GRAEME BLUNDELL meets KERRY O’KEEFFE CRICKET COMMENTATOR, AUTHOR
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).