Excerpt: AUSTRALIA’S TOUGHEST SPORTSPEOPLE by Mick Colliss
Mick Colliss is an author, writer, rugby commentator, MC, guest speaker and modern-day poet. He’s also one of our all-time favourite storyteller, sport and motivational speakers. The sole selector and self-elected vice captain of the first ever Australian Sudoku team, Mick travelled to India to compete at the World Sudoku Championships. In his new book Australia’s Toughest Sportspeople, Mick profiles twelve athletes who epitomise the grit, courage and determination of Australian sport, through a series of revealing interviews taking readers beyond the headlines. Mick has very generously allowed ICMI access to the first chapter of the book, and it is our absolute pleasure to share it here with you. So, without further ado:
Chapter 1: Rick McCosker
Rick McCosker played 25 Test matches for Australia, scoring four centuries. During his career, he accumulated many highlights he’d rather be known for – like hooking Bob Willis for six to bring up his hundred at Trent Bridge, for starters.
But his second innings in the 1977 Centenary Test at the MCG has come to define his career, and his character. With Australia at 8/353 and looking to build an insurmountable lead, McCosker walked out to bat. The crowd gasped. McCosker, they knew, had had his jaw broken in two places by a Bob Willis bouncer in the first innings. Yet here he was, strolling out onto the storied MCG, his baggy green perched uneasily on top of his head, his face encircled by a thick white bandage which looked as if it had been employed to keep his lower jaw from falling off.
He was at once both a heroic and tragic figure, and what would play out would live on forever in Australian cricket folklore.
The lead-up to the Test celebrating a hundred years of cricket between Australia and the old enemy was unlike anything seen before. The media coverage was at saturation point and McCosker lost count of how many cocktail receptions and dinners the players attended.
‘Everywhere you went, there were people talking about the Centenary Test,’ he said. ‘There was press all over the place and people everywhere wanting autographs and stuff like that. It was a huge build-up.’
It takes a special type of person with an equally special temperament to open the batting for their country, especially on the first morning of one of the most hyped Test matches in Australian history. McCosker was special. He ‘loved it’. Loved the excitement. Loved the atmosphere, which was heightened because of the occasion. Loved walking onto the MCG as a New South Welshman. ‘If you do well, they embrace you as a fellow Australian,’ he says. ‘If you perform poorly, they let you know where you’re from.’
Day 1, first session, Centenary Test. It doesn’t get any bigger. The noise is deafening when McCosker walks out with Ian Davis. He’s nervous. Reckons you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t.
‘It was pretty daunting,’ he recalled. ‘There’s a lot of pressure.’
McCosker described the conditions like it was yesterday. ‘There was a fair bit of moisture in the wicket and it was a bit humid so there was always going to be a little bit in it,’ he said.
‘That’s why there’s an unwritten golden rule when you play a Test match on the MCG that you never play a cross-bat shot in the first session; you never try to play a hook shot because there’s moisture in the wicket and you can’t be sure of the pace or height of the bounce.’
Never play a cross-bat shot in the first session, he tells himself, taking his mark on the pitch.
Against fast bowling, a batsman has around half a second to pick up the flight of the ball, the bounce, and decide which shot to play and then execute it. On this particular morning the batsmen also had to contend with swing. ‘The Pom bowlers were pretty good and getting a bit of movement,’ McCosker said. ‘The conditions suited them.’
Bob Willis, a right-hand aggressive quick with a notably long run-up, is bowling. McCosker is on four.
‘Not a brilliant four, but it was four nonetheless,’ he recalled.
Never play a cross-bat shot in the first session. Willis steams in.
McCosker continued: ‘When you’re an opening batsman, you have a fair idea when a fast bowler is going to bowl a bouncer. They just have a look about them. When I saw Bob running in, I reckon I knew.’
Never play a cross-bat shot in the first session.
‘When you know it’s coming, you know what you need to do. You only have a split second to react and my normal reaction is to get in a position to try to hook it.’
Never play a cross-bat shot in the first session.
‘In that split-second I had all these thoughts going through my mind. Up in the stand there were a lot of old and ex-Australian players, including Don Bradman. So I’m thinking, “What would Bradman do to this? He’d be on the back foot and would belt the shit out of it through mid-wicket for four.” So, I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” But he was a little bit better at doing it than I was.’
McCosker plays a cross-bat shot in the first session and pays the penalty. The ball crashes into his unprotected jaw.
‘There was a big noise, a bang,’ he said. ‘Like a huge bell went off in my head.’ He said it’s a sound he can still hear, although he tries not to.
‘The ball ricocheted and it moved from my face to my hand and then moved to hit the stumps,’ McCosker said. ‘And my first thought was, “I’m out.” That was the first thing. And then the realisation was, “Okay, I’ve been hit.”’
McCosker drops his bat. The jubilant English side throw their arms up in celebration of the early wicket. It’s only when they see the Australian holding has face in his hands they realise he’s hurt.
‘My whole face went numb,’ McCosker said. ‘There was no pain. So I just started walking off, because I was out.
‘I went back into the dressing-room. There was blood, but it wasn’t a cut. The blood was internal bleeding. So we had no idea about the extent of the problem. Initially they thought there was nothing wrong, just a bit of bruising.’
After a couple of hours, the staff came to check on him.
‘By then it had all swelled up,’ McCosker said, holding his hands apart as if gripping a basketball. ‘I had this huge blood clot in my mouth and my whole face was just blown up like a balloon. So eventually the team doctor said, “I think we better have this X-rayed.”’
McCosker was taken to hospital and the ’bit of bruising turned out to be a jaw broken in two places. But the diagnosis was the least of his worries. ‘The only thought in my mind was, “They’re going to keep me in here and I’m not going to get back to the game,”’ he said.
In one of those fate-defining, sliding door moments, an orthodontic specialist happened to be on shift when McCosker was brought in. ‘I was in bed in the hospital and he came in. He was involved with one of the VFL clubs in Melbourne. So he took some plaster casts, which wasn’t much fun because he had to try and get a plaster cast of my teeth, upper and lower. He worked pretty much the whole night through, making a little silver splint, which fit inside, between my teeth, to keep my jaw immobile. Then he wrapped all these bandages around to keep the pressure on.’
To this day McCosker isn’t sure why they didn’t operate straight away. ‘I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if he had anything to do with cricket or not. He was a football fan. All I know is that if he hadn’t done it that way, there was no way I could have gone back to bat in the second innings.’
McCosker spent that night and the next day in hospital. His face was still badly swollen. ‘It actually looked a lot worse than it felt. It was starting to get a little bit sore, but it wasn’t too bad.’
At the start of day three, Australia were 3/104 and McCosker was up and about. While he couldn’t chew, a small gap in his teeth meant he could be fed through a straw. He said he could move his arms and walk but he wasn’t able to run. So he dressed in his cricket whites and took himself back to the dressing room at the MCG.
McCosker said his teammates weren’t surprised when he walked in, but they didn’t want much to do with him. ‘My face was ugly. It was a terrible sight. I remember one thing that stuck in my mind when I was in hospital and my face was up like anything and my wife and two little boys flew down from Sydney. The youngest guy was only about two and he walked into the ward where I was and he started screaming and hid behind his mother and he wanted to know who this ugly creature was. ‘So the guys in the dressing room thought the same. But by that stage I wanted to go back out.’
As Australia’s second innings continued, the wicket started to flatten out. ‘It was a really, really good MCG wicket and our second innings was going along reasonably well,’ McCosker said. ‘[But] we started to lose a few wickets and knew we needed more runs to give them a good target because the Poms had a pretty good batting side.’
Captain Greg Chappell knew it as well. He knew Australia would be giving England a distinct advantage if they had one less batsman. So around lunchtime on that third day, he sidled up to McCosker and asked the question: ‘Would you like to go and bat again?’
‘I wanted to get back out there,’ McCosker said. ‘This was the match of the century and I wanted to be involved. The other thing was that Rod Marsh was getting close to his hundred and that was pretty important. He would have been the first Australian wicketkeeper to score a Test century against England. It was pretty historic. He was getting close and we were losing wickets, so it got down to the after-lunch session and we lost a wicket. I was actually padded up, ready to go in at any time.’
When all-rounder Gary Gilmour had his stumps rattled for 16, Australia were 7/277. McCosker, jaw bandaged, grabbed his gloves and stood up. But Chappell stopped him. The second new ball was due so he sent Lillee in instead.
‘That’s something I’ve never been able to live down from Dennis,’ McCosker said. ‘An opening batsman was shielded from the new ball by a fast bowler. He’s never let me forget that. He went out and did a good job.’
Lillee survived 56 balls before falling to Chris Old, cracking three fours on his way to a respectable 25. With Australia at 8/353 only McCosker and Max Walker remained in the sheds. So McCosker got the nod and, with a white bandage encircling his face, headed out onto the MCG, with Kerry O’Keeffe as his runner.
At the fall of Dennis Lillee’s wicket in the second innings of the Centenary Test, the umpires called drinks. Because of it, it took a moment for the distracted players and the crowd to register that the new Australian batsman walking towards the pitch was McCosker. When the crowd twigged, they roared in appreciation.
While most people admired his courage, McCosker remembers some sections of the press being quite critical. They thought his actions put the English in a difficult position. How were they to react? What were they meant to do? McCosker said it wasn’t something that bothered his opponents, especially their captain, the late Tony Greig, who saw McCosker as just another batsman they needed to get out. Which is just how the Australian wanted it.
‘Tony Greig was very, very competitive,’ McCosker said. ‘And this was a Test match between Australia and England, so I knew I’d have to cop whatever came along. The other players didn’t really say anything to me. In those days, very little was ever said on the field.’
So what was going through his bandaged-up head when he stood at the crease? The same crease where he had his jaw broken a little over 48 hours earlier? ‘The main thing was that I wanted to stay out there as long as possible. To stay part of this match because apart from the first half hour on the first morning I hadn’t been part of it. And the atmosphere was absolutely fantastic. And we needed more runs and I wanted to get Rod Marsh over his century. That’s what I was mainly concerned about. And we wanted to build a partnership.’
McCosker remembers the first ball he faced. ‘I heard the ball hit the bat but I didn’t feel it,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t feel anything because everything was still numb. I had to get used to that.’
The Australian fans were a little more protective of their injured opener than the English captain and they erupted into a chorus of boos when they saw Greig signal to one of his bowlers, John Lever, to bounce McCosker.
‘I knew it was going to happen,’ McCosker said. ‘I would have been very disappointed to think a Pommy team wouldn’t have done it. This was a Test match. It was an important game and they wanted to win it as much as we did.’
The crowd are on the edge of their seats. McCosker, face swollen, jaw broken in two places, takes strike. Lever, nostrils flaring, steams in. He pitches the ball short, as expected. It rises quickly and sharply towards McCosker’s face. The lanky Australian hooks it for four.
‘The crowd went berserk,’ McCosker said. ‘I’ve actually seen a photograph of the shot itself and the technique was so much better than what it was on that first morning.’
If McCosker thought things couldn’t get any better, he was wrong. Soon after, the crowd starting singing a bastardised version of Waltzing Matilda: ‘Waltzing McCosker’.
‘I’ll always remember that,’ he said, after a contemplative pause. ‘It was just amazing and I couldn’t get over it. Particularly the fact that most of the people there were Victorians and I was a New South Welshman. But at this time, I was an Australian, I wasn’t a New South Welshman.
‘I must admit I was pretty emotional and Rod Marsh just looked at me and shook his head. At one stage he came down and said, “You don’t have to hang around. You can go off whatever time you want.” I remember telling him to “Just mind your own bloody business and get your 100.” That’s about all I could mumble at the time.’
At the end of day three, Australia were 8/387, with not out batsmen Marsh on 95 and McCosker 17.
That gap in his teeth came in handy for the team dinner later that night. It was a very special occasion, full of pomp and ceremony and one he wasn’t going to miss. Legends of the game were in attendance and Don Bradman delivered a speech on the history of Australian cricket. The catering staff kindly prepared McCosker some soup.
The day after the dinner was the rest day, one of the quirks of Test match cricket that no longer exists. McCosker would have preferred to get on with it and play through because, without the adrenalin, his injury was causing him quite a bit of pain. The rest day was simply another day of discomfort to be endured. ‘By the start of the fourth day’s play, things started to hot up a little bit with my jaw. It was really starting to hurt,’ McCosker said.
‘Marshy got his hundred, which was brilliant. We’d built up a pretty good total and I thought, “Well, it’s time I got out of here. I remember trying to go for a bit of a slog and I got caught out.”’
Caught by Greig off the bowling of Old for 25, McCosker walked off to a standing ovation.
Most elite sports people are hard markers when it comes to their own performance and McCosker is no different when it comes to the match that earned him a spot in Australian sports folklore.
‘From a statistical point of view, I failed,’ he said. ‘I got 4 in the first innings and 25 in the second innings. So, for an opening batsman in a Test match, you got 29 runs in two innings, didn’t field the ball, was never on the field at any stage, apart from in the line-up to meet the Queen. That was the only time I got back on the field. So when you look at that, it was a fail.
‘The only redeeming factor was that Marshy and I put on 50-odd. In the final wash-up, that got us over the line because we ended up winning by 45 runs. So that was really the only positive about it.’
McCosker is an old-school cricketer. Some might say that’s the best type. He doesn’t seek the limelight, just likes getting on with the job. It’s not about him, the team always comes first. And he’s humble.
He was hit in the face with a cricket ball and the impact broke his jaw in two places. He spent a day and a half in hospital and returned to face the best of England’s bowlers, wearing nothing more than bandages and a baggy green cap for protection. Yet he doesn’t think what he did was anything special.
‘I think if it was anybody else on the team, if it had happened to them, they would have done the same thing,’ he said. ‘But by the same token if it had been someone else and they said, “I don’t want to go back out there”, you wouldn’t hold that against them. But because of the context of the whole thing, I don’t see it as being all that special. It was just something that I did.’
So would he do it again in the same situation?
‘Who knows? You do things sometimes on the spur of the moment, sometimes without thinking of the consequences.’