Hicks and stones: How love and family conquered all – cricket.com.au

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Standing at square leg as an umpire during Saturday park cricket, Gavan Hicks is just like the rest of us. Still stewing over his earlier dismissal and begrudgingly assuming his duties as an official, he is just like the rest of us. Silently wishing away the overs so he can swap with one of his mates and enjoy a seat beyond the boundary, he is just like the rest of us.

Only he isn’t. Not according to the man standing directly next to him, anyway. The same man who got up in his face and snarled an ugly send-off only an hour earlier. Who then stumbled on Hicks’ subtly trailing foot when wheeling away in celebration. The same man who now positions himself within touching distance at square leg, just so he can spit the word he knows will cut to the absolute heart of his opponent.

Retard.

“He called me that, and I said, ‘What did you f—ing call me?'” Hicks says. “I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and was about to punch him out.”

Hicks is a big man, though he has never been prone to acts of aggression. This is a momentary flash, but it is also a breaking point three decades in the making.

***

An August wind blows in laps around the Melbourne Cricket Ground, pushing and tormenting the leaves that scratch across the vast stadium’s empty concrete surrounds. It is mid-week, and the temperature is single figures. There is barely a soul around. Except Gavan Hicks, who has caught the train down from Ballarat. It’s colder up in the Highlands, he says. Bloody freezing.

Hicks looks up at the MCG, as it is impossible not to when you’re within its pull. He sees the statues intermittently punctuating the perimeter. Warne and Lillee, Ponsford and Miller, Harvey and Bradman. Very much unlike the rest of us, he has some things in common with these legends. He has captained Australia, and he has made a century in the middle of that celebrated arena. At 34, he is now a senior statesman in his country’s National Squad for Cricketers with an Intellectual Disability, which will take on England in next month’s INAS Global Games in Brisbane – the first time cricket has been played at the event. He is also a trailblazer in his field, a voice for those who have been poorly represented in the past and a leading figure in a bold new era for all-abilities cricket in Australia.

Gavan will open the batting for Australia at next month's INAS Global Games // cricket.com.au
Gavan will open the batting for Australia at next month’s INAS Global Games // cricket.com.au

All of which would have seemed very unlikely to anyone who knew him as a kid, including himself. For Hicks, school days were difficult days, his ADHD and intellectual disability an unsuitable combination for traditional education. When he got in trouble for not listening or mucking around in class, his solution was to “nick off”, to get away from a place where he felt like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole, and retreat to the safety of home.

“I didn’t have the attention span,” he says, “so I just didn’t want to be there.”

His academic struggles affected him to a point – it wasn’t long before his brother Jayden, four years his junior, was helping him with his homework – but the moments that truly stung were social ones. In grade four, his friend Geoffrey would regularly come over to play cricket and footy with Gavan and his dad, Doug. When Geoffrey’s birthday party came around however, and invitations were being handed out at the school gate, Gavan was left out. Devastated, and ill-equipped to deal with his emotions, he took his anger out on his bike when he got home, wrecking it with a hammer as his mum, Deb, pleaded with him to stop.

“Gav was at that level where he could see what the other kids had, and he wanted that,” Deb says. “He was always striving to do what the other kids could do.”

The success and popularity of his brother, who did well in school and sports, only magnified Gavan’s frustrations. It pushed to the surface a feeling that Jayden was favoured, that he was handed everything and that Deb and Doug devoted much more time to their youngest son, when in fact the opposite was true.

“He doesn’t see it, but we spent far more time with Gavan, out of necessity,” Deb remembers. “We went to specialists, physiotherapy to get his muscles better, child psychologists working through things with him, speech therapists.

“You’d go to whatever they recommended – if they said he should be doing gymnastics, we’d do gymnastics.”

As difficult as life was for Gavan, the stresses that came with his upbringing also exacted a toll on his parents, and Deb now reflects on one key trait of Doug’s that helped them through it: patience. He modified his work so he could be home for his boys more often, and Gavan found in his father a best mate and a role model.

“I’d come home from teaching 30 kids and not have it left in me to handle more issues,” Deb says. “But Doug would always take the time.”

She remembers a parental support group they attended as part of a child development centre Gavan was enrolled in. Of the nine kids at the centre, Gavan’s parents were the only couple still together, the challenges of raising a child with an intellectual disability proving too much for so many.

“Fortunately, Doug was amazing,” Deb says. “He really kept us strong.

“I worked with a friend, her son was very difficult, and her husband had been violent and abusive.

“Her boy ended up in prison, but she always used to say to me, ‘Gav will be OK, because he’s got you and Doug. You’ll have your moments of course, but you’ll be fine’.”

***

Gavan marks his years through his milestones in cricket, the one aspect of his youth that allowed him to sate his vital need to fit in with his peers. Thirteen – that was when he took his first A-grade wicket while playing for Coburg, with his dad holding the catch. Fourteen –his first-ever hundred, an innings he recalls being reliant on “just a couple of shots, hand-eye coordination and a big stride towards the ball”. It rolls on like this, the cricketing checklist forming a reliable timeline of his life.

In his late teens however, even the game he loved began to gently let him down. As some of his teammates moved into Premier Cricket in Melbourne (later, Jayden did as well), Gavan found himself being regularly overlooked for representative sides. He knew competition was stiff and resigned himself to making mountains of runs back in his hometown of Avoca in Victoria’s Central Highlands, but the familiar feeling of rejection hurt.

Just as he was feeling disillusioned and daunted by the adult life he thought awaited him, a timely introduction to an all-abilities cricket competition put Gavan on a new path. In what seemed like no time, he was rushed into the national set-up and put on a plane for a tour of England. He returned three weeks later a changed young man.

“I’d never seen him so happy,” Deb says. “He literally ran to me to give me a hug, like little kids do, and said it was just the best. I was so happy for him, because he had achieved. He was man of the series that first time, hit the most runs.

“It sounds dramatic, but the all-abilities cricket, it almost saved his life. It’s given him direction and purpose ever since.”

In 2009 he scored a maiden international hundred, against England on the MCG. It was a feat of enormous personal significance, while it also felt like a debt repaid to his parents, who had coached and scored countless matches through his childhood, and ferried him the 200km round trip to Melbourne more times than they cared to remember. They had been watching in the crowd, alongside Jayden and his maternal grandmother, another to have played a considerable role in Gavan’s life. The next day, he made another hundred – this time against South Africa in Frankston – to assert himself on the world stage as one of ID cricket’s premier batsmen.

Hicks hits ton on hallowed turf

“That was really pleasing – that I hadn’t just settled for one (hundred),” he says. “I took the chance to back it up.”

Six years later, a 30-year-old Gavan Hicks was captaining Australia. Deep down though, he knew there remained much room for growth.

***

As he rests his hands on his thighs and looks at the garden bed in front of him, Gavan is thinking about cricket. He carefully pulls the weeds from around the plants, regularly reminding himself to heed his old man’s advice. They do this work together, Gavan and Doug, one day a week, each helping the other out and finding ways to make the work meaningful. The biggest lesson Gavan has learned from Doug, he says, is patience. And it is here, down in the weeds, that he searches for it.

“I hate weeding, but Dad says to me, ‘This is mental training’,” he explains. “He says, ‘You think about it, in the long run, you may not see it at the time, but you’re training your brain – your muscle memory – for cricket’.”

Doug’s level-headedness jars with his son’s propensity to lose his cool. By his own admission, Gavan is quick to judge people on first impressions, while he doesn’t handle confrontation well; he is better served revisiting the situation once he has had time to collect his thoughts. It has been a problem since he was a kid, the hammering of a favourite bike substituted in the intervening years with the throwing of a cricket bat upon dismissal. Doug has left games at which he has seen that kind of behaviour from his son.

At times, Gavan’s intense passion for the game has made it a crucible for his fury. As a child, he stewed for a week about an opposing captain who had the canny idea to open the bowling with a spinner to stop his renowned heavy scoring from the top of the order. You don’t open with a spin bowler, he said to his parents, over and over in the days that followed. “Gavan almost felt like it was against the rules,” remembers Deb. “We’d say to him, ‘Well Gav, they knew that’s what would get you out – that’s why they did it; they’re allowed.’ But he didn’t see that.”

Hicks is one of the Australia squad's biggest hitters // Getty
Hicks is one of the Australia squad’s biggest hitters // Getty

Last season, even as his Avoca team celebrated winning the grand final, Gavan’s top-scoring feats were tarnished by his temper. Ordinarily he would have been a logical choice for player of the match, but as the umpires weighed up the awarding of points, one was overheard saying of Gavan: “But he cracks the shits”.

“I talked to Gav about that,” Deb says. “I said, ‘You could be leaving this association as one of the best run-makers they’ve ever had, but unfortunately that’s not what they’ll remember – they’ll remember the times you were really cranky when you went out.

“You’ve got to get over that.”

Right now, that is what he is trying to do. At the end of last summer, he made the difficult decision to leave Avoca (his club for more than a decade, which he says has been “like a second family” to him) and begin afresh with Delacombe in the Ballarat competition, some 45 minutes south-east of Avoca. It is where he is living now and the change, he feels, is coming at the right time after a series of on-field incidents in recent seasons that left him angry and upset. One was the aforementioned altercation at square leg; another time an opponent likened him to a character from an Adam Sandler movie (he isn’t sure which, but his affronted teammates knew the reference was derogatory). Gradually, despite the association reminding clubs that no form of abuse on the cricket field would be tolerated, word crept around the district that sledging was Hicks’ kryptonite. Cricket has always been this double-edged sword for him; the place he feels happiest but equally, the Achilles heel through which the most damaging blows can be struck.

“I’ve had stuff go on where I’ve just been in tears when I get home,” he says, his hand nervously tapping his leg as he reflects. “I said to Dad, ‘I’m prepared just to walk away’. I’d just had enough.”

His move to Delacombe brings to an end much of what he has known for most of his adult life. There is a safety net for him in long-established friendships through the Avoca community, while Deb and Doug’s home, where Gavan spent much of his childhood, is just 200 metres from the ground, and a once-regular stop-off point for him on Saturday mornings before games. Change has always been a challenge for him and he knows this coming season will be no different. There is an anxiousness there as he waits for it to unfold.

“It will be difficult for him – new club, new people,” says Deb, “and he’ll have put this expectation on himself that he’ll have to make a hundred.”

***

Gavan was aboard an old grey horse when his life flashed before his eyes. He hadn’t ridden for years. In a split-second, a gentle trot turned into a full-blown gallop and a fence loomed dangerously large. The horse, Schutz, was part thoroughbred. It had set off towards the barrier at breakneck speed. Gavan tried to lean back in the saddle, as he had been instructed to do, but the action was pointless; he was no longer in control. He considered throwing himself off the back, but then thought about the horse’s steel shoes and the hard ground, and he held on.

“All I’m thinking is, I’m going to die – I’m really going to die,” he remembers.

Schutz eased to a stop, of its own accord, and Gavan wasted no time dismounting before the horse had the chance to set off again. Behind him, he could hear peals of laughter. They were coming from the woman he is going to marry.

This is one of the missing pieces in the Gavan Hicks puzzle. He met Angela on Tinder a few years ago and the relationship moved quickly. In April 2018 he proposed to her in a hotel room overlooking the MCG. They were in Melbourne for a Cricket Australia function, with other national teams also in attendance. Australia spinner Nathan Lyon, also a Cricket Australia inclusion ambassador, was one of the first to hear Gavan’s news, and made an impromptu announcement on his behalf.

Two months earlier, Angela had given birth to Oscar, adding another piece to Gavan’s life that he didn’t realise had been missing. He has embraced the responsibility, looking after his son three days a week. He takes him up to the park most days, and while his own challenges with literacy initially made him hesitant to read to him, it has become another activity they enjoy together.

“He’s turning everything into a bat at the moment,” Gavan smiles. “He taps away, then goes ‘Shot!’

“Having Angela and Oscar around has changed things immensely. She listens to me rant and rave. It’s nice to come home to somebody that loves and cares about you.

“I know I’m extremely lucky. I tell myself that all the time.”

Gavan with fiancee Angela and their baby boy Oscar // cricket.com.au
Gavan with fiancee Angela and their baby boy Oscar // cricket.com.au

Angela comes from a polocrosse family and is at home on a horse, and while Gavan hasn’t ridden since his experience on Shutz, he shares his fiancée’s equine passion. They love to take Oscar up to Angela’s parents’ property, where she can ride with her sister and Gavan chops wood or goes pig hunting with her father. They are set to marry next January at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat.

Gavan is happier in this new life that he has built for himself. He still calls his dad daily and phones his mum and gran regularly too, seeking advice on family recipes that he loves to cook. He has been seeing a sports psychologist through Cricket Australia to deal with the heightened emotions cricket brings out in him.

It is an ongoing process, he knows, but he is in a good place as he readies himself for the Global Games. He will open the batting in that tournament, in which Australia will face England in three ODIs and five T20s. His goal is to make another hundred for his country, but if it doesn’t happen, he can now find perspective more readily.

“Some days he’ll have a bad game and he won’t be happy,” says Deb. “But now there are other days where he reflects and says, ‘It’s a game – the most important thing in my life is Oscar and Angela’.”

Cricket at the 2019 INAS Global Games in Brisbane

Entry to these matches is free of charge

Tues, Oct 8, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh

Thurs, Oct 10, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh

Fri, Oct 11, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh

Sat, Oct 12, 10am: Official Global Games opening

Sun, Oct 13, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield

Mon, Oct 14, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield

Wed, Oct 16, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion

Thurs, Oct 17, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion

Fri, Oct 18, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion

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