Like many Australians, I have fallen out of love with cricket. If it's not sandpaper, it's sexting, another line-up, another scandal, another result I don't really care too much about.
But January 9, I was one of almost 1.6 million Australians who tuned into the last session of the Fourth Test between Australia and the motherland, to watch England hold on to avoid an Ashes whitewash.
The series was already decided, we were only a few wickets away from going up 4-0, but Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow was proving a thorn in our side. Only an innings earlier he'd been fat-shamed by a spectator before coming out to score a century. In the second innings he batted three hours for 41. Note to self, never stir up a Yorkshireman.
With a couple of overs to go, the light fading, the kids wondering where dinner was, things were turning our way. Our newly appointed captain Pat Cummins took two wickets in three balls, Steve Smith was brought onto bowl, all remaining fielders crowded in around the batsman. When Smith took the wicket of Jack Leach and we only needed one more wicket to win, a nation held its collective breath. It was almost 7pm when Jimmy Anderson blocked the last ball of the day, a draw.
You'll either understand the magic of the final moments of a dead rubber or you won't. It's this aspect of cricket that Justin Smith loves.
"It's just one of those games that gets in your bones, to me it's a very emotional game," he says.
"You look at the Test the other day, you can't explain it to anybody that doesn't care or know, but five days for what is considered no result is still a spectacular Test. And if you know that to be true, then you don't need it explained to you, but if you don't you'll probably never understand it, that's the great thing about the game."
Smith has captured so much of this magic in his book Cooper Not Out. Set in the Australian summer of 1984 in the small Victorian country town of Penguin Hill (where there are no penguins, nor a hill), it's the story of 48-year-old policeman and opening bat, Roy Cooper. He's overweight, not pretty to watch, but in his 30-odd years of cricket he's never been given out. Not once. This statistical anomaly brings him to the attention of Australia's greatest cricket writer Don Garrett, who just happens to be Donna Garrett, because really what would a woman know about cricket, particularly back in 1984.
What unfolds is the most wonderful innings, a line-up of characters you'll never forget, an ending as thrilling as a tied Test. It's a book that takes you back to a more gentle time, fills you with nostalgia, from the mentions of music, to recounts of real-life cricket happenings that Smith has woven into his novel.
Smith admits he was a rubbish cricketer.
"My contribution was minor in whatever team I played for but I just loved being a part of it all," he says. "I love the game so much I even sat for my umpiring ticket."
With a professional cricketing career off the table, Smith turned to journalism, working in radio across NSW and Victoria from the age of 17. He now writes for the Herald Sun in Melbourne, alongside gigs on Seven's Sunrise and Sky News. His first novel, Babies of the Rose was published in 2020.
Cooper Not Out is, however, much more than an ode to cricket. It's a reflection on friendship, on fatherhood, on gender inequality, on stereotypes, on what it means to be a real man.
Smith approaches all of these with the gentle touch of say David Gower, rather than the force of Jeff Thomson. There's something subtle and human about it.
But there's also plenty of humour in it. Smith grew up in Echuca, on the banks of the Murray, the son of dairy farmers. He's captured the very essence of country life.
Even when the story turns and the setting is the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the laughs fall quicker than early English wickets. A mid-pitch conversation between Roy and Australian captain Allan Border is a laugh-out-loud moment.
One wonders what Border would think of the exchange; Smith thinks he met Border once, at a book thing, he acknowledges he's taken some liberties but there wouldn't be an actual cricketer alive who could be offended by the liberties Smith has taken.
"Everything was done with complete respect," Smith says.
"I was trying to write about not only what I thought these men were like, but also the public perception. Border was known as captain cranky and that's something that he fully recognised but I wanted to give him another side."
He writes about West Indian greats such as Viv Richards and Joel Garner, who, in particular, becomes very frustrated with Cooper, Greenidge and Haynes, Michael Holding. There's Andrew Hilditch and Geoff Lawson, and in a couple of brief lines he gets to the very core of NSW all-rounder Greg Matthews.
Smith says he indulged himself by watching lots of Youtube replays of that 1984 Test series, trying to capture the way players walked and held themselves on the field. He listened to the music of the time, mix-tapes play a poignant part in the story.
It was a different time. Which leads me to ask if this is the book Australian cricket, perhaps even Australia, needs in 2022, mid pandemic, mid a period where our relationship with the game has been tarnished. Do we need an uplifting, inspiring, fun story, to make our hearts sing?
"For someone who's followed cricket for so long, followed Test cricket for so long, the sandpaper incident, it hurt like hell," he says.
"The Australian captain got sacked for cheating and even if you don't follow cricket that changed the way people thought about Australia and Australians."
He agrees that the game is lacking people we connect with. We both hope that the performance of indigenous Australian bowler Scott Boland, who got called into this current series for game three, taking seven wickets on debut, including 6/7 in the second innings, might ignite a spark that's been missing for too long.
Smith is working on a third book. I plead for a rematch with the Penguin Hill crew. I want to know what happens next, what the next season will bring. Cooper Not Out started as a screenplay and we banter about who we might want to star in the movie if it ever happens. Would Margot Robbie be available to play Dolly, the busty, flirty woman whose scones at tea are legendary? Cate Blanchett could play Donna/Don no trouble at all, with a cigarette in one hand while she types. Hugh Jackman can dance and sing, but what does his forward defensive shot look like? If there's one thing that cricket makes us believe is that miracles do happen. I have my whites soaking ready for my red carpet invitation.
I didn't want this book to end. I wanted it to drag on for the full five days, to go into overtime, to mix my sporting metaphors.
In the words of the late, great Richie Benaud, it's simply marvellous stuff.
- Cooper not out, by Justin Smith. Michael Joseph. $32.99.