Marxist Interventions

The Royal Park Reds
Bringing the class struggle to the cricket field


This article originally appeared in Baggy Green, v.1, n.1, Adelaide, November 1998.

On 5 August 1979, I became a founding member of Melbourne’s Royal Park Reds cricket club. We entered a team in the matting North Suburban association (NSCA). Today, two Royal Park Reds sides continue to play in the NSCA’s successor competition. An off-shoot club, known simply as Reds, has played turf cricket in the nearby Mercantile association (MCA) since 1985. This new club now has three sides.

In less than 20 years, the original Royal Park Reds team has been the genesis of five present-day regular park cricket teams. They can collectively claim the credit for two overseas tours, six premierships and around 20 finals appearances. During a period when grass-roots club cricket in Australia has mostly been a sad tale of slow decline, disbandment and amalgamation, Royal Park Reds and (the Mercantile) Reds have been competitive and participatory successes.

Red dawn: Who the hell did we think we were?

These achievements, though heartening, are the least interesting aspect of the Reds story. The two Reds clubs, so far as we know, are unlike any other regular competitive sporting clubs in Australia, perhaps the world. The difference was explained to an opposition scorer in our second season by David Dunstan, one of our founders. The old codger from Royal Park thought from our name that we might be intruding on his club’s recruiting territory, around the suburbs of Parkville and West Brunswick. David put his fears to rest: ‘Our recruiting zone is not so much geographic as philosophical.’

The ‘Royal Park’ in our name was just a convenient geographical alliteration; the Reds was a cricket club comprised of left-wing radicals.

In the frosty political landscape of the 1990s, the attenuated rump of left-wing groups is a home for the humourless. Few of today’s activists seem likely to spawn fun concepts of social life, certainly not regular engagement in a protracted competitive game. Political activism was more widespread during the 70s. All through the decade people had joined for many reasons: Vietnam, apartheid, Whitlam, Kerr, Fraser. The political Left then was big enough and broad enough to include human beings with all sorts of contradictory impulses, like betting on horses and competing in team sports.

In Melbourne, members of the Communist Party (CPA) and the International Socialists (IS) expressed these contradictions from 1977 in a brief series of annual social cricket matches. These matches revealed that many of us still liked the concept of winning. They also showed that, despite our political differences, we quite liked each other personally. By 1979, we decided to pool our talents and form a regular club.

The club’s original captain and perennial organising focus was Alec Kahn, who then also edited the IS paper, The Battler. He opened the batting with Ken Norling, soon to begin a long career at the CPA’s International Bookshop. The Royal Park Reds name was coined by Dave Nadel, the founding editor of The Battler. In fact, most of the fourteen original Reds had, did or would later occupy organisational or editorial positions in some leftist organisation or other: parties -- from tiny squabbling Trotskyist sects to ALP governments -- trade unions, student, tenant or environmental groups.

Why cricket, why then?

Some of us had timely cricketing reasons for the move. After fifteen years in club cricket, which had taken him as far as the lower grades of Melbourne District club Prahran, Alec Kahn was being stifled by the stuffy social atmosphere at (sub-district) Oakleigh. Ken Norling and myself played for suburban matting clubs. We were sufficiently weary of their beery sexism to try something which promised broader conversation.

Many new Reds, like David Dunstan, Andrew Hewett and wicket-keeper Trevor Fleming, were returning to cricket in their late twenties after long breaks. Here at last was a politically correct vehicle for all that expensive coaching at elite schools. They had the usual excuses of most teenage cricketing drop-outs: holiday jobs, ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ (I believe the current term is ‘clubbing’). Unlike most, they could also point to weekend political demonstrations and conferences. There were a few Reds, like Dave Nadel and Steve King, who had never played competitive cricket. Most of this group rapidly found their cricketing level as contenders for ‘best clubman’. At other park cricket clubs, such ‘players’ are embarrassingly servile drink waiters or volunteer umpires. With Reds, they led political debates while openers opened and keepers kept.

There was also a semi-political motive to form Royal Park Reds. By the end of the 1970s, a social group such as a competitive sporting club seemed to be the best vehicle for most Reds to maintain regular links with our erstwhile political comrades. Many of us were resigning our active membership of various political groups around this time. Partly it was burn-out after five, ten or even fifteen years of constant activism. It was also painfully apparent to the clear-sighted that the political tiller was turning sharply to starboard. Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister in May 1979. Next came Reagan. Soon there was a raft of Australian State and Federal Labor Governments selling assets and cutting services in ways which the Liberals had only recently dared to dream about. The thwack of bat on ball was a more appealing sound to the average Reds cricketer than the clunk of your own head against a brick wall.

The notorious spy Kim Philby pined for the English County scores during his long exile in Moscow. Philby was never bothered by cricket’s ‘imperialist’ connotations and neither were the Royal Park Reds. I don’t think that we ever seriously considered forming a club to play any other sport. Consider them.

Individual sports? Not very collective, comrade. At a more mundane level, there was rather too much Uncle Toby’s goodness and fitness involved in running or swimming to suit our lifestyles. Anyway, it’s difficult to talk when you gasping for air or spitting out water.

Bowls? The topic didn’t arise; we were obviously tainted by ageism. Tennis or golf might have been possibilities. Some Reds members played them socially. But spending every Saturday afternoon paired off with businessmen who could patronise you as their resident ‘red-ragger’ or ‘died-in-the-wool Laborite but good bloke’? No. (All of the preceding prohibitions apply to sailing, only more so.)

So what about a vigorous, working-class activity like one of the football codes? Political violence seemed fair enough to many of us, at least in theory, but our rare fielding injuries in cricket were too sickeningly real. A weekly roster in Hospital Casualty wasn’t our idea of fun, so count out Aussie Rules or Rugby. Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby implies that soccer holds some appeal as a participatory team sport for British bohemians but it was over the cultural horizon for most Royal Park Reds in 1979.

Basketball and baseball were certainly out of cultural bounds: we were anti-American and were in any case offended by the junk-food unimaginativeness of the hoop game. Despite the sneers of cultural nationalists, some Reds did play or follow baseball. I suspect that, if there are any international political equivalents to the Reds cricket teams, they compete in suburban-level baseball or softball in a politically liberal American city like New York or San Fransisco. (If the ex-private schoolboy rebels of Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men mark the left-field limits of English cricket, I don’t expect to find the equivalent of a Reds club there.)

Like baseball, cricket has two fundamental virtues. Firstly, there is a sensible balance between skill and fitness (that is, skill is much more important). Most importantly, innings breaks allow most team members to spend at least half of the game talking amongst themselves. This is crucial for a club whose members’ common thread is the discussion and active pursuit of controversial or unpopular political positions. (Try arguing about Peter Reith and the docks dispute with your opponent at centre-half forward.) If you are out in the field, the atmosphere of the bat and ball games is also quiet enough for a well-aimed chant to influence the match.

Reds players have naturally felt compelled to enrich this aspect of cricket culture. I did, though, often wonder about the point of ‘Praxis! Praxis!’, urged on me by an academic Marxist at mid-off each time I walked back to the end of my bowling run-up. Our all-purpose ‘Hammer’n’sickle ‘em, Reds!’ never had the tactical effect of one very specific sledge. In 1985, we had our first confrontation with the most perfect enemy club any Reds cricketer could hope for: the Stock Exchange. Our slips fielders, picked specifically for their wit, knew immediately what to chant: ‘They’re All Ordinaries! They’re All Ordinaries!’ This visibly rattled the Stock Exchange batsmen, who then made a bonus issue of wickets to our bowlers and allowed Reds to record a handsome after-tax victory.

"The more things change": Socialist cricket club politics

Cricket, of course, gives you much more time than any other sport to discuss life, the universe or even both kinds of music (country and western). A dour and reliable opening partnership helps this process. We had that, all right. The rest of the Reds came to see Alec and Ken’s batting efforts as the application of a particularly rigorous political doctrine: ‘Kahnism-Norlingism’. Like Marx's Das Kapital, which so many of us had promised ourselves as students that we would one day read in its entirety, Kahnism-Norlingism was large, weighty, good for us and watched only intermittently.

Instead, we talked politics. ‘Is Solidarity the vanguard of democracy in Poland or a Trojan horse for the Pope?’ ‘Should the USSR have invaded Afghanistan?’ ‘Bob Hawke: good, bad or worse?’ ‘Should State-employed workers strike against Labor Governments?’ Stalinist and anti-worker positions were distressingly popular, particularly amongst those Reds who became advisers to Labor governments. Usually though, the Reds was a broad enough church to accommodate our political differences. Anyway, if the debate becomes too acrimonious, what other political group allows you to cool down for an hour by volunteering to umpire at square leg?

Talk aside, the Reds put our socialist principles into some of the practical operations of the club. No women’s auxiliary ever made tea and sandwiches for us. Indeed, our wives and partners were generally not the types to willingly sacrifice their own weekends to child-minding while we were out playing cricket. So in the early 1990s, when the number of Reds fathers had grown to over half a dozen, Alec Kahn used his MCA Executive position to introduce a player-run outdoor creche.

Alec arranged the MCA competition draw so that each club’s Firsts and Seconds were usually drawn to play on adjoining grounds in Fawkner Park. When opposition captains tossed before each game, the two Reds captains would collaborate to ensure that one of our adjoining teams batted whilst the other fielded. The spare players from the team batting then minded between five and ten assorted Reds children on the boundary or at nearby playgrounds. In one match against the National Bank, Alec put the Reds’ creche policy ahead of tactical advantage by batting on a wet wicket. Despite a painfully slow start, Reds recovered to score nearly 200 and win a match that entered MCA folklore.

Team captaincy was itself also subject to socialist experiment. Most cricket clubs with two or more teams leave the appointment of captains and team selection to committees dominated by club ‘identities’ long past retirement age. From the start, Reds players have directly elected their captains during pre-season practices. The captains were then expected to negotiate on selection changes between teams during the season. In the early 1980s, the Reds Seconds were influenced by militant members of the BLF and other unions. For one whole season, they implemented the syndicalist policy of rotating the captaincy match-by-match amongst the team’s members. The idea was soon abandoned as a competitive disaster but the desire to continue ‘playing with your mates’ remained strong amongst the Reds Seconds.

Most sporting clubs have cliques of this sort but only the Reds Seconds ever elevated the ‘mates’ concept into a political principle. One of their original core group broke ranks to play as a regular with the Firsts when he joined the Reds in 1980-81. Dave Bowen, a refugee from Joh’s Queensland drug laws, was a fast leg-spinner of fragile temperament. Many times, sometimes in the course of one over, his mood transformed him from Tiger Bill O’Reilly to Johnny Watkins and back again. The Tiger in Dave re-emerged just in time to win Reds’ first grand final that season. We noticed, though, that he appeared to be socially ostracised by his former ‘mates’ in our Seconds.

The insular attitude of the Seconds was tolerated for a few seasons of continued growth and success. It might even have been tolerated indefinitely if they had been the club’s top or bottom side, able to indulge their experiments in isolation from the other teams. Unfortunately, they seemed pleased to remain wedged between the Firsts and Thirds. Our formal selection arrangements were routinely ignored as the Royal Park Reds became a doughnut-shaped cricket club.

Rapid promotion to the NSCA A-Grade exposed the original Reds, never a more talented group than the Seconds, to the Peter Principle. By 1983, we had reached our level of cricketing incompetence. We degenerated in two seasons from regular finalists to seemingly permanent wooden spooners, often fielding out to opposition scores of 400 in an afternoon. Relief for the Firsts, if it ever came at all, came from the ranks of the Thirds. Even worse, players with more loyalty to the Reds club than cricketing talent were sometimes denied a game if the Seconds chose to recruit a more socially compatible outsider for the day.

After two years of bemused neutrality, the Thirds players decided, in the time-honoured manner of left-wing politics, to split the club in early 1985. Together with the founders of the Royal Park Reds, they established the new Reds club that ultimately transferred to the MCA. The split coincided exactly with the assembly, by key Seconds players, of a ‘Running Dingoes’ team to tour Malaysia. In the spirit of the times, only two of the new Reds players joined the Dingoes tour. They were grateful for each other’s company.

Whatever happened to the revolution?

After the separation was formalised, relations between the two Reds clubs improved to the extent that they later played occasional social matches (usually won by the former Seconds!). They also cooperated in a function to commemorate the original club’s tenth anniversary. These links evaporated completely after 1989 and now each club is largely comprised of 1990s recruit who are unaware of the other club’s existence.

In keeping with the broader environment, the political orientation of the average Reds cricketer has diluted from activist red to bohemian pink. Today, you would probably see more Reds at the September parade of Melbourne’s Fringe Festival along Brunswick Street, Fitzroy than in the May Day march to the Yarra Bank; the comedian Hung Le opens the bowling for the MCA Reds Seconds.

During the recent Docks dispute, Alec Kahn (still prominent in the MCA batting averages in his late forties) attended a birthday party of another long-term Reds star. He suggested to the 20-odd club members present that they assemble the next morning, wearing their Reds caps, at Melbourne’s East Swanston Dock and march to join the MUA’s picket line. There was enthusiastic, beery assent to Alec’s proposal. The following morning, three Reds veterans from the early days in the NSCA materialised at the picket line. Still, I like to think that that was three more official representatives than turned up from any other sporting club.

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