I wander over, tripping in a ditch I couldn’t see in the long grass as I make my way over to meet the team. I try to maintain my balance as a man comes towards me to help. “Ok sir?” He asks me as I pull at my foot, sucking it out of the mud.
I smile awkwardly and try to maintain my dignity as I search for my missing sandal in the long grass. I introduce myself as Mick to the man and he tells me the VCA told him I was, “… come to coach.”
I said no, that I only came to have look. The man didn’t care, or perhaps he didn’t understand, he ushered me over to the team and in his broken english proceeded to tell me all he knew.
There were twenty-four of them, all young men between the ages of 16-25. They’d mainly been picked from the local sports university, where they held various degrees in sports science, exercise science, personal training and the like. A few of them had also come from the former National baseball team.
“Former?” I asked.
“Sir, yes. The boss is say we play baseball for SEA Game ‘15. Sea Game ‘15 finish … now we play cricket for next SEA Game ‘17.”
The South East Asian Games (SEA Games) is a sporting event, similar to an Olympic or Commonwealth Games style meet where only the South East Asian countries are allowed to participate.
Every two years the SEA Games committee lists which sports are to be included in its program. Most of these are typical events like athletics, soccer, swimming etc.. Occasionally a random sport will be added. In the case of the 2017 Sea Games, to be held in Malaysia, a cricket twenty20 tournament had been included.
I was to learn later that the Ministry for Sport was allocated a certain amount of funding when it came to SEA Games. In the prior tournament they included a budget for baseball, but baseball wasn’t included in SEA Games ‘17 – cricket was. So the Ministry for Sport, with the tireless efforts of the VCA, allocated those funds to cricket instead.
Each player was paid a stipend of 5 million Dong per month to be a full-time athlete. For reference it’s the equivalent of around $280 Aussie dollars – for a month!
“So who are you?” I ask the man who came forth.
“I am coach.”
“Cool. Where did you learn to coach cricket? How does the team know about it?” I ask.
“YouTube sir. We learn from the YouTube.”
I smile, he excuses himself and moves over to the group, changing the current drill he’s been working on. They start practicing throwing tennis balls around for catching practice, I ask the coach where the cricket balls are and he tells me they only have a few, which they keep for ‘special use’.
I potter around for the next hour or so, just observing.
They finish with the ground drills and move onto the pitch where they start to don the familiar protective equipment typical of cricketers. A few move over to cover the concrete pitch with what I can only describe as a black prison cell, standing off to the side of the field.
The group of players move over to a ten-foot-high, black steel cage and proceed to push it along the ground. I notice the pulley wheels underneath as they bring it to a stop over the wicket. Now we have cricket net. A practice net. Certainly not what I’m used to but it is functional.
They’re not doing this and that right. They can’t hold a bat properly, they’re swinging at balls like they’re still baseballers, some are even throwing instead of bowling the ball. The one thing I do note thought is that they are athletes, all of them suitably able. Perhaps they just need a little fine tuning, I muse.
I look over the gear they have. This is the equipment that has been allocated to a National sporting team and I am shocked, I’m pretty sure my nephew back home has more in his shed than these poor boys do.
They do whip out some cricket balls, I grab one and marvel at how the leather is still holding together after so much use. I pick up a bat, it creaks at the handle as I lift it, I run my eye over its worn surface and notice a brand name I’ve never heard of. It’s cashmere willow, which is only suitable for tennis balls, I stare in dismay at it knowing a cricket ball would ruin this.
They have two helmets, likely relics from the Vietnam War, a few sets of gloves that look like they’ve been swimming in sweat for the past decade. Most have holes and have been rudimentally sewn up.
I whisper internally that this is pretty fucked.
The net session ends and I meet a few of the team, they’re shy, smiling and good natured lads. Some come and shake my hand and say thank you, I have no idea what for. Most of them know about twenty words in english, I wonder at how they’re learning anything watching english speaking YouTube videos.
As I look them all over I wonder to myself how, in the space of about eight months, these boys are going to be going to Malaysia to represent their country – in cricket. Going up against countries like Singapore that's been playing cricket for over a century I begin to feel sorry for them, if they show up with the skills they have today they’re going to be a laughing stock, they’re going to be embarrassed.
Training stops and they take a break. They drink water from an old, blue plastic 20L container that’s hefted onto one boys knee whilst another pours. They share cups together and sit around, using the prison cell for shade in the now blistering midday sun. The joke and laugh amongst each other and in the back of my mind I'm worried for them at the same time as being glad. They're in good spirits, and they're going to need it.
I move over to the coach and thank him for his time.
He says – “you come back, you coach.” I realise that it’s not a question.
“Me?” I say, still rather stunned at what I’ve witnessed.
I don’t know anything about coaching. Back home I played club cricket, a few years at high school and a lifetime spent in dreams as a child in my backyard. But I’ve never coached.
“Sir you come back, please?”
I think back on the past eighteen months I’ve spent on the road, the latter part of which I’d spent ‘following the signs.’ And now here I was with a group of young men in dire need of help. What I saw that day motivated me to change this situation, to fix it for them. This was a great big sign, smack bang in front of my face saying please help.
Within the week I’d completed my level 0 course and had logged a whole bunch of hours myself on YouTube watching videos from coaches around the world.
I found a level 1 coaching course in Malaysia so promptly headed over there and spent a week getting my certificate. I also managed to visit the only cricket store in Malaysia, one of the few in Asia and bought an entire bag full of cricket gear.
I don’t even think it was a decision for me, it was game on.
I was going to help these boys.