REBEL, WITH A CAUSE
He may have given up the game, but former cricket hero Dion Nash still has a lot to say, writes Sarah Daniell
At the end of the long driveway leading from a country road to a farmhouse, there is a letterbox. Sitting on top of the letterbox, alone, swinging his legs, is a small boy, waiting. Waiting for a team. “I think I still do that,” says Dion Nash, former New Zealand cricket player.
He does, says Bernice Mene, former New Zealand netballer, his wife and mother of his three children. “He still tries to rally all the local kids.”
“When we were dating, we’d be driving somewhere and he’d say ‘stop!’ if he saw some kids playing cricket at a park, and he’d get out and play with them.
“Then he’d bowl full speed at them and hit the bat out of their hands and I’d be like. ‘Do you think you overdid it?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh nah, they really love it when I do that’.”
Nash, the all-rounder whose name is engraved on the honours board at that hallowed ground, Lords, strides into a central Auckland cafe. He wears a hat. He shaves his head. He orders green tea and water. “I’ve had three coffees today.” He smiles with his whole face, which has the scrubbed look of a man with few regrets and who swears by a rigorous grooming routine (his own brand Triumph & Disaster — inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem, If).
We are meant to talk product. But the conversational equivalent of a 20-20 match rolls into epic test proportions. We cover cosmetics, cricket, cannabis, coping skills, competition,
and Cairns. That’s former Black Cap teammate Chris Cairns, who was cleared of match-fixing two years ago. But more on that later.
On cosmetics: Triumph & Disaster (founded in 2011, of which Nash is managing director) was once for men only and is now for anyone.
“I think that the opportunity to create a unisex brand is a greater story for right now. I think the vision of men and women is sort of unhealthy. There’s a lack of confidence with that. If you have to have ‘man’ written on something to know it’s a great product. I don’t want myself or my sons to be defined by some kind of masculinity stamp.”
On ageing (which is, let’s face it, equal parts triumph and disaster): “Much of the beauty industry is based on fear. Fear of getting old. Fear of a wrinkle. Fear of this, fear of that. You are not promoting health when you’re promoting fear.” He frowns. Is there a product for that?
On cannabis: “I think I made it out of Dargaville being one of the only kids in my era [who hadn’t smoked] pot. So the irony is all my mates from up north going, ‘oh my god, the straightest guy from Dargaville gets pinged’.”
Nash is referring to his suspension for smoking pot with fellow Black Caps Stephen Fleming and Matthew Hart in South Africa in 1993-94. He said he “simulated” smoking pot. “I sort of regret saying that. I think Stephen Fleming was best — he just copped it. Same with Matthew. But it’s not in my nature to go down without taking a swing.
“There’s a long story behind all of that. One of the things I’m proudest of is how I and Matthew and Stephen held ourselves through all of that because there were a whole bunch of people involved but three of us got hung out to dry.
“So I will always respect those guys intensely. They stood by me and I stood by them and we’ve held our own.
“In the end, out of frustration I said, I simulated it … it was a stupid thing to say. My internal dialogue was, ‘F*** you, guys.’”
He smoked it at university. Doesn’t now. “I liked being a rebel.” But for the self-described upstart cricketer, pot wasn’t even close to the most potent mind-mender of all.
“Intense adulation is the best drug you can ever have but it’s also full of really bad, toxic things. Those things can and do affect you.
“Guys in that environment get put in positions that most people would never ever get put in, you know.
“Everyone wants to give you everything and wants to be near you and want to be associated with you — that’s an incredibly tempting environment.
“I feel like we need to support our players better. Also understanding the culture of a whole lot of young, competitive guys in a small environment. It’s an intense space. Every player’s ego, mana and stature, is on the line.”
THE SMALL boy who hit cricket balls with a bat against the garage was born into a medium-size team — a Catholic family of eight on a farm with a sawmill. Six siblings who were all much older, which meant Nash was raised much like an only child. He read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry — themes: cowboys, Old West, masculinity.
No matter what you aspire to be, he says, you can’t help but be a small-town boy when you grow up in a town like Dargaville.
He aspired to play cricket and he would get there, via Auckland Boys’ Grammar. At 16 he left home for boarding school.
“I call it my finishing school. That sort of set me on my way. All the kids in my class were aiming to go to university. Not that kids up north weren’t — but there wasn’t the expectation that everyone in your class would go on to tertiary education.”
Nash, whose test career spanned between 1992 and 2001, belonged to an elite group of highly talented players in, arguably the seminal era, the dawn of professionalism.
“It’s nothing compared with today — they’re earning millions of dollars a year. Back then if we earned $50,000 a year we thought we were rich.”
Professional sportsmen — in teams — may be wealthier, and more enlightened about the benefits of yoga, Pilates and cleansing and moisturising. But they still need a code of behaviour.
“You get a bunch of young guys together in a competitive environment,” says Nash, “and an element of renown, or fame and a bit of money and it’s the perfect cocktail for something to go completely wrong.” “I was one of those once,” he says. At that level, the players are away for two to three months at a time. “You’re living with 20 guys — every single moment of every day is competing over who is the top dog.
“People say it shouldn’t be like that. But it is just like that. It’s what young males are like. But what it needs is a release valve. And it needs coping strategies and strong management. It also needs an element of understanding that even with all of those good things in place, it still will go wrong.”
“HE DOESN’T want his children to be marked by the traditional definition of masculinity,” says Mene, on the phone.
“But he has passed on some of the traditions of his father. You can hear the echo of it around the table. Our 7-year-old won’t be able to leave the table because there are starving children in the world. This happened the other night. It was not like it was leeks or tripe. It was a chicken burger.”
You could say Mene and Nash are a power couple. They wouldn’t. “You’re kind of acutely aware of the pressures people put on the children, though — do they love sport? India loves playing the piano, and [singer] Peter Urlich said to me, ‘Ah, that’s interesting, like she’s a throwback or something.’”
With their children, Solomon, 11, Jett, 7, and India, 9, Nash and Mene goof off, play at the park near their Grey Lynn home, form a team.
“Dion and I want them to find the thing they absolutely love.”
When Mene met Nash, they were both at their peak of their sporting careers.
“I was living in Invercargill and he was in Auckland … because we were both playing sport and, you know, the demands of international sport and all those pressures ... you understand.
“Possibly sportspeople are wired differently. But we got each other.” They married in 2003.
“We’re very competitive and determined. But we have other similar quirky traits as well … [sotto voce] ‘Do you write poetry? I write poetry too!’ But don’t put that down because he’ll probably kill me.”
“IF YOU asked me,” says Nash, “what I would like masculinity to mean, to me and my sons —
Intense adulation is the best drug you can ever have but it’s also full of really bad, toxic things. Those things can and do affect you. Dion Nash
it would be to be confident in themselves and be open-minded and think for themselves and to be proud of being male. But I wouldn’t want them to feel that they need to express that in any way that wasn’t natural to them.
“It all comes down to understanding that you mature into masculinity — understanding your physical strength and that that is not akin to mental or emotional strength.
“It’s understanding your sexual impulses but knowing that’s different to action. And knowing how to speak to women, or the elderly, and how to behave.
“Your self-esteem and confidence is core to it all — male or female. Being fulfilled, stimulated mentally. If you go searching for masculinity elsewhere, you can get it wrong.”
Nash reached his pinnacle in 1994. He was the first player in history to take 10 wickets and score 50 runs in a match at the “home of cricket” — Lords — in 1994.
Is that achievement a kind of bank of happiness that he can return to and dip into?
“It is a deposit of happiness. But there’s also a whole bunch of regret that sneaks up on you. Like, I didn’t achieve all I could have achieved. Either through injury but also through
[Test cricket] is mental. You’re facing a guy who could potentially kill you with a ball, for two hours. 20/20 — to me is like cheap takeaway food. It’s not even good takeaway food.
immaturity. I don’t think I was ready to have a career — I feel very proud of how I played the game and the effect I had on the teams I was in. But everyone has regrets. Everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are Roger Federer — on the surface he has achieved everything. But Federer will have regrets. Things he didn’t do.
“You can reflect and dip into the pools of happiness — the things you did do. I can probably say that now I’m 45. But as a young sportsman you are not aware of your real ability. That’s the sort of zen moment. you naturally slip into this space without thinking about it.
“Zen is a little scary when you are young. It’s too calm. It’s too still.”
On cricket: “I don’t think I love the professional game anymore.
“The real game is test cricket. The short games aren’t. People who don’t know the game will probably struggle to comprehend that. But the game is mental. It’s a test. You’re facing a guy who could potentially kill you with a ball, for two hours. When that’s shortened down to six balls and have shortened boundaries it changes it. You are taking away one of the massive challenges of the game.
“I think that 20/20 — to me is like cheap takeaway food. It’s not even good takeaway food.
“I love the absolute extreme point where you pitch yourself against someone else, moments that you were facing Alan Donald or you were bowling to Sachin Tendulkar, with 50,000 people looking on and it was just you and them.
On competition and coping: “Sport is a win or lose situation. You only have to watch a bunch of kids in a schoolyard to know there’s a competition. We haven’t taught kids to deal with winning or losing.
“Just because you won doesn’t mean you’re a hero. It just means you played well today. And just because you lost doesn’t mean you’re a loser — it just means you’ve got room for improvement and tomorrow’s another day. And that’s how you get better.
“It’s easy to say this in a sports environment — but you see it everywhere — in every environment — just look at Instagram — it reminds me of the cool kids at school who isolated all the other kids. It’s all of those kids on steroids.
“Instagram is a hyper-competitive environment. They’re loading this stuff up to the sky but who are these people? They are fraudulent, false ideals of a super, super desensitised version of what happiness is and what value and wealth is.
“It’s like, f***, that is so dangerous. We have to teach people coping strategies so they can identify that as unreal. It should always be a tool. It’s not. We are the tools.”
HIS GREATEST strength? “He’s super-passionate,” says Mene. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s always working on himself. He’s a great dad. He will try and think of the little things to help … He’s a details person.”
Our greatest strength, says Nash, is “when you’re meeting out there somewhere rather than slipping back inside.
“All of the good stuff happens when you have a simple conversation with another person. That’s when really fruitful stuff happens.”
“That’s life — it’s all of business — all of sport — it’s being a father and a husband. All of that stuff. “You never can play the perfect game. “Part of walking away, like I did with cricket, is you learn to understand that. And live with it.”