Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jock Serong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

It seems ironic that the day I finished reading Jack Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, the Australian men’s Test captain, Tim Paine, resigned from his position, bidding a tearful farewell in what could have been a scene lifted directly from this novel.

In Serong’s brilliant book, all the cricket clichés we know and love are here, and the sport, which is regarded as a “gentleman’s game”, is shown as anything but with its sledging and corruption and bad-boy behaviour.

Its heroes, which are lauded in Australia and turned into holier-than-thou celebrities (even if it’s just to sell vitamins on TV!), are skewered beautifully in this wildly compelling and entertaining story about two talented brothers from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs who grow up to represent their country in international cricket.

One brother is bad, another is good — and it’s this tension between the two that powers the story along faster than anything Dennis Lillee could ever deliver!

Childhood memoir

When the book opens we meet the narrator, Darren Keefe, who is locked in the boot of a car, bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to his legs. The car is belting down a road somewhere, but we don’t know who is behind the wheel or what Darren has done to get into this precarious position.

I’m suspended in space here, between wakefulness and sleep, maybe even consciousness and death, and I fear the gag will suffocate me if I doze off. A world apart from the world in here.

The story then spools back to Darren’s childhood in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, and from his position in the boot of the car, he tells his warts-and-all story, from talented child cricketer to white-ball superstar before falling from grace and reinventing himself as a TV commentator and after-dinner events speaker.

His older brother, Wally, is more successful than him, rising to become captain of the Australian men’s Test team. He’s the more responsible sibling; he’s more level-headed, logical and steady, whereas Darren is a trouble-maker, a likable larrikin who enjoys women and drink and gambling and drugs too much to take anything too seriously.

One columnist says he’d pay to watch Darren Keefe because something amazing might happen, but he’d bet the house on Wally Keefe, because the necessary will happen. Journalists love the potential clichés we suggest: Cain and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, Noel and Liam.

The one guiding force in their life is their determined and gutsy single mother, who recognises their talent when they are young boys, creating a perfect pitch for them in the backyard and working long shifts in the pub to pay for the best kit she can buy them.

Bad boy antics

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Darren has a wild streak in him that can’t be tamed. Here’s what he says about his school days:

I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.

But his talent with the bat means he rises through the ranks quickly — as a 12-year-old he’s playing in the seniors, by 20 he’s in the state squad and the leading run-scorer in Victorian district cricket — and before he knows it he’s playing white-ball cricket for Australia. He gets married but doesn’t really settle down — he likes partying too much.

It doesn’t help that his best friend has gangster connections (and may or may not be working for them), so there’s always plenty of drugs, mainly cocaine around, and with that comes violence and reputational crises to sort out. And then, when he’s offered a bribe to help “throw” a game, well…

Rip-roaring tale

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is one of those rip-roaring tales that take you in unexpected directions. I loved following the antics of these two brothers and their wonderful mother (who later succumbs to Alzheimer’s) and seeing how their careers unfold over two decades or so.

It’s a literary coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a crime story because how Darren ends up in the boot of a car is the consequence of illicit activities. Every new chapter begins with a reminder that Darren is in the boot against his will, and it’s these glimpses of his confusion and anger and pain during these moments that helps build the suspense, making the novel a page-turner because you want to find out why he’s there and whether he will ever escape.

But the story is also a kind of loose satire about cricket because there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek swipes at how Australia treats its sports stars and how sports stars use the media and their celebrity to build their profiles and career. It’s set in the latter half of the 20th century, before social media and the internet took over everything, just at the point when cricket became properly professionalised, but much of what is written here still resonates today.

There’s a lot here to unpick about morality and ethics in sport, about sibling rivalry and the lengths parents will go to to help their children succeed, but most of all The Rules of Backyard Cricket is just a great big enjoyable romp.

I suspect Jock Serong had a lot of fun writing this; I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. This one will be in my Top 10 reads of the year for sure.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott: an entertaining story about a 12-year-old boy, a talented spin bowler, who plays Test cricket at international level for Australia in between the wars.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

12 thoughts on “‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong”

  1. This looks very fascinating, Kim! I’m always up for a cricket novel. Loved Joseph O’Neill ‘Netherland’ and Jennie Walker’s ’24 for 3′. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Loved your review! Will add this to my reading list.

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    1. I thought of you when I read this, Vishy, because I know how much you love cricket and I think you would really enjoy this one. I kept wondering who he might have modelled his characters on… Wally is a bit like Steve Waugh / Kim Hughes (safe but dull) and Darren reminded me a little bit of Shane Warne!

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      1. Very fascinating to know that, Kim! Steve Waugh and Shane Warne presented fictionally – so cool! Will try to find this book soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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  2. You won’t believe this, Kim, because I am so not interested in sport, but I read and enjoyed Spinner, and Chinaman (which is also about cricket, sort of) and I have this one on the TBR because I’ve enjoyed Jock’s other novels so much. (And he’s a nice man too, I met him at the Port Fairy Lit Weekend).

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    1. I do believe it actually, Lisa, because you very kindly gave me a copy of Spinner and I loved it. I used to have a copy of Chinamen but think it got culled in the mists of time but now I want to read it. Must see if my library has it.

      I have a couple of Jock’s books in the TBR but this one, requested from the publisher via NetGalley, had been sitting on my Kindle since 2016!!! I’m not sure what made me read it now… but so glad I did, it’s a terrific read!

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    1. LOL. I’m not sure whether non-cricket lovers will enjoy it as much as cricket lovers … it resonated with me cos I understood the references, and I’ve figured out that the author is roughly the same age as me, so he’s writing about the stars I was familiar with from my childhood.

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  3. I loved the cricket era of the 70’s, simply because I knew nothing else. My family watched every single game that was televised, every year. And if it wasn’t televised, we listened on the radio. It was the background hum of my childhood. Like you, I know all the names and the terminology. But as an adult I have not watched one single game. My interest ended the day I left home!

    So I’m happy to read your review and grateful for the AusReading Month nod, but will probably never read this for myself.

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    1. LOL. It’s about the only sport I don’t mind watching… it’s the sound of summer for me… but in the UK it was not on free-to-air TV so I basically never watched it for 20 years though I would listen to the Ashes on the radio and went to see a limited overs match at Lords one year… It was a revelation to return to Australia and see you could actually watch it on TV without having to pay for it, so last Christmas, which was hot here in Perth, I basically spent my two weeks off work watching various matches (Test, limited overs etc) and I will probably be doing the same this year. Am keeping my fingers crossed an Ashes test may actually be staged in Perth so I can go and watch it in person!

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