THE FACE

GRAEME BLUN­DELL meets KERRY O’KE­EFFE CRICKET COM­MEN­TA­TOR, AU­THOR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

IDIDN’T want to do an ‘ as told to’ book,’’ ABC ra­dio cricket com­men­ta­tor and for­mer Aus­tralian Test leg spin­ner Kerry O’Ke­effe is say­ing. ‘‘ In fact, it was as told to my wife’, who was to­tally un­in­ter­ested, not a flicker of emo­tion at the killer lines or win­ning jokes; talk about writer’s block.’’

O’Ke­effe’s new book, Turn, Turn, Turn . . . Please , is a droll se­lec­tion of events in his life: un­re­lated anec­dotes, ex­pe­ri­ences and mor­dant ob­ser­va­tions span­ning 30 years. ‘‘ I wrote it long­hand be­cause I can’t type,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ My wife, Veron­ica, can, so she pumped it out on the com­puter.’’

He asked con­stantly for her ap­proval dur­ing the writ­ing process, even a smile as she typed his scrawled words. ‘‘ Is there a laugh there?’’ he asked anx­iously as he watched her.

‘‘ I don’t know, Kerry,’’ she al­ways an­swered. ‘‘ I am just typ­ing it, not re­ally think­ing about it.’’

Open­ing with a story about a cricket match in York­shire in 1975, when the leg­gie, then an im­pe­cu­nious county pro­fes­sional, bowled his fin­gers to the lit­eral bone in or­der to win a cov­eted television set, he tosses up his tall tales with brevity and wit.

And there’s a touch more spin than his own fin­gers al­lowed when, as a Test player, though ex­traor­di­nar­ily ac­cu­rate, he be­came known as a straight- breaker. He was part of a crick­et­ing un­der­class, a so­cially vul­ner­a­ble group that didn’t turn the ball much. De­spite this he man­aged to play 24 Tests for his coun­try.

The self- de­scribed cricket equiv­a­lent of a twopot screamer, he al­ways car­ried the stigma of in­ad­e­quate wrists and fin­gers on to the field, and later fixed his eyes long­ingly on re­plays of fre­net­i­cally twirling seams.

‘‘ To be known as a spin­ner who doesn’t turn it much is to con­cede ground both on and off the field,’’ he says, which ex­plains the ti­tle of his new se­lec­tion of sto­ries.

But like his re­cent au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Ac­cord­ing to Skull , his new col­lec­tion is re­veal­ing and some­times dis­qui­et­ing.

We are in the ABC cafe­te­ria in Syd­ney’s in­ner- city Ul­timo. There is an air of im­pu­dent author­ity about him in the flesh which is sur­pris­ingly at odds with the anx­ious fea­tures, comic in­dif­fer­ence and the way he non­cha­lantly seems to in­vite mis­takes in pub­lic per­for­mances.

His writ­ing style is re­alised in spare, nec­es­sary prose, so acutely col­lo­quial you can al­most hear O’Ke­effe read­ing aloud for rhythm and cadence. You can prac­ti­cally hear the au­di­ence laugh­ing, too, depite his wife’s ret­i­cence as she typed.

He is in­deed a very good sto­ry­teller. And peo­ple around us in the cafe­te­ria try to con­ceal their amuse­ment as his voice car­ries through the early- morn­ing cof­fee din, in much the same way his fel­low ABC com­men­ta­tors will through this cricket sea­son when Aus­tralia bat­tle In­dia.

While the pic­ture in his sto­ries is one of of vic­tim­i­sa­tion, he is never per­ma­nently in the dol­drums, even if un­able to dis­pose of the ob­sta­cles and in­jus­tices he de­scribes. With his sag­ging melan­choly and de­flated sense of his comic per­sona, he is ex­actly as he comes across in the ra­dio com­men­tary that has made him fa­mous.

He writes of his con­tin­u­ing hurt at re­ceiv­ing only two para­graphs in Syd­ney’s Sun tabloid when he re­tired from play­ing: ‘‘ When I pass away I want more than two, even if they’re full of sledges.’’

His losses at car­port cricket haunt him more than los­ing Tests; the tra­di­tional back­yard ver­sion with his own boys was never pos­si­ble be­cause of the clothes line. ‘‘ The Hills hoist killed off back­yard cricket,’’ he shouts sud­denly, as we mooch through the con­tents of his book.

He de­scribes his ha­tred of catch­ing the first flight of the day when he is trav­el­ling, for in­stance. He fig­ures the en­gines would be cold and that if any­thing un­to­ward were to hap­pen it would been planned overnight.

His nick­name Skull em­anates from an in­no­cent dress­ing- room aside in 1965, he re­veals. When pro­fes­sional wrestling was the rage, O’Ke­effe’s favourite bald Cana­dian was Skull Mur­phy. One wet af­ter­noon in Syd­ney, play­ing third- grade dis­trict cricket for St Ge­orge as a 15- year- old at Tempe’s Cahill Park, his hair cut short, he wres­tled team- mates us­ing his favourite move, the power slam. Team- mates chris­tened him Skull, de­spite a tragic win- loss ra­tio.

When the real Skull Mur­phy died in 1970 of an over­dose of sleep­ing pills, the Test tweaker de­cided to shave his head eter­nally in legacy. ‘‘ Some­one made the mis­take of telling me af­ter I had it done that I looked good,’’ he says.

He rubs his shin­ing head vig­or­ously for the ben­e­fit of sev­eral ABC work­ers now star­ing at us openly, drawn by the ar­rest­ing O’Ke­effe panto dame laugh.

His new book is a lat­eral kind of per­sonal nar­ra­tive. The short, crisp comic yarns pro­vide a frame­work for au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal rem­i­nis­cence with­out the te­dium of a mem­oir’s need for struc­ture and form. There are echoes of Steele Rudd and the bush yarn spin­ners in his dry, straight- turn­ing sto­ries.

But you can hear the cadence, too, of Aus­tralian crime writer Robert G. Bar­rett ( with­out the pro­fan­ity). Like Bar­rett, O’Ke­effe has a stylised form of sto­ry­telling that emerges from ur­ban myths, shaggy- dog sto­ries and the lar­rikin wit of the cul­tur­ally marginalised.

He was called Rags or Ragsy early in his ca­reer be­cause of his dark moods, dol­drums af­ter bad per­for­mances and some­times less- thandesir­able de­meanour in the dress­ing sheds.

‘‘ I was surly and found it dif­fi­cult to laugh off a fail­ure,’’ he tells me. The ‘‘ quick jibe for any­one who was go­ing well’’ per­vaded his psy­che, haunt­ing him for decades af­ter cricket and cost­ing him un­told heartache when he re­tired from the game.

‘‘ Greg Chap­pell called the way you had to prove you were wor­thy of wear­ing the baggy green cap ‘ tough love’,’’ O’Ke­effe says.

And he re­calls younger play­ers treated cal­lously and in­dif­fer­ently as first- year ap­pren­tices on the field.

He re­mem­bers Kim Hughes in 1977 beg­ging stal­wart Doug Wal­ters to tell him the se­cret of bat­ting in the mid­dle or­der for Aus­tralia. ‘‘ Dougie took a long drag on his cig­a­rette,’’ O’Ke­effe says, do­ing a highly ac­torly im­per­son­ation of both for­mer play­ers. ‘‘ Don’t get out,’’ was the la­conic Wal­ters’s re­sponse.

O’Ke­effe can be edgy and tough as well as maudlin and ele­giac. He says the lis­ten­ers of re­gional Aus­tralia are his pri­or­ity as a broad­caster, blokes driv­ing head­ers or utes or the rural work­ers trapped in trac­tors all day.

‘‘ A bloke will come up and say he’s on the land at Cowra, or mows lawns for a liv­ing, and that my com­ments make his day fly,’’ he says.

And they run up to him when he’s walk­ing with fel­low ABC com­men­ta­tor Jim Maxwell. ‘‘ Hey, Skull, love your show,’’ they yell. ‘‘ It’s not a f . . king show,’’ Maxwell al­ways mut­ters. O’Ke­effe col­lapses with laugh­ter as he tells this story. ‘‘ Jim thinks what we do is ‘ re­lat­ing the game to an au­di­ence’,’’ he man­ages to say at last. And he laughs and laughs, un­til the fa­mous wheez­ing over­comes him and he ac­tu­ally al­most slips off his seat. Turn, Turn, Turn . . . Please, by Ker­ryO’Ke­effe ( ABC Books, $ 29.95).

Pic­ture: Alan Pryke

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