It is April 2011, in the shadow of another sun-soaked summer of cricket. But change is in the air. The Big Bash League, Cricket Australia’s attempt to revitalise the domestic cricketing landscape, is still heavily conceptual. It is, in theory at least, a clean break from Australia’s traditional state-based structure, eschewing the representative pyramid for a franchise structure heavily influenced by the consumerist juggernaut that is the Indian Premier League.
While the end-result was a huge hit with crowds, a breath of fresh air into domestic cricket, and an opportunity for domestic players to make a better living than ever before, in April such success was hardly a guarantee. The BBL involved a shift to city-based franchises, the splintering of the New South Wales and Victorian markets, and, arguably most dramatically, a ban on the new teams from using their state colours. These were radical changes, unheard of in Australian cricket. Nobody knew how the public would react, and every BBL team wanted to draw in as many fans as possible.
This sparked an identity crisis, with each club pulling in their own directions. Adelaide channelled American baseball culture with the Strikers. The Sydney Sixers were intentionally ostentatious, dressed in hot pink (sorry, magenta) and arriving at the BBL launch, held at Redfern’s craft-beer-and-beard hipster contemporary art gallery, Carriageworks, in a hot pink Hummer blaring Lady Gaga. The Melbourne Stars went corporate glamour, the team quickly becoming a cult of McGuire and Warne, while James Brayshaw turned his Melbourne Renegades into a bastion of old-school masculinity. The Sydney Thunder took the ‘Western Sydney Battler’ trope a little bit too literally, the Perth Scorchers emphasised hashtag-ability, and the Hobart Hurricanes opted for purple. All of this rested within the BBL’s own aesthetic, a pastiche of sharp, neon colours and early-90s grunge earthiness reminiscent of Gibson’s Neuromancer.
And then there was Brisbane.
Enter Lee Carseldine, a man of two eras. Debuting in 1998-99 during what could easily be described as a golden era of Queensland (as well as Australian) cricket, he was the star of the Bulls’ previous T20 campaign. Who better to launch the new Brisbane franchise’s identity than Carseldine? The Heat’s marketing manager agreed; Carseldine was to be the man launching the new team colours. “I got stitched up by the marketing team,” he recalled, “To this day I still put shit on the Marketing and Media Manager. I’ve known him for 20-odd years and he still owes me.”
The Marketing and Media Manager’s brilliant plan? Carseldine, dressed exclusively in budgie smugglers, covered in teal body paint.
“Originally it was shirt off, the top painted in teal, and you could wear anything you wanted beneath that, they said. I said ‘yeah ok, I’ll do it, happy to help out’, and it went from shirt off and long pants to short pants, to budgie smugglers, to all-over body paint. It changed on the day.”
Not only did the plan change, but the scale changed too:
“The brief I got was that they wanted me to go up to Mount Coot-tha so they could take a couple of photos. Then I walked around the corner and there was Channel 7, Channel 9, FOX Sports, everyone there and I’ve gone ‘right, this is a total stitch-up.’”
To make matters worse, as Carseldine points out, he never took the field in the very colours he sacrificed his dignity to promote. He ended up contracted to the Adelaide Strikers, although he was relegated to the bench for the entirety of the BBL season.
“I got an offer from the Strikers, and the Brisbane Heat were delaying with their talks. It came to the point where I needed to find out where I was going and, to be honest, there wasn’t all that much interest from the Brisbane Heat. It was a little disappointing, I would have loved to have played out my final couple of seasons out with the Brisbane Heat. But that’s sport, for some reason they didn’t want to sign me.”
Although Carseldine’s professional career came to an end earlier than he perhaps would have liked, it was in itself remarkable that he had a professional career in 2011.
He debuted during the 1998/99 Sheffield Shield season, in a match against Tasmania. Breaking into a strong Queensland side, which numbered no less than eight current or future Australian internationals. The man he was temporarily replacing, Stuart Law, would have made it nine. They were imposing shoes to fill, but the sheer fact that Carseldine had been selected left him in no doubt that he could make the step up. If the selectors were unconvinced in his ability, they simply would not have picked him.
“When you look at the side, it was Hayden, Love, Maher, Law, even Border for a little while there, Foley, Symonds. It was just a really tough side to crack into. But once you got in there you knew you’d done the hard yards and earned your spot. And you were proud to be a part of that legacy.”
This glut of high quality, established batsmen made breaking into the first XI a difficult proposition, and maintaining that position near-impossible. It was a microcosm of the Australian team, embodying the long-running joke whereby it was harder to get out of the team than it was to get into it. When Carseldine debuted for Queensland, he knew it was a sign that he was good enough. There were no speculative debuts, no Players of National Interest gaining free rides despite underperformance. Potential meant little; if you weren’t delivering, there was no shortage of other players ready to seize the chance you offered — in Carseldine’s case, that included his best mate.
“It was so difficult to crack into the side. A good mate of mine, Clinton Perren, we basically fought for the one spot for three or four years. If we did crack into the side we’d have a game here or there because it was highly likely that Matthew Hayden or Stuart Law would come back from Australian duties, and that would push everyone back down a rung.”
But Queensland wasn’t the only state producing high-calibre players, with such fierce competition for places. As the Sheffield Shield was rebranded the Pura Cup in 2000/01, Greg Blewett, Simon Katich and Jamie Cox all ran up 1000+ run seasons for their respective states. Blewett’s South Australia also boasted run-machine-turned-Australian coach Darren Lehmann. Western Australia had Michael Hussey and Damien Martyn churning out runs alongside Katich. Cox lead a team that featured Michael di Venuto, and even Scott Kremerskothen turned out a 400+ run season from the middle order, while Ricky Ponting averaged over 160 when he wasn’t away on Test duties. Even Victoria had Brad Hodge, Jason Arnberger and Matthew Mott performing to a high standard. In any other country, many of those men would have walked directly into Test cricket.
And the standard of the bowling was equally high. WA had Jo Angel (recently interviewed on Mind the Windows!), Matt Nicholson and Brendon Julian, while Victoria’s incredibly unlucky Mathew Inness and seamer-turned-umpire Paul Reiffel were complemented by the canny medium pace of Ian Harvey. South Australia boasted another seamer-turned-umpire, Paul ‘Blocker’ Wilson, as well as Peter McIntyre. And New South Wales had Stuart MacGill, only remaining at state level due to the existence of a blonde leg spinner named Warne, while also boasting Brett Lee, Stuart Clark and a young Nathan Bracken on their books. The quality of Australian domestic cricket was unparalleled, as Carseldine acknowledges:
“It’s all relative now, but back then it was very tough cricket. There were a lot of guys trying to crack into the Australian side and a lot of good players. You know, you have a look at all the guys who missed out or played a limited amount of cricket for Australia — [Andy] Bichel and Adam Dale. Ashley Noffke. Joe Dawes. And there were guys like that all over the states, guys knocking on doors who were seriously good, talented cricketers. It was the toughest cricket I’ve ever played, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Queensland won the Pura Cup in 2000/01, on the back of the aforementioned batsmen — Law, Love, Maher, Symonds — and the bowling of Bichel, Dale and Dawes. Amazingly, the three fast bowlers were the top three overall wicket takers for the season, proving how dominant that Queensland fast bowling battery was. Carseldine, however, only played five matches and struggled to make an impact in such a strong side. Six innings brought 82 runs and a highest score of 26 as he was shuffled around the order, spending time batting at six, four and even an innings opening. 2001/02 was an improvement, Carseldine making consistent starts in his time at the crease. Once more, however, he played few games — four to be precise, including the Pura Cup final — again being shuffled around the batting order, and often remaining not out as Queensland’s Big Four racked up the runs to bring them another Pura Cup win.
It was the 2002/03 season in which Carseldine began to turn his talent into results for his native state, coinciding with an extended, uninterrupted run in the Queensland side. He made an unbeaten 124 in the first match of the summer, following it up with a half-century against the English touring side featuring an attack of Caddick, Hoggard, Jones and the legend himself, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. Another four half-centuries flowed from his bat as Carseldine made 709 First Class runs for the season at an average of 44. He also chipped in with eight wickets from his more-than-handy seamers, his first accounting for Freddie in that same tour match. He finished off his season with a second-innings half-century in a bizarre Pura Cup final loss, featuring a Queensland collapse, a hospitalised Ashley Noffke and an almost-unfair New South Wales middle order featuring the relocated Simon Katich, both Waugh twins, and the up-and-coming Michael Clarke (peroxide blonde hair still intact).
The next season, 2003/04, should have been a continuation of the previous. Carseldine should have put his place beyond question, carrying over his form from the previous year. But a serious injury, the most dreaded of occurrences for a professional sportsman, brought Lee Carseldine’s career tumbling down. Still a young man, about to enter the prime years of his career, he was beset by a debilitating back injury. For all intents and purposes, it should have ended his career.
“Before the operation I’d only played 20-odd games, and I was in and out [of the side] and also injured a lot as well. I had a pretty chronic back injury and it was hard to get any sort of consistency in my game. But having the spinal fusion at the age of 27 hit home. I was out on the scrapheap, I’d lost my contract, and I had to go out there and have a look at what I wanted to do with my life. So that was a big eye-opener, and it wasn’t easy because at 27 you’re not expecting that as a professional sportsman.”
Carseldine is not one to over-dramatise his ordeal, nor is he one to sugar-coat it. He is open and honest about what he termed a ‘dark place’ in his life, recalling the challenges of his deteriorating health and the realisation that his professional supporting career was likely to be over.
When he contracted sepsis — also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning — during the process of his recovery, it was far more than his career that hung in the balance. Lee is a devoted family man — I am speaking to him not long after he completes a morning school-run — and it is clear that those closest to him were at the forefront of his mind throughout the period.
“There was no doubt it was worse than the actual back operation. It was sort of touch-and-go there whether I was going to make it. The sporting perspective wasn’t even on the radar, it was just about getting my health back and also [focusing on] the family.”
As he recovered, Carseldine’s focus was on being able to regain his active lifestyle. The rehabilitation goals began back at the very basics — aiming to be capable of a thrice-weekly run. His condition began to improve, opening up the ability to play social rounds of golf and go for a surf, taking advantage of the beautiful beaches on offer along Queensland’s coast. Eventually, as his back continued to recover and strengthen, Carseldine began to realise that a return to cricket, albeit at a lower level, was a real possibility.
“I started playing fourth grade, third grade for my club side, Valley, just because it was something that I wanted to do. I had no intention of playing at the highest level again, I just missed cricket — loved the game, loved my mates. And the body started to feel good so I started playing a bit of first grade and did pretty well.”
It was November 2007 when Queensland came calling, asking Carseldine to return to the state level for a Ford Ranger (now Matador) Cup match against Victoria. 14 players of the Bulls’ 25-man contract list were either injured or playing international cricket, and Carseldine was recalled to bat in the middle order and be a second-change seamer. The irony was not lost on him that, after four years out of the game from a serious back injury, he would have a higher bowling workload than ever before.
While he was recovering, representing Queensland again was not on Carseldine’s horizon. The television cameras and big crowds were not the goal, and teal body paint was certainly not on the agenda. Carseldine had no expectation of playing professionally again, and he had geared his life to that reality. He looked beyond cricket, returning to university to ensure that he had the skills and abilities to succeed away from the green turf of the ‘Gabba. Carseldine leaves no doubt to the value he places on his education, ranking it more highly than any of his on-field success: “One of my proudest achievements is off the field, actually. I completed a double masters — an MBA and a Masters of Applied Finance.”
The degrees have not been wasted, as since retirement Carseldine has founded his own business, Droneit, combining his passion for photography with cutting-edge UAV technology, creating some absolutely stunning images and videos. In fact, as I speak to him, Carseldine is not far removed from a trip to Kokoda to produce a Channel 7 television special, a part of the first team to film from a drone while travelling along the infamous Track. Add in some time spent doing management work for young Queensland cricketers, an involvement in the Australian Cricketers Association, plus the odd piece of commentary and radio work, and it is clear that Carseldine has carved out quite the off-field niche for himself.
These broader considerations of careers and livelihoods were running through Carseldine’s mind as he weighed up whether or not to take up the offer to return to the Queensland side. He would have to put the life he’d rebuilt in the interim on hold, in order to pursue what would probably be his last chance to test himself at the professional level.
“It was a tricky situation when they asked me to come back. It was at the age of 30, I had kids, and it was a minimal contract. But I thought ‘yeah, I’ll give it one last crack’, and I actually made my comeback as a bowler, believe it or not. I had no injuries in terms of playing, I had freedom in my back, and also having an ‘insurance policy’ with my degrees and a bit of life experience gave me a bit of balance.”
Carseldine took two wickets in his first over back from injury. Brad Hodge, fresh off making 286* in his last trip to the middle, pulled a short delivery straight to Shane Watson at deep square leg. The very next ball, soon-to-be Test cricketer Andrew McDonald gloved a lifting delivery to wicketkeeper Chris Hartley to be dismissed for a golden duck. He’d only made two with the bat earlier on, but there were no doubts. Lee Carseldine had returned.
The man himself was under no misapprehensions, it was remarkable that Carseldine could make it onto the field at all, let alone that he could perform to the level required in state cricket. If that was remarkable, it was near-miraculous that Carseldine could raise his game even further again, coming to dominate the 2008/09 domestic summer. He made over 1400 runs throughout the summer, 298 of them coming in the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash at an average of 99.33 and a strike rate in the mid-130s. His newfound fitness proved a stable base to build from, as he managed to weave a thread of consistency through his game; a thread that had always been present, but was forever catching snags. It earned him the Ian Healy Trophy as Queensland’s player of the year, and the esteem in which he was held by his teammates was clear — he won the Bulls’ player’s player award too.
“I realised I wasn’t supposed to be there [after the injury] and I took every game as a blessing and just enjoyed it, really. And my performances in that half of my career were polar opposites to those from before the injury.”
The attitude of Carseldine is reminiscent of Keith Miller’s in the post-World War II era, within which the latter’s wartime experiences as a pilot led him to see that cricket was only a game. “Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse,” Miller apocryphally quipped. “Playing cricket is not.” For Miller, cricket was enjoyable, something he did because he loved it. It was the way he wanted to spend his time after his the war brought to the forefront just how fleeting life was. Carseldine was not dissimilar. His career-threatening back injury and life-threatening blood infection proved that there was far more to life than cricket, but reaffirmed that it was the passion on which he wanted to spend his time and energy. To use that oft-repeated cliché, Carseldine had found perspective. He never let cricket consume him; he maintained that balance.
His numbers, at least in T20 cricket, compared favourably with almost every other player around the country. Many, this author included, waited for ‘Carseldine, L.’ to be listed in a press release. Carseldine, however, was realistic about his chances of making it to the international level, even as he clearly desired the opportunity to represent his country.
“I think I was a bit of a shock to everyone for coming back, I was never on the radar of the national selectors even though I had some seriously good numbers. I’d have loved to have played for Australia, it would have been great, to be honest — and I had a chat to the Aussie selectors saying ‘hang on a second, I’m not even getting a mention in squads of 18 or 20’ — it was a little frustrating because you want to get rewarded, but it was one of those ones where I came out of nowhere and I wasn’t even in their short-term plans, [let alone] their long-term plans. It happens, that’s sport, those are the things you can’t control.”
There’s no sense of bitterness, nor any time spent speculating about what could have been. Carseldine dealt with the reality of the situation as it occurred, and he happily recalls his experience as a substitute fieldsman in the 2010/11 Ashes — the infamous 517/1 Test.
“It actually came at a bad time, I got dropped by Queensland for the four-day stuff and they went to tour and I was at home. The Ashes came along and they said ‘do you want to do some sub fielding?’. And normally they give it to the young guys for a bit of experience, so I said ‘fuck yeah I’ll do it!’ So I was hanging around with guys I’d actually played cricket with and they’re off playing for Australia and I’m just hanging around them for five days to do a bit of fielding and help them out. It was a great experience.”
The only regret (or, perhaps, relief)? That a catch didn’t come his way. He points out that something always happens when it comes to substitute fieldsmen at the ‘Gabba — a multi-year history featuring catches by Marnus Labuschagne, Chris Sabburg, Ryan Broad and Peter Cantrell, plus a dropped chance by Brendan Nash. But Carseldine’s fielding certainly did not go unnoticed; his diving stop on the cover boundary earned him a cameo appearance in ESPNCricinfo’s vaguely patronising daily wrap-up, wedged between lower leg injuries to Simon Katich and David Gower, inflicted by an Alastair Cook cut shot and Nasser Hussain chair-leg respectively.
In a more substantive role, Carseldine also recalls that other international doors were opened by his domestic performances. He mentions his time spent in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as well as his opportunity to represent the Rajasthan Royals in the 2009 edition of the Indian Premier League — a tournament, somewhat idiosyncratically, did not take place in India due to security concerns related to the Indian General Election — the largest democratic election in history.“They moved the whole competition to South Africa in probably about a month,” Carseldine recalls, “I’d never travelled to South Africa before, so it was another great experience to go through. Playing on South African wickets in an Indian competition was a little bit strange, but it was good.” Representing a team captained by Shane Warne and coached by future Adelaide Strikers mentor Darren Berry, it was an environment so strongly divorced from the domestic circuit to which Carseldine was accustomed.
“I hadn’t played international cricket, so this was the closest I was going to get [to that level of competition]. The IPL was like a circus. It was chaotic, it was fun, it was exciting.”
Carseldine’s IPL debut resulted in immediate success, top-scoring with 39 as Rajasthan eked over the line in a middling chase against Adam Gilchrist’s Deccan Chargers. Two games later, against Royal Challengers Bangalore, he claimed his maiden IPL wicket — Rahul Dravid, caught behind for a duck. However, Carseldine instead focuses on the competition as a whole.
“The whole aspect of the IPL collectively was the highlight. Seeing how the best of the best prepare and play, and seeing all the razzmatazz that the Indians put on for their players. It was an amazing experience and one that gives an insight into what the Indian players have to go through when they play back home in India, with how celebrated they are.”
Be it playing Shield cricket for Queensland or Twenty20 in the midst of the hustle and bustle of downtown Dhaka, playing an Indian domestic competition in South Africa or flying a drone over the Kokoda Track, spending time with his family or sub-fielding for Australia in a Test match, going to university or building a career, Lee Carseldine isn’t one to focus on his personal achievements. He soaks up the atmosphere and enjoys the variety of experiences life has offered him, taking the good with the bad and facing challenges as they arise. I get the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Apart from one notable exception, one piece of history he’d rather see erased. Perhaps surprisingly, it has nothing to do with budgie smugglers and teal body paint. Rather, it is his dismissal, on national television, no less, to the bowling of Matthew Hayden.
“I hope that isn’t on YouTube. If it is, I’ll try to delete it because that is highly embarrassing.”
I’m sorry Lee, but it is.