My Story: Alex Smith

Dad was at my mother’s side when I was born. 

It was a Saturday morning, and I was their first child.  Dad was doing his best, trying to be a rock of support, my sleep-deprived mother having been in labour for hours as I proved stubborn about the timing of my birth.  As the clock ticked closer to noon, my father, dressed in his cricket whites, was becoming twitchy.  With another contraction coming on, and the nurses coaxing her, Mum gripped Dad’s hand tightly and grimaced while he did all he could to contain his anxiety. 

But he could wrestle with it no more.

‘Will this take much longer?’ he asked the doctor sheepishly.  ‘I have a cricket match at midday and my team will be a player short if I can’t be there.’

My mother tells this story with affection, though she tells me at the time she could have punched him.  Happily, I arrived minutes later – as if picking up on my father’s cue – and after a quick cup of tea with Vegemite on toast courtesy of the maternity ward, Dad was able to escape, arriving on time for his match.

I have no idea whether his team won that day.  I would like to think, in the afterglow of knowing that he was now a father for the first time, Dad went on to score a century with the bat and was celebrated as Player of the Match by his peers.

With cricket playing a cameo in the story of my birth – and it being very much part of the social fabric of Australian life – you might think the sport was in my blood from the start.  However, I never went near ‘red ball’ cricket in my youth.  It’s true that, through our long hot summer holidays, my siblings and I played endless cricket recreationally, always with a tennis ball, and with our cousins, friends and neighbours – in the street, in the backyard, on our driveway and on the beach.  But, as a child, I was bored whenever we watched my father play cricket on a weekend, often at the Warradale army barracks in Adelaide, where the decommissioned tank and artillery pieces on display held more fascination for me – as did the obligatory ‘sausage sizzle’ the wives ran to raise money for the club.  And although my father’s commitment to supporting our national team in The Ashes was embraced by my brother and sister, like my mother I remained largely disinterested, declining their invitation to join them to indulge slices of freshly cut watermelon while watching live cricket on the TV in the early 1990s.

Only much later, after my divorce and a midlife mental health crisis, cricket would re-enter my life.  And it would do so far from home, in the country of Australia’s most ancient cricket rivals – England, where I now live.

*****

In 2019, after my marriage ended, I moved to Birmingham, which was closer to my workplace but is also where my brother has lived for almost as long as I have been resident in the UK.  That year, though, I experienced a further crisis– a mental breakdown resulting from years of abusing alcohol and suffering anxiety and depression – and was signed off work for six months afterwards.  Then, just as I felt ready to restart my life, the Covid-19 pandemic took hold the following year and the long lockdowns of England began, which stalled my recovery, putting it in a holding pattern that lasted at least a further year.

I saw a lot of my brother during this time.  Lachlan had pursued his own passion for cricket as a youngster.  He had played for our school, with Dad’s encouragement, before leaving the game for many years.  As an adult, he had started playing again in Warwickshire, and was playing for Weoley Hill CC at the time.  During the lockdown of Spring 2020, we spent our hour of allowable daily exercise cycling or walking the parks, canals and waterways of southwest Birmingham.  It was during these excursions that he first told me about his aspirations, as a gay man, to follow then solitary lead of London Graces Cricket Club – established over a quarter century ago – and set up England’s second LGBTQ+ cricket team in the West Midlands.

Now playing its fourth season of cricket, I continue to be inspired and proud of my brother’s vision and what he has achieved together with the other founding members of the Birmingham Unicorns Cricket Club.  Perhaps the biggest surprise for me personally, as a cisgender male who identifies as ‘straight’, is what an impact the Unicorns would have on my own journey of recovery.

In the Club’s second season, player availability on match days was variable throughout the season, so my brother turned to roping people in to make up the eleven required to field a team.  Inevitably, he asked me, partly because I was then living down the street from him and if I agreed to play, we could drive to games together.

That year, I played in about a dozen games.  I don’t remember distinguishing myself with either bat or ball.  The only over I bowled I would prefer to forget; it was costly, in both wides and no balls as well as boundaries scored off the six legal deliveries I barely scraped together.  And I remember being anxious in the run-up to the awards night, having by my calculation scored as many ducks as the person who won the Golden Duck trophy (I was saved by a better batting average, by the barest of margins).

But I discovered that I enjoyed playing.  I particularly appreciated being a member of a team whose mission was to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ players, many of whom felt marginalised in the culture of more mainstream cricket clubs.  I made genuine friends, for the first time since moving to Birmingham.  I also found inspiration and, on occasion, analogies to my own life journey, in some of the personal stories of those players to whom I grew close. 

I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time:

Belonging.

And while, by this point, my interest in cricket did not match my brother’s passion, I had become a fully paid-up member of the Birmingham Unicorns and had decided to be available to play cricket more regularly the following year.  2023 would prove a turning point in my cricket journey.

*****

The first match I played for the Unicorns that season, I felt lost.  Again, I was there to make up the numbers, but one kind of cricketer was I?  I prided myself on my fielding – something I felt I could excel at – but I lacked confidence with the bat, and I didn’t warm to the idea of bowling.  But I also recognised in myself a desire to learn, and I know that I do my best learning outside of my comfort zone. 

I relished the opportunity to test myself and discover what I needed to work on through failure, and to marshal what resources I could muster from within, to apply discipline, intelligence and mental toughness.  These ingredients are the too-often unrealised essentials for playing cricket, perhaps especially under-appreciated in the recreational game.

At the first match of the 2023 season, I met Chris Marshall, our newly appointed coach and the founder of No Boundaries Cricket Club.  He impressed me with his deep understanding of cricket, both in terms of the skills an individual needs to develop when batting, bowling and fielding, and the on-field dynamics a team needs to cultivate to become successful.  I was particularly inspired by his commitment to applying the theory of cricket to the practice of the game.  I realised that the road to playing better cricket was by becoming a more intelligent cricketer, and in the months that followed I found myself enjoying many conversations with him in which my learning about the game accelerated.

I was yet to find a role in the team, though.  Chris would prove consequential in my journey.  Later in the season, short of a wicket keeper, there was an opportunity for someone ‘new’ to go behind the stumps – and unsurprisingly, a dearth of willing volunteers.  At 48 years old, I realised this was a somewhat ludicrous opportunity to try a discipline in cricket I had no experience of ever doing before.  But Chris encouraged me to put on the gloves.  I relished taking my first step into unknown territory.

That first game behind the stumps was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.  When it was over, I had bruises on parts of my body that had never had contact with a red ball before.  I successfully stopped most balls, even if I wasn’t always taking the ball cleanly in my gloves.  But it awoke something within me: a deep satisfaction, that I had made an important contribution to our team, and then a hunger to learn the skills of a wicket keeper.

Later, driving home after the game, my brother sat next to me, responding to match-related WhatsApp correspondence on his phone.

‘You know, for someone who has never kept wicket before,’ he told me, ‘I thought that was the best performance I’ve ever seen from someone doing it for the first time.  You weren’t perfect, but you stopped about eight or nine out of every ten balls – and wicket keeping is not for everyone.’

Coming from my younger brother, who is a much better cricketer than me, these words meant everything.

*****

I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of my new-found passion for cricket, which came to me late in life.  He passed away suddenly in the 1990s, you see, a few years before my brother and I left Australia.  He was 48 at the time – the same age I was last year, when I started wicketkeeping for the Unicorns. 

And my journey into cricket has continued.  Over the winter, I have trained intensively with Chris most weeks, to improve both my wicket keeping and my batting.  I thrive on the ways he challenges me to think about my cricket, and to his approach which places intelligence and learning mental toughness at the heart of improving as a cricketer.  With his encouragement, I joined a league team – Church Eaton Cricket Club, in Staffordshire – for which he also plays.  And I have now joined No Boundaries Cricket Club, where I am Head of Compliance (aka Whakapapa).

While it would be a stretch to indulge the tired cliché that ‘cricket saved my life’, it’s true to say I am deeply thankful to have discovered this new passion late in life, on the back of several tumultuous years borne of personal crisis.  Cricket has given me a sense of belonging – to a game of beauty, subtlety and intelligence, and to teams that value my presence and contribution – as well as a growing sense of confidence in my skills and ability.  Although I might be late to the game that inspired my father, and my siblings in our youth, I am keen to see where cricket takes me as I approach my fifties.  I now look forward to testing the skills I have been working on through the winter, with Chris’ coaching and guidance, through the winter, as our season begins. 

In October 2023, as we wrapped our season last year, Mum, my sister and her wife all made the journey to England, to attend my brother’s wedding to his long-term partner in October.  Early in their visit, I regaled them with tales of my time as a wicket keeper, while we ate lunch in central Birmingham, at Bill’s in the Bullring.  While I spoke with all the zealotry of a new convert, they listened, politely amused, as they remembered the disinterest of my younger self, when it came to cricket.  And then, inevitably, our conversation turned to Dad.

‘You know,’ my mother said, ‘I can’t be sure, but I think your father might have been a wicketkeeper too.’

I think of Dad now every time I pull on the gloves.  I’d like to think, when I stand up to the stumps, I am following in his footsteps.  Some passions might be passed down, from parents to children, and then lie dormant for half a lifetime.  For me, all it took is two people: my brother Lachlan, for roping me into cricket two years ago and kindling that interest, and Chris Marshall, for inspiring me about what is possible if you want to improve as a player and opening up a wider world of opportunities to play more cricket.

Alex Smith is Head of Compliance (aka Whakapapa) at NBCC and an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Warwick