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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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Pay No Worship to the Garish Sun

Having fallen in love with night, Australian cricket fans will once again pay worship to the garish sun when the First Test between Australia and India commences this Thursday at Adelaide Oval. Along with fireworks and other baseball ephemera, Day/Night Pink Ball Test Cricket has become the ‘traditional’ format for the Adelaide Test. Three consecutive years constitutes an eternity in the era of T10 and T20 cricket, justifying the term ‘traditional.’ On the last occasion these two nations clashed in Adelaide though, no lights were employed. Indeed, Adelaide had been scheduled to host the Second Test of that rubber, following the ‘traditional opening’ of the summer Test scheduled at the Gabba in Brisbane.

However, the shock of the death of precocious young Australian batsman Philip Hughes forced the postponement of the Brisbane fixture. The players gathered in Adelaide still in grief and shock at the death of Hughes, and that Test Match was played in an outdoor shrine amid thousands of floral tributes. As successive Australian batsmen passed significant milestones they paid public tribute to their young mate. David Warner, Steve Smith and Michael all scored centuries in Australia’s gluttonous first innings of 7/517. Each paid elaborate homage to their fallen comrade on attaining their century. They looked skyward and Clarke paid tribute to Hughes on 37, which was 63 short of a ton. And again on 63, upon which Hughes was unconquered when struck on the neck during a Sheffield Shield Match in Sydney on 25 November.

In the ghastly days that followed the formal pronouncement of Hughes’s death on the 27th of November, cricket displayed its amorphous spirit and unified the nation. Families left simple bats outside their gates. Yet the game ascended to its greatest majesty by donning black rather than traditional cream for the fallen star’s funeral in his hometown of Macksville. In front of a live, national, television audience, cricket’s royalty, including Virat Kohli, marched behind the hearse. For a fleeting moment, Australia was uplifted. It was a Je Suis Philip Hughes 408 moment. The confluence of bereavement and cricket inspired a uniquely Australian response.

The Test series should have been an anti-climax, but it produced an epic contest. Ultimately, the Australians won convincingly by 2-0. The scoreboard was unflattering of the tourists. India had shown a steel and a hunger that had not hitherto been obvious in their tours of Australia. Kohli, upon whom far too much reliance has been placed for scoring on tours outside India, enhanced his reputation as prickly, aggressive and fiercely competitive. He scored his debut Test Century at Adelaide in January 2012 in the final appearances of Indian legends Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. Kohli has since shouldered much of the burden borne by those two and the inimitable Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, since that time. He holds the key to his nation’s aspirations to win a series in Australia for the first time since independence. As beloved Indian broadcaster, Harsha Bhogle, has observed, Kohli embodies the New India. Brash. Assertive. Determined to be taken seriously on the world stage. His fate and that of his nation’s oft blighted hopes will be synonymous over the next few weeks.

The Indian media sense that Australia is peculiarly vulnerable at home this year. Apart from the normal intensity of a Test series, Australia represents unfinished business for the number one ranked Test Nation. Although allocated Test status in 1932, the newly Independent Indian nation played its first series against Australia in 1947-48, but India is yet to win a series on Australian soil. The current generation has grown to maturity amidst the frustration of letting Australia off the hook in 2003-2004 and the backlash over sledging in 2007-2008. Indian players have long been bemused and enraged by the deeply personal nature of Australian on-field chatter. What is considered amusing (if perhaps insulting) among Australian cricketers forged in an unforgiving Grade system, is considered condescending and often racist by Indian and Pakistani men. That is especially the case when the targets are the wives and mothers of observant religious men.

There was sufficient blame to go around in 2008. However, the Indian Board of Control flexed its considerable political muscle to humiliate Cricket Australia. Australia blinked under duress with the BCCI threatening to cancel the rest of the tour after the spiteful Sydney Test. The weight of history falls heavily on Kohli and his men as this summer gets underway. He is a fiercely proud man, leading the team which most personifies the hopes of a rising economic and military superpower. That will to win encounters an Australian cricket apparatus beset by deep self-doubts, if not an existential crisis of identity. Australia are the underdogs, though India’s history here and its immediate past record in England and South Africa offer hope. How robust will Australia be? Who will exert more pressure and how will each cope with it? In the game more aware of its traditions and history than any other, history imposes great weight. My friend Harini Rana from India and I will offer our previews of the Adelaide Test later this week. After scandal and inquisitorial reviews, it will be pleasant to return our gaze to the delightful Adelaide Oval. Bathed in light. Of the traditional natural variety.

 

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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…