When Jock Serong's debut novel QUOTA was released it was the first crime fiction book I could recall using over-permit limit Abalone catches as a central theme. The incorporation of crime and cricket therefore shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise in his second novel, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET. If both of these books are anything to go by, this is an author with a keen eye for an unusual but extremely workable scenario.
The depiction of cricket, from the Keefe brother's backyard contests, through to their District, State and ultimately Australian representation is brilliant. The careful use of tactics everywhere, the effects of micro-waving tennis balls for the backyard form, everything about the all consuming nature of the game and it's subtleties is gloriously depicted. The way that this sport provides a way forward for the two sons of a fierce single mother, her involvement, her constant presence behind them, and the dawning realisation that Darren comes to, of the sacrifices that their mother must have made, are perfect.
Which does not sit well with the opening of this novel - starting as it does with a trussed up Darren in the boot of a car, at night, being driven somewhere to pay a hefty price for something. As the novel starts to switch backwards and forwards through the boy's childhood, and Darren's current predicament, a picture starts to emerge of two different and yet similar brothers. Darren's always been a bit of a loose canon. A fierce player, erratic and undisciplined, he had potential and yet, ending up in the boot of a car has some sort of inevitability about it. The older brother, Wally, is a quieter, more reflective boy and man. A less flashy cricketer, he's still good enough to follow the same trajectory. Wally's the brother who makes it to Australian Captain. He's got the big house, the travelling lifestyle, the testimonial dinner on retirement. Darren was the one always in trouble for breaking team rules, the one with nothing much to fall back on when injury takes away his big chance at cricketing fame and fortune.
There's a lot about the tensions between the brothers that come from them simply being brothers, and then there's that which comes from the intricacies of the cricket world. The difference between being a respected Test Player, and a bit of a one-trick showman in the shorter forms for example. Then there's the question marks over the game itself rearing their ugly heads as the two men are stepping away from the game.
All the way along there's Darren's voice - looking back at their childhood and the lives that they lived, and at his present - in that boot with its inevitable sense of doom, approached with determination and a calm level-headedness that's somehow apt. Darren might have been a mercurial customer in his youth, but he's no fool, and he's not prepared to lie in that boot and take what's coming to him without an argument.
Really, everything in THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET is brilliant. As the novel progresses, slowly and steadily, like a tactical battle against a good opposition test team, Darren works his way through his options, playing the timeframe, working the percentages. He's also calmly analysing what got him into this situation, and, as in any good cricket game, sometimes you can see the moves being played out, and sometimes they come straight out of the back of the bowler's hand.
For a cricket obsessed reader, fond of the assertion that test cricket is a metaphor for life, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET made me wonder about that just for a moment. Darren, Wally and their mum used the game as a way out of a difficult background, something that gave them a chance of a better future. What they got was more like a rain-affected draw, in the final game of a tied five day test series. For this reader though, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET was nearly as good as 5 nil whitewash, home series defeat of the old enemy.