Sixty not out: The many faces of David Boon
One of Australia's finest batsmen has worn various hats within the sport, all while his legendary 'Boonie' persona has bubbled away in the country's sporting consciousness. As he turns 60, he reflects…
Another street, another knowing smile, another slightly awkward request. David and Pip Boon might be walking to dinner in Hobart. They might be most other places in the cricketing world, for that matter. The location shifts, but the scene is always the same.
David Boon, the International Cricket Council match referee who in another life was Australia's most reliable batsman, has a public persona that remains undiminished despite almost a quarter century out of the national spotlight: Boonie. The man. The myth. The mo.
"People still recognise him," Pip says. "They ask for photographs and autographs, and that's just part of it; it's not hard to smile and be polite.
"They tend to hand me the camera so I can take the photo."
Amicable exchange complete, the Boons continue on their way, the brief reminder of their past trailing away with the fading footsteps behind them.
"I joke with David," Pip grins, "I say, 'It's when they don't recognise you – that's when you know you're done, old boy'."
The year 2020 has been a strange one for most of us, and David Clarence Boon is no different. As he considers things on the eve of his 60th birthday, he has to track all the way back to 1976 to recall a year during which he spent as much time at home.
"I think it was on the day we were supposed to fly out (for a series in Sri Lanka), everything got called off (due to COVID-19), so we didn't go," he says.
"So essentially, until I came to Sydney (for the Australia-India ODIs) on the 27th of November, I was at home for the longest I've been at home since I was 16.
"It was good."
Forty-four years. Then, Boon was in Launceston, just a couple of years away from debuting for Tasmania. His father Clarrie was running his newsagency and his mother Lesley, who played hockey for Australia shortly before David was born, was dispensing snippets of wisdom to her son that stay with him to this day.
"On a sporting field nobody is perfect," Boon recalls her telling him, "but if you can know within your own heart and mind that you've given it 100 per cent that day and it didn't work out, well there's nothing you can do about it. Learn your lessons, and put them into action from then on, but the day after is another day."
Now, home is the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay. The months away from cricket this year were spent with family and, where possible, friends. Boon whiled away his days in the garden, or at the golf course, and his nights in the kitchen, where among other things, he makes a fine curry.
Mostly though, he took pleasure in his role as a father and father-in-law, and especially as a grandfather. The Boons' eldest child, Georgina, moved back to Hobart from Melbourne with her husband and their infant child this year, and the trio spent an extended time living with David and Pip while they looked for a home of their own.
Boon relished the family company. He is proud of his relationship with all three of his children (son Jack and youngest daughter Elizabeth both live and work in Melbourne), while Pip has watched her husband strike up a beautiful connection with 15-month-old Harrison.
"He and David have an amazing bond," she says. "I think because he missed out on so much of our children's early lives, they certainly have a very special bond.
"He's missing him terribly now that he's back on the road."
Both David and Pip have also missed their two Melbourne-based children throughout 2020, during which families the world over have been impacted by restrictions on travel. In years previous they spent good stretches of time in Melbourne, where they have an apartment in Fitzroy, which has afforded them the chance to maintain their strong ties with their children.
For Boon though, there seems an uneasy familiarity to the distance, and the long absences from loved ones.
"We used to spend a hell of a lot of time away from our family," he remembers of his playing days. "It could be hard."
The image of a 60-year-old David Boon quietly pulling weeds in his Hobart backyard is a long way from the portrayal of the cricketer who rose to fame in the 1980s, or the way his legend grew into something else thereafter, even beyond the confines of the sport.
His former captain, and close friend Allan Border describes Boon as "one character, many parts" and it is not difficult to see why, given the various hats he has worn within the game (player, administrator, selector, match referee, among others). There was a point during his playing days though where cricketer and cult hero – Boon describes the latter as a "persona" – almost spiralled off into separate entities.
Of course, the Boonie legend is rooted in the gutsy, diminutive Tasmanian, the man who stared down the West Indians, wore his Australian badge with passion, became one of the world's most prolific batsmen and never took a backward step. There were the 26 international hundreds, the catalogue of classic short-leg catches, and his lauded status as song master of the national side. That foundation was built upon, of course, by the physical characteristics – the short, stocky physique, the moustache – that somehow made him more relatable, and made us feel as though Boon's exploits were within touching distance for anyone.
"I just went out and played, and tried to do whatever was needed for the team," he says now. "Somehow that seemed to resonate with people in Australia who followed cricket, and sometimes with people who didn't follow cricket as well.
"In the end I thought it was really nice that Australian people saw me that way."
But one aspect of the Boonie legend does not rest as comfortably; he refuses to wade into waters diluted long ago by 52 cans of beer on a flight to London.
"I haven't spoken about that in a long time," he says. "And I won't."
There are fine margins here which bear explaining. That he is unwilling to revisit that tale does not mean Boon doesn't value the special place he holds in Australian popular culture. He cherishes that, in fact, but he cherishes it for the way his countrymen identified with those other qualities, through which Boon held a mirror to knockabout Aussies from Port Hedland to Port Arthur. Tim Coyle, one of his oldest Launceston mates and Tasmania's first Sheffield Shield winning coach, puts it thus: "He was a short bloke from Tasmania with a big moustache, and he just endeared himself to people. There were no airs or graces. And that toughness he had about him, that fierce competitive nature – the average Joe Blow in the street just loved that. "
For Boon, those were the defining characteristics upon which the legend was built. The mythic feats of beer drinking? "Not at all," he says. "That's out the window." And it is not difficult to piece it together; the fabled Ashes flight of '89 has become such a cliché, such a burdensome broken record, it threatens to undermine those truly admirable traits that made David Boon so beloved in the first place.
For Border, it is a matter of skewed proportions.
"That's about two per cent of him," he says when asked how much Boonie lurks within his old friend. "He likes a beer, he's a knockabout bloke, but at the time (the beer-drinking tales) were way over the top – that just didn't really reflect who he was.
"This is no barfly we're talking about. He's an ICC referee, he's been a 2IC at Tasmanian Cricket – he's a serious, considered guy who really knows his stuff.
"Yes, there's that fun side, but he can cover all areas; he can have dinner with the Queen and he can rough it with the boys in the pub, and that's why everyone loves him."
There is invariably a grain of truth to most folklore and while Coyle cannot conceivably attach any credibility to the story ("I can't imagine him after 22 beers, let alone 52 … but, stranger things"), Border verifies at least the basic details of that near-mythical '89 drinking competition en route from Sydney to London, after which he says Boon earned the wrath of then Australia coach Bob Simpson. The former captain attributes much of that aspect of the Boonie legend to that "one fantastic flight" but what matters to him is the fact his No.3 went on to average 55 through that landmark Ashes win, as Australia regained the urn in the UK for the first time in 55 years.
Boon meanwhile, has maintained a simple relationship with Boonie through the decades, his modus operandi being to leave others to propagate the legend should they wish.
"It was a thing on the side that other people, and people who liked following cricket, they owned that," he says. "It was more a persona – something that just grew."
Which is where the fine distinction must be drawn. While the story of the 52 cans appears a bridge too far for Boon, those other elements to Boonie generally made him smile.
"I enjoyed it in a very quiet way, but it wasn't something I tried to promote," he says. "It was a nice perception that people had of me."
Those close to him tend to describe Boon as either quiet or funny, or both, though they also add that, once you get to know him properly, the former fades a little as the latter emerges.
He says his natural tendency towards introversion is something passed down from his mother, though he's not sure where the sense of humour comes from ("I guess that's just me", he offers by way of explanation). Now and then, you can see a trace of mischief in what is a barely-perceptible-but-devilish grin, framed across its top by that famously thick moustache.
Perhaps it is that natural inclination towards good humour that has been behind Boon's decision to relent at different times over the years and help foster the growth of the Boonie legend, beers and all.
In the early 1990s, he made several appearances on Australian TV program The Late Show, a sketch-based comedy series starring Melbourne-based comics Rob Sitch and Santo Cilauro (among many others).
In one fondly remembered skit, titled 'The Oz Brothers', Sitch and Cilauro play Gavin and Neville Oz, two beer-bellied brothers who idolise Boon. In one scene, the satirically Aussie pair stand around a kitchen stacked with cans of Victoria Bitter and discuss Boonie's "tinnie-drinking record", before an alarm bell rings across the room.
"Shhh," says Neville (Cilauro), "it's worship time. Unveil the likeness of Boon."
A small golden Buddha-type statue is revealed, sitting on a stand, its face a clear representation of their diminutive Tasmanian God.
"Buddha Boon," they say, one after the other, and then in unison: "Let us face Launceston and pray – Legend, legend, dead-set legend. Top bloke. Top bloke."
The skit was founded on affection as opposed to piss-take; the comedians saw in the batsman the same thing other Australians saw.
"(Santo and I) both loved him," Sitch says. "This was the era of the four West Indies fast-bowling attack, and he made batting against them look like another day at the office. Plus, over-celebrating had emerged as a trend in Test cricket and Boonie seemed to keep his cool amid it all."
Almost 30 years on, Sitch remembers Boon as "a fantastic sport", while he and Cilauro also bore witness to the Tasmanian's famously unrufflable demeanour when he was in Melbourne to appear on the show.
"We were waiting in his hotel room," Sitch says. "And like kids we picked up his bat and pretended to be him, and he walked in and sprung us – he didn't even raise an eyebrow."
In the 'Oz Brothers' sketch in which Boon appears, Neville and Gavin are tucked up in bed. Beside them sits Boon, reading his autobiography aloud: "I was facing Patrick Patterson on an up-and-down MCG wicket…"
"There was a reluctance on my part, but it was something I enjoyed once I got there," Boon reflects. "They were a very funny group of guys, but they did it in a way that wasn't offensive or taking the mickey. It was good fun."
It was champagne Australian comedy for the era, and while Gavin and Neville's unbridled adulation of their hero began as a case of art imitating life, the reverse became increasingly true as the sketch soon established itself as another pillar in the Boonie legend.
More than a decade later, long after Boon's playing days were over, he again acquiesced when he was this time approached by Carlton and United Breweries, with whom he had previously shared a harmonious and long-standing relationship via its sponsorship of Tasmanian Cricket.
The beer company had landed on what they suspected would be a winning campaign throughout the 2005-06 cricket summer, but they required Boon's permission to pull it off. In short, the concept was a 'Talking Boonie' – a small figurine that came with the purchase of two cases of Victoria Bitter and uttered any one of 37 different catch-cries, such as "Is it time for a beer yet?" The 'Boonanza' campaign was a raging success and Boon signed on again for the 2006-07 Ashes, this time with an English equivalent – the legendary Ian 'Beefy' Botham – in tow.
"It was a great campaign," says Boon, who still has in his possession a near life-size 'Talking Boonie'. "Very clever. It produced some really funny stories and we had a ball."
Amid it all, he had to be careful that Boonie didn't swallow up David Boon altogether. He insists he was never concerned his cult status would overshadow his feats as a cricketer – or worse still, diminish them – yet sports history is littered with former stars who descended into sad parodies of themselves. Boon has avoided that, landing instead in a sweet spot where he is highly respected as part of Australia's 100-Test club, while the Boonie persona continues to be not ridiculed but celebrated.
"I suspect he handles the nonsense pretty well," Sitch points out. "Plus, he seemed to have worked out what's worth worrying about from a very young age."
Boon and Border established their longstanding friendship in the fire of 1980s Test cricket. Border describes their relationship as "rock solid" and that was a recurring theme between the pair as they combined to play a significant role in dragging Australian cricket out of its nadir and into a golden era.
Test debuts don't come more challenging than what Boon experienced in November 1984 at the Gabba. A crumbling Australian side was at the mercy of a legendary West Indies outfit. Batting at six, Boon made 11 in the first innings, and then withstood Marshall, Holding, Garner and Walsh across four hours to make 51 in the second, though Australia lost by eight wickets.
At the Test's conclusion, Kim Hughes stood down from his post as captain, and the Border era began.
Boon believes some of the characteristics that served him well in Test cricket – toughness, hard work, and the notion of ensuring a job is done properly – were instilled in him during his upbringing in Launceston, and then Border came along and harnessed those skills, enhancing and moulding them to withstand the potholes of their long road ahead.
The pair's friendship had been forged quickly, even before Hughes stood down, and was based largely off their comparable natures.
"Boonie was a welcome addition to the group because he was a tough little rooster, a good man to enjoy a beer with, and just a solid character," Border says.
"We were similar characters: reasonably quiet but can burr up if we get upset by something; keep our cards close to our chest; enjoy sitting down having a beer.
"Outside of that, that similarity in the way we approach things – good work ethic, love the game and don't take a backward step. We weren't glamorous but we hopefully got the job done, and we wanted to do it out of the limelight, which is very much both our make-ups – there's nothing worse than being front and centre."
Border, a reluctant leader in those early years, soon and increasingly sought his younger teammate's counsel, especially during lengthy tours when issues inevitably arose.
"He was my sergeant major," Border says. "In any team dynamic you'll get rumblings – players unhappy with this or that. He's the guy who, rather than going to the captain with anything, the players would seek him out, or if he'd heard some rumbles around, he would seek them out.
"He was brilliant like that – he had my back and I knew it.
"I tended to blow up a little bit more than him but I think that came because I was captain and I was riding everything so closely – and probably taking myself too seriously – whereas Boonie could take a deep breath more readily.
"He was a calm head for me in stormy waters, and that's why it was good between us. We'd go and have a beer and he'd calm the situation down, and that's exactly what I needed at times."
It was a natural fit for Boon. Where his patience, composure and level-headedness were integral to his prolific career as a batsman, it also made him a valuable ally in the changerooms. In an era before player welfare managers, Boon was at least partly able to fill that void for a number of his teammates, with whom he remains close.
"He was the strong silent type," Border explains. "You knew he wasn't a dibber-dobber, and you knew he would give you wise counsel. He wouldn't laugh at any insecurity, or give you the, 'Ah come on mate, man up' if it was something minor.
"He was a good sounding board. Guys respected that and enjoyed being able to unload to David if they had any issues."
Boon takes a quiet pride in having taken on that role, though, from his perspective, most of those conversations began and ended with cricket, and when it came to resolving his own issues on the road, he was less equipped, as he notes: "Quite often my wife would say, 'You're very good at sorting everybody else's problems out, but you're crap at sorting out your own'."
"It took a while for him to learn that he had to lean on someone, too," says Pip. "It was all fine that he was being a strong person for people in the team, but he needed a soft place to land as well, and I suppose that's where I came into it.
"There were times where he rang me at 11 o'clock at night and said, 'I've booked you a flight – you need to be here tomorrow'. I had a few of those, and I went, 'Right, OK, I'll ring Mum (to look after the kids)'.
"There were times I needed to be with the family and times I needed to be with him, and we just juggled it somehow.
"I was his confidante, and he sometimes just needed the right person to be there with him when he was perhaps having some self-doubt."
The difficult times went beyond selection decisions, form concerns or travel fatigue. Boon at his core is a family man and as his young family expanded, and his children grew, there were challenging moments during a time when long-distance communication was not what it is today.
"We were sending postcards, or making very expensive landline calls from the hotel," he says. "It made it difficult, and sometimes there could be issues at home that you realise, Well, I can't influence that at the moment.
"The support you'd receive from home was exceptionally important, and to that end, I don't know a stronger woman than my wife.
"For her to essentially raise three children, two of which I know when she brought them overseas had no idea who I was, which makes things difficult to begin with … to play cricket through their formative years and not be at home to see their growth, the landmarks in their lives – first day of school, birthday parties (was hard).
"You miss out on those things, and you rely on your wife to do that. She was my closest confidante, there was never any hiding things, and she would put me back to earth."
As he celebrates his 60th birthday, there is no shortage of testimony supporting Boon's lack of concern at the notion of being overshadowed by the Boonie legend, including a 2017 induction into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame which is, of course, only the end product. Certainly, history records his deeds as a cricketer more definitively than it does the hyperbole-fuelled tales of the more mythical Boonie, from his century in the Madras Tied Test, his player-of-the-match performance in the 1987 World Cup final, his International Cricketer of the Year gong in '87-88, through to his winning runs on the '89 Ashes tour and his triumphant return to the UK four years later, when he made three hundreds. Boon, who ascended to as high as No.2 in the ICC Test batting rankings (March 1994), holds special places in his heart for his 184 in the 1988 Bicentennial Test at the SCG against England, due to the way he bounced back from being dropped the previous year against the same opponent, and for his undefeated 109 at Jamaica's Sabina Park in 1991, this time against a West Indies attack featuring Marshall, Patterson, Ambrose and Walsh.
"In their environment, on their turf, when they were the best team in the world," he says. "That's something that I cherish."
This summer, David Warner and Steve Smith will likely both go past Boon's Test runs tally of 7,422, displacing him from Australia's top 10 run-scorers in the process. In the broader context of legacy, that is merely a statistical footnote.
He reasonably insists his place in the game is for others to determine, but when pressed, modesty moves him towards a collective. He remains firm friends with Border and Geoff Marsh, Merv Hughes, and until recently, the same could be said of the late Dean Jones. For Boon, they were brothers in arms through one of the country's most challenging cricket periods.
"When we joined the game, Australian cricket was at a crossroads," he says. "A lot of players had left and gone on a rebel tour to South Africa, we'd had quite a deal of change, the Big Three (Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh) had retired, and we weren't playing that well.
"To be a part of the growth of that, and to have Australian cricket back on top, at a better place than when we joined it, was probably our legacy, as a forerunner to the long period of domination that Australian cricket had.
"So I think that's our legacy, and that's why I'm quite proud and comfortable with the fact of my life as an administrator – that hopefully I've contributed to cricket at a different level and taking the game forward in that way as well."
David and Pip moved out of their Sandy Bay family home of 21 years just recently. The old house, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, needed more upkeep than they were prepared to continue providing. She worries it might sound silly, but Pip took comfort in the fact a cheerful young family were taking their place; now someone else, she reasons, has the same opportunity they had to create a reel of happy family memories.
They have moved just a few blocks away to a smaller house, where renovation plans are already afoot and where they see their future unfolding. In their old home, Boon had a study where he kept items of sentimental importance – team photos, Gray-Nicholls bats – not on display exactly, but there to remind him of some special moments in his cricket life.
"We'll replicate the same here," says Pip. "It's just his room that he can share with anyone he likes, or he can just have it for himself. It's not on display for all and sundry because there's more to us than David's cricket, but there is a room – his museum, I call it."
Talk of the study has Boon casting his mind back to when his son Jack was maybe seven years old, and he recounts a story he says beautifully sums up his relationship with his kids. It begins with him detailing an hour or so of panic between he and Pip when they thought their little boy had gone missing.
"We were searching everywhere in the house, couldn't find him, so we're running around the streets, in the park over the road, couldn't find him," he says.
"I'd looked in the study, didn't see him, came back after about an hour and thought, I'll have another look in there. And there he was, sitting in an armchair, and because he was only small, I hadn't seen him.
"He was looking up at some of the (cricket) memorabilia, and I said, 'Oh mate, we were so worried about where you were', and he said to me, 'That's OK, Daddy – I think I understand what you do now'.
"It was gorgeous. The kids, they all just see me as Dad, and that's it."
This year, for one of the few times, work has brought Boon closer to his family, with his appointment as ICC match referee for the Boxing Day Test having allowed him and Pip to celebrate Christmas with their two Melbourne-based children, who they've not seen in a year.
It also means he is working on December 29, his 60th birthday, though while David would happily downplay the occasion, Pip is having none of it.
"When he gets home from this little tour I'll make sure I arrange something with our friends, just to mark the occasion … It's always hard when your birthday's so close to Christmas but I always try to make a fuss over it," she says.
"And then in March, the kids and their partners are all coming to Bruny Island for a weekend, which will be lovely."
While typically committed to his current job with the ICC, Boon is eagerly eyeing a time when he is home more regularly. The idea of making the most of those years ahead with Pip, their children and grandchildren has him thinking ahead, while it is easy to flash back and consider at least part of that desire to be predicated on thoughts of what was missed while he was playing cricket.
"My main goals are more family-orientated now," he says. "In a way, I've just experienced for the first time what it's like to be at home.
"I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to when it eventually happens full time.
"Pip and I will have a great time when we finish (working). We'll enjoy life, watch the children grow, and keep supporting them."
Not for the first time in their lives, Pip is on David's wavelength.
"We're getting to a stage where we feel like we're just getting too old to have too many months apart, and you know, aren't we lucky that we still enjoy each other's company?" she says. "We embarrass our children when we say it, but we still quite like each other after all these years.
"We've got lots of travel plans. Last year we went walking in France and sailing in Croatia, and we were meant to travel again this year. I drag him off on walking adventures and he loves it.
"There's travel to do, a house to renovate, time to spend with our kids and just the time to do all the things we haven't been able to do because he's been away.
"We're not very fancy; we just want boring normality."
Boon remains happy to engage with the strangers who approach him in public like long-lost friends, for whom the David Boon of today bears only a physical resemblance to the Boonie from yesteryear they so readily conjure in their mind's eye.
"Even today when I walk down the street, and people say, 'G'day Boonie' and that sort of stuff, it's not intrusive," he says. "Ninety-nine per cent of the time it's just, 'G'day', and you just think, These people have long memories.
"I would much rather be out of the limelight than in it. That's just me I suppose – even as a player I tried to do that as much as I possibly could, but when you are playing for Australia especially, it's hard; there are always obligations and observations, comments … to the point that you can't keep out of that limelight.
"But to be behind the scenes, the quiet one down the back, is a bit more up my alley."
Boon's status is such that he will never fade entirely from the Australian public's consciousness. The people will continue stopping him and Pip in the street, and doubtless the Boons will continue smiling. But for a man who has always drawn a distinction between the notions of embracing the limelight and learning to live within it, if the time ever does come when the 'old boy' is done, he will happily accept it.
And then he and Pip will get on with living.