The Novice by Vin Maskell

Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, Williamstown, Victoria. Photo by Vin Maskell.

Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, Williamstown, Victoria. Photo by Vin Maskell.

AT the end of the innings I slip off my black flippers and emerge from the water, waist-deep in the shallows of the sanctuary.
At the end of the innings I slide off my snorkel and make my way to the shore.
At the end of the innings I take off my black gloves, head across the sand as the saltwater drains from my wetsuit.
It is in this last act, removing the gloves – with flippers tucked under one arm, snorkel dangling from a wrist – that I come closest to ever acting like a cricketer. Like a batsman, I’m removing protective equipment while walking away from the playing field.
And, as often as not, I may glance eastward toward the little cricket ground a few hundred metres away where, 20 odd years ago, I tried to be a cricketer. At the tender age of 30. A fifth X1, suburban, no-shade-anywhere, melted-Tim-Tams-for-afternoon-tea park cricketer. A getting-baked-under-the-hot-sun-I-should-have-more-sense-at-my-age park cricketer.
I was a no-spin slow bowler whom the skipper would summon from the deep when we needed to buy a wicket. Put all the fielders on the boundary, a few nearly in the water, and let the batsman take the bait. The deed done after all of two nervous overs, I’d be back fielding in the middle of nowhere, chuffed with my wicket but also looking out at that water.
The solitude of cricket leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Can I actually bowl? Can I actually bat? What, really, am I doing out here, in the heat? What lies beneath the surface of cricket, of life, of that water just over there? What moves and swims and darts and glides in the octopus’ garden?
After two summers of ineptitude I put away the pads, the gloves, the white hat, the unmarked bat, the hopes. Put them in the garage, let the dust settle on the dreams. Contented myself with playing cricket in the backyard and the driveway with my children.
But the cricket ground and the marine sanctuary were only a few minutes on the bike from home, on a bike path that skirts this seaside suburb. One summer after another I would pause my pedalling, watch the bowler running in, and then gaze across to the water, to the rocks and the pelicans, to a handful of people in the water. Snorkelling. Diving. Seeing things I’d never seen before.
Despite not being a strong swimmer, I bought a wetsuit. Flippers. Snorkel and goggle. Gloves. Earplugs.
Then I waited. For a 30 degree day. For clear skies. For calm waters.
I pack my gear into my bike’s panniers, and pedal past the little cricket ground to this suburban marine sanctuary. Three-storey townhouses overlook the small beach from about 400 metres back. Refinery towers breathe fire about two kilometres to the west.
I leave my bike by the fence, walk the narrow gravel path, treading loudly to keep snakes at bay.
You can never be sure how clear the water will be, if clear at all. It’s like trying to read pitch conditions and bowlers from afar. You don’t know what you’re in for until you’re out there in the middle.
Still, there’s enjoyment – even satisfaction – in the anticipation: in tugging on the wetsuit, zipping it up; in popping in the earplugs, putting on the snorkel. You carry your gloves and your flippers out to a waist-deep rock.
You gaze up at the sky. Glance back at the shore. Out to the horizon. You’re still surprised that this is what summer really means to you now. After all, this was never part of your childhood, of school days, of holidays. This was never on the back pages. Or on the telly. This was never, ever, on the radio, day after day after day. You knew you’d never be, say, Jacques Kallis. And yet, here you are being, in your own little way, Jacques Cousteau.
The solitude of snorkelling leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Am I breathing? Am I floating? Can I see, not just below me, but around me, in front of me? Is the tide of life going out or coming in?
There’s just you and the deep cool sea. (Well, four or five metres deep at the most.) Just you and the sun and the salt. Just you and the zebra fish, the banjo sharks, the starfish, the seagrasses, the rocks, the stingrays…
Just you and your breathing.
Just you and the best innings of summer.

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