Hear to stay: The remarkable rise of Austin Philip
A fast bowler for Premier side Hawkesbury as well as Australia's deaf and hard of hearing squad, Austin Philip is on a winding road he hopes will lead to cricket history
Sheeba and Anish Philip were worried about their baby. Little Austin was almost 12 months. He should have been able to hold his head up. Their first-born, Allan, hadn't had any such issue. The weeks of physio and occupational therapy had failed to provide answers to the questions they were asking. In the family's small Bankstown apartment, anxiety was beginning to rule. As it unfolded, everyone was looking at the wrong thing.
"The focus was all on the physical because that was what was visible," Sheeba remembers. "But once he turned one, it all kind of happened quickly."
Austin hadn't developed any language. As the months wore on, his visual acuity inadvertently masked his deafness. It made it difficult for his parents to establish whether he was hearing and responding, or observing and responding.
"That delayed the diagnosis," Sheeba says. "We didn't know until he was almost two."
Austin's deafness fell into the category of 'severe to profound', which at the time made him a borderline candidate for a cochlear implant. The next three years were long and difficult. His parents persisted with hearing aids, trying to enhance what little hearing their son had (while nowadays surgeons look to preserve a patient's hearing when inserting a cochlear implant, in the early 2000s it was accepted that any previous hearing would be gone forever).
Sheeba quit her teaching job to be Austin's full-time carer while also managing Allan's transition from toddler to kindergartner. As Austin's progress continued at a painstaking rate, she sought other means by which she could offer him the best chance of hearing – and ultimately leading a normal life.
"I was full-time caring for him, taking him for early intervention (classes) and all of that," Sheeba says.
"In the meantime we thought, OK, how about if I could do something else?
"So I did my Master's in Special Education, in hearing impairment."
Sheeba arranged for her parents to come out from India to assist with caring for the boys. The family swelled from four to six but somehow, in their small apartment, with Anish working and Sheeba studying late into the night, they made it work.
"It was tough," she says. "We were on one income, but we just had to set our priorities – and supporting Austin was the priority."
At the same time, something interesting was happening with Austin. Whenever the cricket was on the television, he was fixated. Despite his lack of communicative skills, it became clear to his parents he had a proper grasp of the events transpiring with bat and ball.
"He didn't have much language," Sheeba reflects with a smile, "but he understood cricket, and we don't know how."
Peter Forrest had no idea who the kid was. At the start of the 2019-20 season, Hawkesbury Cricket Club, in the upper reaches of Sydney, was continuing to rebuild after the departure of a head coach. They held some open sessions in pre-season, and Forrest, the first-grade skipper and a former Australia batsman, was on hand to do some talent spotting.
"Our head selector had said there was this young bloke from Parramatta who was good," he recalls. "We never made contact with him though, and then all of a sudden he turned up at trials.
"I was like, 'Who is this bloke?'"
Austin Philip had just turned 19. A few summers earlier he had been an opening bowler in Parramatta's U16s representative side, while he had turned heads in the club's fifth grade team with a return of 5-15. He was spindly then, but growing like a weed. And he had a couple of other things working in his favour: he was skilful with the ball, and he was eager to learn. He was also gregarious and had a self-effacing sense of humour that quickly endeared him to others.
A decade earlier, he had barely been able to speak.
"I was very shy and scared as a kid," Philip remembers. "I couldn't talk to people.
"But my parents didn't give up on me. They had the faith and the belief. We kept practising with my hearing and speech, we kept finding ways.
"It was a slow process. It took me a long time."
From the outset, cricket underpinned Austin's hearing and language development. His parents had picked up on his emotional connection to the sport, and they ran with it.
"Every cricket game, he would sit and watch and he knew so many rules – we were really surprised, a lot of it is visual but still, he had no language," Sheeba recalls.
"Most of his first words were related to cricket. We would have pictures of cricket players on the laptop and he would listen to what the names sounded like, with the visual as well.
"Everything was easier when cricket was involved – to keep his attention."
These early lessons have stuck with Austin in the intervening years, their impact not only defining for his ability to communicate but for his life trajectory.
"Mum would say, 'This is Mike Hussey', and I would say, 'That's Mike Hussey'," he reflects.
"That's how I learned new words, and that's why I reckon my passion for cricket is so crazy."
Austin had his first cochlear implant inserted when he was five. The do-we-or-don't-we dilemma had plagued Sheeba and Anish, who were only prepared to put their child through such a serious surgery as a last resort. Together, they determined it had become the best course of action.
It was the first step on another long road.
"He had to learn to listen with the implant because it is a new signal – it's different to how you hear with a hearing aid," explains Sheeba, who today works in early intervention care, where she educates families with pre-school aged hearing-impaired children as to how they can incorporate language and listening into their daily routines.
"Hearing aids pretty much amplify what we hear, whereas this is more of a robotic sound, and then the brain gets used to that."
Initially, the sounds Austin was hearing came through to his brain as a whistle. Enabling the cochlear implant to work with his ear and send the right electrical impulses to his brain was a process of repetition, for which cricket remained the focal point.
"Mike Hussey is batting," Austin would say, identifying his favourite all-time player on the laptop screen while also beginning to learn verbs.
"He was crazy about Mike Hussey," laughs Sheeba. "He would literally cry when he got out, and we weren't ever allowed to say it was Mike Hussey's fault."
When Austin was seven, he met Hussey, who had caught wind of this special superfan via an email from one of Sheeba's colleagues that had been forwarded to his management by Cricket Australia. Thirty minutes spent with Hussey strengthened Austin's resolve that one day, he too would play cricket for Australia.
He, Allan and their willing cousins endlessly worked on their games in the backyard and with friends in the park. When Austin had communication issues, he knew he could rely on his brother.
"Allan was very supportive of him when he was little, especially when he didn't have the language," Sheeba says. "He would make sure when they were with their friends, if they didn't understand what Austin was trying to say, he would be the interpreter for him both ways.
"He was very protective of his brother."
When he was eight, Austin had his second cochlear implant inserted – a surgery he remembers as the true game-changer in his hearing journey. His parents continued to work tirelessly with him, and little by little, they eased him out of the small, protective world they had manufactured around him.
"When we went to McDonalds, Dad would make me go to the counter and order the food," he says.
"I know that sounds stupid, but that was just a small step for me. And I took more small steps from there."
Throughout, cricket continued as the constant, acting as both a driving force and an avenue for Austin's education.
"I still remember going to his parent-teacher interview in Year Three," Sheeba says. "His teacher told me, 'Sheeba, I now know not only all the Australian players, I know all the England players too, and I can tell even from the back who they are'.
"We were really lucky. He had good teachers at school, and good therapists – and they all had to learn cricket."
When the time came for high school, he was able join his brother at their local mainstream school in Toongabbie, just west of Parramatta in the sprawling western suburbs of Sydney. Sheeba believes the academic challenges that subsequently arose for Austin there were predicated on a lack of awareness regarding her son's intellectual needs.
"It was a great school that he went to," she says. "Socially Austin is very confident but he does struggle with some concepts, so I think the teachers found it a little bit hard because he does look so confident in the classroom that some of the difficulties he had were seen as him not wanting to do the work, where really he didn't know what needed to be done."
For Austin, any academic issues he had were offset by the forging of a group of mates with whom he remains close today.
"School was awesome because I made new friends," he says. "That's how I started building networks. I loved it."
"That was his biggest strength," Sheeba recalls with a grin. "When we used to go for the parent-teacher meetings in high school, the learning support teacher would say, 'He's so popular among the boys – but that sometimes goes against him because he loves to have a chat!'"
Jason Mathers is the head coach of Australia's deaf and hard of hearing men's cricket team, which participated in the Deaf Cricket World Cup in India in 2018.
Austin was part of that squad as a 17-year-old, and Mathers has seen the young fast bowler take significant strides in his game in the 16 months since.
"The change in his body and his fitness, he's just gone to another level," he says. "He's really filled out – he's done more work in the gym and he's gotten a lot stronger.
"That and the fact he's had a few more opportunities at Hawkesbury has resulted in some really good performances.
"He always had the potential, but with the improvements he's made in his strength and consistency, he's right up in the top echelon of deaf bowlers in the world."
Austin's regular gains as a fast bowler across the 2019-20 summer were a pleasant surprise for Forrest. He proved a quick study and his physical growth meant his pace increased as well. He finished the first-grade season with 12 wickets in 10 matches at a respectable 31.42.
"We thought he'd play at best second grade, and then he just kept improving," Forrest says.
"He's a coach's dream, because he's got that growth mindset you're looking for; he always wants to review things so he can work on ways to get better, and he doesn't come with that ego that thinks he's there already."
Austin's passion for the sport sees him training two or three nights a week and then coaching a group of kids, aged 6-13, on Friday nights. He enjoys the strategic side of cricket and sees Forrest as a mentor under whom he can advance his game. The two reveled in each other's company this summer, laughing their way through the occasional breakdown in communication – last week, for example, Austin alerted his captain that his implants were about to run out of battery.
His ambition remains the same as it was when he was seven: he wants to become the first deaf cricketer to wear the Baggy Green. Before that, he knows there is a path to travel, on which a lot of work must be done. He is looking at next summer as a chance to establish himself as a quality first-grade opening bowler. Beyond that, the dream of a Big Bash contract is a tantalising one. According to Forrest, who played 30 matches for the Brisbane Heat, it is also realistic.
"Absolutely," says the 34-year-old. "He's got a lot of things he needs to work on but he's such an exciting prospect because of his skill.
"You can get them fitter and stronger, but Austin's actual skill level when he bowls has impressed me a lot. And he's quite raw as well – he hasn't had a hell of a lot of coaching.
"He's still a young kid who's growing, so he needs to get stronger – he did a hammy this season and had a little shoulder niggle as well – but he's aware of it and he's working hard on his fitness.
"He's trying to get stronger and he's doing all the right things, so he's giving himself every chance to turn himself into a really good young fast bowler.
"His pace is up there, and I imagine when he gets stronger he'll start bowling a bit quicker, but he's got a very simple, repeatable action.
"He presents the ball and his wrist is great, so he's got all the fundamentals. Hopefully he'll present a pretty nice package in a few years' time.
"There are more opportunities now to play high level cricket than ever, and the pathways through to the top are getting broader. If he keeps improving over the next little bit, who knows what could happen?"
As he jumps on the train for his ride home from Sydney's Central station to Toongabbie, Austin is just another TAFE student amid the peak-hour rush. He goes to class three days a week, where he is studying business in between his part-time jobs as cricket coach and visual merchandiser. The 19-year-old has turned a corner academically and is enjoying the course, and wants to pursue further studies at university.
All of this is well beyond the expectations and wishes of his mum, who has been an unwavering support through Austin's remarkable journey.
"If I knew this was where we'd end up, I'd be happy to re-live all of it again," she smiles. "But we didn't know what the future was then.
"We are very proud of him … (but) we don't get to see him as much anymore because he's never at home – he's a social butterfly."
Each night when he does arrive home, Austin gets himself ready for bed with the same routine. Before he turns the light off, he sets the alarm on his phone to vibrate. He pulls out his cochlear implants and puts them on the charger beside his bed.
Then in utter, blissful silence, he falls asleep, and dreams big.