Centenary Test special: Rick McCosker can sea clearly now
The former Australia opener distanced himself from his jaw-inspiring Centenary Test tale for decades, then found peace via society's 'hidden people'
The old sailor walked wearily into the mission centre in Newcastle, hungry and eager to contact his family back in India. The months at sea had taken their toll, though the brief escape from his four cabin walls had already proven a tonic. He made himself at home, as he had been encouraged to do, serving himself some dinner and sitting down to eat. The food smelled delicious, and the soft chair eased his aching back.
A man approached him. He had a pleasant smile, and looked as if he had something to say. He greeted him politely, they exchanged names, and then he said:
You're from India, right?
The man nodded his confirmation. He was asked another question:
Do you like cricket?
His smile as he finished his mouthful told the enquirer all he needed to know; the sailor loved this about Australia, the shared passion for his sport.
The man pointed toward another figure, just a few metres away.
See that man there? That's Rick McCosker.
The old sailor looked. And looked again.
Yes! Implored the man. That's him – cricket man. Cricket man!
He knew his cricket history. He tried to match the face in front of him with a grainy image in his mind of a head swathed in bandages, walking out to bat at the MCG.
Could it really be the Rick McCosker? What on earth is he doing here?
Rick McCosker knows better than anyone he is the actor who has been typecast. The one who put in such a commanding performance early in his career, he has lived within his own shadow ever since. As the protagonist in one of the most storied moments in Australian cricket history – when he bravely batted in the second innings of the 1977 Centenary Test after a Bob Willis bouncer broke his jaw in the first – his name has become synonymous with that classic match, his heroic deed forever regarded as the epitome of Aussie steel.
But that was 41 years ago. McCosker was 30 then. He's 71 today, and the water that has passed under the bridge in those intervening decades has carried him in a different direction altogether. He's let the legend go, and has spent years seeking to separate the man he is today from that glorified version of himself.
But he's the only one who has.
"It's interesting, isn't it?" he says contemplatively, one eye on his little granddaughter, who he and wife Meryl are looking after for the morning in their Newcastle home. "I've often felt that people in public life get put in a particular box, and that's how they're perceived. It doesn't matter what else they do after that; people remember them by that incident.
"People associate me with what happened in the Centenary Test, and I have had to come to terms with that. I've accepted that. But I often think it would be nice if someone remembered a few other things I did; like getting to a hundred at Trent Bridge hooking Bob Willis for six. Things like that. That's all part of my journey, but it's not part of people's journey with me. They see me as this person that broke his jaw and went out to bat in the second innings. I have to accept that that's my lot, and live with it.
"Still, every now and then, people come up and ask you, 'How's the jaw?'. You have to be a wee bit careful as to how you answer that, because you feel like telling them to go jump in the lake."
McCosker played 25 Tests between 1975 and 1980, scoring four hundreds and averaging a tick under 40 (he also made a World Series Cricket century against a bowling attack that included Imran Khan, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner). The son of Bede and Marion McCosker, he grew up on a sheep farm just outside Inverell in country New South Wales, where his parents had settled shortly before the conclusion of World War Two. His father had run night sorties over Germany as part of the Bomber Command, the most dangerous service in which Australians were involved throughout the War in terms of percentage of casualties.
"It was pretty horrendous, though we could never seem to get him to talk much about it," McCosker reflects. "He survived, and sometimes you wonder: why did he survive when so many others got killed?"
The eldest of seven siblings, McCosker was a product of his country upbringing and typical of how many Australian batsmen of the era have been remembered; toughness and determination were the relied-upon traits, with natural gifts deemed an extravagance reserved only for the chosen few.
He was also level-headed and practical, eschewing the trappings of fame and instead finding a career in the banking sector in Sydney. From there, he went onto property conveyancing and then financial planning, establishing himself in Newcastle with his own business for 30 years.
Where others found only uncertainty in life after cricket, and some wallowed in the depths of depression, McCosker saw his career path clearly, partly because he had an understanding that – perhaps a touch ironically – cricket would not dictate his life forever.
"Cricket was part of a whole life journey, and a huge part, because you're totally consumed by the game," he says. "But I came to a point where I realised I needed to move on, and other things took priority. You realise your children are growing up and you probably don't know them as well as you should, because you've spent so much time away."
McCosker is thankful his realisations occurred before they became lifelong regrets, but they stayed with him nonetheless. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to imagine they played a role in what has been the most recent – and unexpected – part of his journey, in a world he never even knew existed.
"It was a complete about turn, really; something that came out of the blue," he says of his decision to become Chaplain to the Port of Newcastle, a role fundamentally linked to the Mission to Seafarers and the tireless voluntary care they provide for sailors from the world over. "I was looking for something that would give me an opportunity to help people who needed it. It was a big decision, but it was an easy decision because it felt right. I had the support of my wife and I really wanted to do something that was fulfilling."
The f-word. It's what his own mind has whispered to him in moments of life reflection, and it's what has charted his course for the years ahead.
Newcastle is the busiest coal port on the planet. More than 2000 ships come and go every year, carrying with them cargo and crew from all over the world. Some 40,000 seafarers dock with their ships at any one of 20 berths, staying a night or two before vanishing again into the wide blue yonder, few people in the city having ever even known of their presence.
"Seafarers are the hidden people of society – not just Australian society but right around the world," says reverend Garry Dodd, who has worked closely with McCosker for almost six years. "No-one really thinks about them or cares about them."
When in mid-2012 McCosker made the life-changing decision to take on the Chaplaincy, he was seeking to make a difference to the lives of those hidden people who arrive in the city, seeking a momentary interruption from the monotony and sometimes fear of endless stretches of time at sea.
McCosker prefers to describe himself as a man of faith rather than a religious man; the distinction being that he lives by a certain set of values as opposed to the stringent following of a hierarchy or governing body.
"Some people see religion as being strictly in line with a particular church, but I see myself as a bit more liberal than that," he explains. "But I have always had a faith in the Catholic church as well, so I guess it's a fine line."
His outlook is supported by Dodd, who says the Mission to Seafarers is not about "doing the God thing – we don't hassle people about who they are or what they believe in" but focused simply on helping people who need their support.
Though that's not to say they don't borrow from the scriptures. Take Matthew 25:35-36:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
"That's the creed we live by," McCosker says. "We have to keep reminding ourselves at the times we're tired or thinking about our own problems, to think about that scripture passage. That's why we're there."
Rick and Meryl, who has volunteered at the Mission for the past few years with the dual intention of helping those in need and spending meaningful time with her husband, have a daughter and two sons, as well as seven grandchildren. Their daughter Jane lives nearby in Newcastle, while their sons, Peter and Anthony, live in New Zealand and Melbourne respectively, following career paths of their own.
"The boys are away," says Meryl simply, and she remembers back to another time not so long ago, when she and Rick would second-guess themselves as they looked back on a life once divided into two distinct categories: cricket, and everything else.
"He played away when the boys were growing up, and our daughter was growing up, so you do miss out on that time.
"We asked our children when they were older if they felt like they'd ever missed out on anything, and they said, 'No! What are you even asking us that for?'. They were quite surprised with the question.
"We always said when cricket was finished we'd have a normal life, but I don't think we're really sure what normal is."
For Rick, the reasons underpinning this latest chapter in his life were two-fold, and inextricably bound: a want to help others, and an almost spiritual pursuit of fulfilment. But in the context of his life journey, there appears to be an as yet unanswered question; how can a man intent on creating distance from his younger self ever truly be fulfilled?
"Sometimes I will tease Rick a little bit," smiles Dodd, well aware of McCosker's preference for anonymity. "Some of the older Indian seafarers remember 'Rick McCosker the cricketer'. An Indian vessel will come in and I'll say, 'Do you know this is the famous Rick McCosker? Cricket man, cricket man'. There's probably 50,000 photos by now on Indian Facebook pages of old seafarers with Rick."
Rick and Garry are praying in the small chapel housed within the mission centre. Hanging on one of the walls is an old-fashioned image of Christ, depicted as the risen king. He sits on the throne, blessing everybody. On first glance there appears little more to the picture; look closer, and the phrase 'God is love' is inscribed throughout the image in dozens of languages. It's not difficult to envisage a steady stream of seafarers across the decades looking up at that picture, finding comfort in the word of God, written in their mother tongue.
The support offered by McCosker and an army of volunteers is universal, too: food, means of communication with family; a place to rest and relax; transport to the local shops for a stocking up of provisions or an exchange of currency; even a simple conversation with a friendly face.
But their prayers are for the young men who have left their care, and returned to whatever dangers – known or unknown – await them at sea.
"Every so often a young guy will come to us and say, 'Look, I'm unhappy, the chief engineer is bullying me'," McCosker says. "We have to be very careful how we deal with that, because when the ship leaves the harbour, this guy is on his own again.
"So he won't come to us overtly and start complaining about the chief engineer, because the next thing he knows, he's going to be thrown overboard 200 miles out to sea."
McCosker has had an article published online about suicide among seafarers. In it, he asks: What is it that triggers these incidents? Why do seafarers take such drastic action?
They're questions to which he may never know the answers.
"I remember lots of times being in the chapel with Rick, just praying, 'God, we hope and pray that this seafarer gets looked after'," says Dodd. "Sometimes it's the not knowing. You never actually see the situation resolved. Most of the time, closure doesn't exist."
McCosker has a recurring dream that he can't seem to shake, no matter how much time passes between then and now. In it, he's all set to play a very important match, but there's a problem; he's not ready to walk out to bat. Something has gone wrong. Maybe he's lost something he needs, or maybe he's late getting to the ground. But he has to be out there, he has to bat for his team … and he can't.
Cricket man. Cricket man.
He played his final first-class match in 1984. He walked away from the game, into a new career and the loving arms of his family, and fixed his focus firmly on moving forward.
But his subconscious won't let it go.
Homelessness. Drugs. Alcohol.
McCosker nods along as each issue is put to him.
"Yes," he says. "All of the above."
Up to 30 people at any one time volunteer at the Newcastle mission centre, which was recently voted by seafarers one of the world's top five seafaring missions. They come from all kinds of backgrounds, though many have found themselves lost along some of life's darker paths, often emerging from their troubles with a greater clarity and a need to make good.
"Some of them have had a very chequered past," McCosker says, and it becomes clear this is just another facet of his life in which he has found himself willingly serving the needs of others. "But everyone is there because they want to give something to benefit people who are less fortunate.
"So you're not only Chaplain to the seafarers but also to our own volunteers. That's part of what needs to be done."
Dodd puts it more poignantly, and it's a description of McCosker few could have imagined when he walked out to bat all those years ago, broken jaw held in place with white bandages and cricket immortality awaiting him.
"He's like a wise sage. He only has to walk in the room and he commands people's admiration and respect," he says. "Coupled with his gentleness, people are drawn to counsel from him. He's one of those people that has almost an aura about him; people respect him and go to him when they're in need."
It is a good thing that the mission's onboard visits happen when the vessels are safely berthed, because McCosker suffers from chronic seasickness. He has never experienced what he is told is the very real feeling of cabin fever while aboard a rusting old ship floating through the vastness of the ocean in the blackness of night.
"They see themselves as being financial prisoners, to a certain extent," he explains of the seafarers. "In their countries, they either can't get a job, or they can get a job that doesn't pay as much as being a seafarer. So they accept that if they want to bring up a family and educate their children, then basically they have to become seafarers. It's a tough life for them, away from their families for nine, 10 months of the year."
And that's where McCosker has found empathy for their plight. For five years as an international cricketer he would miss large chunks of time with his young family, sometimes leaving home for three or four months at a time. There were Christmases away, birthdays missed.
"And there were no mobile phones then," he reflects. "No emails or Skype. That was a tough time for me.
"The seafarers often say how they are homesick, which is something I could relate to. That gives us a good opportunity to talk about their family, they can show us photographs of their kids. We've had some wonderful conversations with captains and crew. There's an empathy there, certainly."
There's another source of compassion for McCosker, in that his two sons have long since moved away, their lives now separated by distance and the demands of everyday life. There's no Cats in the Cradle ruefulness, though; in its place an understanding of the ways of the world, with space for a slice of sentiment.
"We do miss them," he says. "They're a long way away, and I was away for a lot of their growing up, in the early days. But that's the way it is. It's what happens with families; as parents we have to realise that."
These past 18 months have been another period of transition for McCosker. Approaching 70, the time was right to relinquish his responsibilities as Chaplain and shift back into a less onerous voluntary role. The work at the mission is irregular now, with family time the priority in this reshuffling of his life. He is a private man, content in his own company, but he has learned that self-sufficiency isn't always healthy in a life built around the love of others. It's another layer he has unstitched along the way, part of the growth that has helped him come close to the fulfilment he has sought.
"I've had to learn to become less introspective," he says. "I've had to realise you can't go through life in a cocoon; you need to be able to be open to others. That's been a big learning curve for me."
He and Meryl have another trip to New Zealand planned, to see Peter and his family, and spend some time travelling together. A road trip or two within Australia is on the agenda, too. But Rick will never sit idle; now that his mission to seafarers work is no longer all-consuming, other avenues must fill the vacuum it has left. He still needs to be helping others and finding that fulfilment, despite all he's accomplished.
For a number of years, he has been involved with the Hunter branch of Lord's Taverners Australia, a cricket-based charity that looks to provide a 'sporting chance' to the young and disadvantaged and the lead community partner of Cricket Australia. They support the intellectually handicapped, deaf cricket, blind cricket, the Imparja Cup (for Indigenous cricketers) and young women's cricket. McCosker has taken on more responsibility in recent years, and is presently the charity's patron in his region.
"That gives me a bit of a buzz," he says. "Doing what we can to make life more enjoyable for those who are a little less fortunate."
Dusk is approaching in Newcastle and McCosker is winding down after one of his ventures back into the mission, catching up with familiar faces and assisting wherever required.
An older Indian sailor wanders in, and Dodd spots his opportunity. One for old time's sake. He goes through the usual routine. Aussie player. Centenary Test. Broken jaw. Sees the familiarity dawn on the sailor's face.
Yes! he says, grinning encouragingly. Cricket man. Cricket man.
A weary McCosker plays along, accepting the harmlessness of the banter, and graciously talking cricket with the sailor. They go over past and present battles, great players and memorable moments, moving easily through time as they converse on common ground.
"If it takes their mind off the dangers of their work, of them being away from home – even just for 10 minutes or so – well then I'm happy to do that," he says.
A revelation gently dawns on him.
Cricket man. Cricket man.
It's a part of his identity, and will be forever.
And that's OK by him.