump. Kohli, the hinge of India’s batting order edged to Usman Khawaja, who snared an extraordinary catch at second slip.
Unlike its Ashes-winning pace attack, ably supported by Nathan Lyon it is difficult to gauge this Australian top order. It may be that 250 is more respectable than is normally the case here.
Ultimately it was an absorbing day of cricket to open the Border- Gavaskar Trophy series. For Australia, there were some encouraging signs. The pace bowlers generated consistent speed all day in a sustained display of menace underpinned by magnificent athleticism. Their average speed over the first 25 overs was 142.87 Kph. And that speed seemed to surprise the Indians who had not been exposed to first class pace bowling using the Kookaburra ball. They looked underprepared, under pressure and unnerved.
Having collapsed to 5-56 India would be content to have occupied the crease all day and kept the Australians in the field in sapping conditions. The discipline and judicious shot selection of Pujara was an eloquent rebuke to his teammates who squandered a good toss. None was more culpable than Rohit Sharna who played a scintillating cameo only to obligingly hole out to Marcus Harris. He had cleared the rope with his previous shot and threw his wicket away trying to repeat the dose.
After day one it seems clear that Mitchell Starc Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood are capable of rattling the Indian top order. After a winter of discontent, it could have been much worse for the home team. And for India, it should have been much better.
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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…

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Indian Summers-Whispering Jacaranda

To the English, who gave the world the game of cricket, the sound of leather upon willow announced the arrival of summer. To a kid growing up in regional Queensland in the 1960s, it was the explosion of purple Jacaranda blooms. They drifted to earth forming a lavish purple carpet on the streets of my hometown Toowoomba. These, in turn, attracted bees, whose low drone mingled with the cicada hum of crackling descriptions of play on the wireless in our living room. That sound of summer was ubiquitous. My mates and I placed a tiny transistor radio on a fence post beside our improvised backyard cricket pitch where we toiled for hours. Our workload management would incur censure from the army of High-Performance gurus employed in the game nowadays. But what we lacked in technique we made up for in resilience. Entire summer days elapsed in these fiercely contested ‘Tests’.

I had become enthralled by cricket on the radio during the summer of 1962-63. England, or more correctly the MCC was touring Australia. I was only 6 years old but deduced that all the adults in my family and among our neighbours regarded the Test series as being an event of great moment. Conversations invariably commenced ‘Any idea of the score?’ I was an instant and fanatical recruit to the cause.

From the outset, I learnt to loathe the ‘Poms’ and to worship the Australians whom I regarded as invincible as the other Olympian figures of my childhood, the ANZACs. In particular, I gleaned from Dad that Queenslanders like Peter Burge and Ken (Slasher) Mackay were even more admirable than the others. Queenslanders had to be twice as good to make the Test side. Life was a conspiracy against us by ‘Southerners’.

Cricket has since been the golden thread running through my life, which is now in its seventh decade. I still play. I write about it. I love it deeply. And in the summer of 2011-12 when I was at the brink of self-extinction it nurtured me, and its family saved my life. In 2016 I met the arresting and charismatic Marta Dusseldorp to discuss a play and television series about my life. In person, her remote beauty is even more breathtaking than her screen presence in Janet King. Discussing my life with Director Priscilla Jackman, Marta asked, ‘How much cricket is there?’ ‘Lots’ was the reply. ‘It provides the through line.’ That sounds about right.

By the time India arrived in Australia for their 1967-68 Test series, cricket was my absolute passion. I would hit balls against the back fence in what my mother described as an almost trance-like state. I was not seeking to emulate Bradman. I only admired players from my own era. I adored a tall Victorian left-hander, named Bob Cowper. Left-handed kids were regarded as odd and subjected to concerted attempts to convert us to normality. I am glad I did not let on that left-handedness was not the only thing that set me apart from the class. But cricket helped me make sense of the world. Every summer the Jacaranda blossoms evoke that idyllic time of innocence. I can still conjure the aroma of suntan lotion mingling with mosquito coils amid the pervasive lilt of the ABC radio commentary.

Yet, despite my sense of timeless hope and serenity, the world was changing rapidly.  Ultimately not even cricket was able to stand aloof and immune from the social and economic changes underway in 1967 that confounded my parents and their generation. Australia had changed its currency to dollars and cents during the Fifth Test of the Ashes series in February 1966. Sorry, I should explain – as well as providing a ‘through line’ cricket has also given me a cadence and calendar marking the passing of time. Give me a Test match and I can give you the political context of the time and maybe bang out a few bars of the Top 10 hits of the day. If you are really unlucky, that is.

By the time India arrived in December 1967, Britain had announced its withdrawal from East of Suez. Australia was conscripting young men to fight in Vietnam. A young National Service Man, named Errol Noack had been the first conscript killed in Vietnam on my tenth Birthday. And our Prime Minister, Harold Holt had drowned in the surf just before the First Test against the visitors in December 1967. My Mum viewed all of these trends with mounting consternation. She thought we would become a pallid imitation of the United States. We lived with the unease of a potential nuclear exchange. Though according to Mum at least that may have spared us the calamity of becoming a Republic. Many apparent certainties were evaporating. Cricket alone gave me a sense of continuity and transcendence. Yet, over time cricket has succumbed to the same commercial and globalizing forces. Many of those commercial pressures have emanated from the sub-continent from whence came those exotic tourists in 1967.

While concerned at our uncertain geo-strategic environment and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, I was genuinely alarmed at our relative decline as cricket power. I had imbibed Australian invincibility with the cordial Mum had provided the teams during adjournments in our timeless ‘Tests’. Australian cricket hegemony was crumbling as I fell in love with the game. In rapid succession, we lost to the West Indies in the Caribbean in 1965. That was our first overseas loss to anyone but the Old Enemy, England. Then (inconceivable to me) my heroes, Cowper, Ian Chappell and Graham McKenzie were emphatically beaten by South Africa over there in 1966-67. Of some comfort, we at least we still held the Ashes, which to me were imbued with mystical significance. And we vanquished India comfortably that summer.

In languid insular Queensland, I found the men from the sub-continent incredibly mysterious and romantic. Their Captain was the Nawab of Pataudi. Imagine that will you- a Nawab no less, leading a cricket team with names that defied my tongue. Farokh Engineer. Bishen Bedi. Erapalli Prasanna. And apart from his noble title, there was Pataudi, whose full name was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. To a kid who thought Toowoomba’s Loo Shan Chinese Restaurant was the pinnacle of cosmopolitan intrigue, the India cricketers propelled me into a new dimension.

Pataudi possessed only one eye, which compelled him to adopt a very square on stance. At the crease, he made George Bailey look blandly orthodox. He lived up to his nickname ‘Tiger’ throughout the series, batting with poise and character against a rampant Graham McKenzie in Melbourne. In addition to his visual impairment, he batted with a torn hamstring in Melbourne and required the assistance of a runner for most of his innings. In those days the Indians were not as physically imposing as the Australians.

Their attack lacked raw pace and was built around spinners such as Bedi and Prasanna. Bedi, who went on to win the hearts of Australian crowds during the tour of 1977-78, wore a brilliant blue turban. In my childish imagination, the Nawab and the turbaned Bedi had leapt straight out of novels about the Raj and the Indian Mutiny. Moreover, Bedi was a left-arm orthodox bowler like me. He went on to play 67 Test Matches, Captaining India 22 times. Quite a record for that era when the schedules were less frantic than today.

Apart from cricket, my only knowledge of India was through the eyes of the colonizing power, Britain. My reading diet comprised the tales of Biggles and assorted Boys Own books, which featured the odd loyal and brave sepoy. But the subcontinent was portrayed as vaguely mysterious and dangerous for the English and implicitly Australians. If Tiger Pataudi’s team had ridden bejewelled elephants to practice I would not have even raised an eyebrow. Over time India has cast off such patronizing stereotypes to be both the dominant financial and administrative power in global cricket. It arrives here as number one ranked Test team.

India’s ineluctable rise to economic, military, and cricket eminence is an inspiring story. An enormous nation of dazzling wealth and dismal poverty, its people unite around their cricket stars. To play for India is to carry the hopes, pride and aspirations of hundreds of millions. Few Australians fully grasp the intensity of India’s love of cricket. The rise of Indian cricket has gone some way to erasing the humiliation of colonization of an ancient and sophisticated civilization. They adopted the game of their oppressors and it has been one of their primary vehicles to assert their national pride. Today, world cricket without the power, prestige and wealth of sprawling, dynamic India is equally unimaginable.

This weekend the jacaranda are in bloom. The bees are buzzing. And another Indian tour fires my imagination and that of our cricket loving public. Just as their nation has grown in strength, so too, contemporary Indian players are bigger, stronger and more athletic than their forebears. India are yet to win a Test series here. This year looks to afford them their best chance ever.

While the Indian form against South Africa was uninspiring, the 4-1 result against England was more lopsided on paper than on the square. They possess some truly classy batsmen and a better- balanced bowling array than they have fielded for some time with genuine pace and spinners of the first rank. Australia’s woes need little elaboration. Our top order looks fragile. Neither Mitchell Marsh or Glenn Maxwell would be regarded as an Australian Test number 6 when our fortunes are at the flood. If we are to leverage the considerable advantage conferred by home grounds, then our fast bowlers will be crucial. They will need to restrict India to modest totals. I will evaluate both teams in more depth later this week. And I will be joined by a dear friend and accomplished Indian cricket journalist Harini Rana for an in-depth analysis of the tourists. Until then…..

 

 

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Early season shots!

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One From the Vault – December 2017

The WACA is no longer worthy of Test Match cricket, but thanks for the memories…

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-15/catherine-mcgregor-waca-no-longer-worthy-of-test-match-cricket/9264150

Dawid Malan celebrates his century during the final Test at WACA