Drum and pace: Joe Scuderi's off-beat life

The former allrounder's unique journey in cricket and music all began with a brother's sacrifice

Adam Burnett

12 December 2018, 02:57 PM AEST

The dozen or so middle-aged men stood around in small clusters, re-spinning their well-worn stories and laughing at punchlines they knew were coming. Once upon a time, they had been almost as close as brothers. Then, back in 1988, they were the first intake of talented teens from around Australia to form the inaugural National Cricket Academy class. Together, they reminisced on running Adelaide's sandhills, and running amok at Ambassadors nightclub, their favourite local haunt. To a man, they agreed that an awful lot can change in 30 years. But somehow, that night it seemed like no time had passed at all.

"As soon as we saw each other, it was like it was yesterday," says Joe Scuderi, the former South Australia fast-bowling allrounder.

"There's a special bond there."

Scuderi wore the loudest outfit but was the quietest one in the room. It has always been his way. The KISS t-shirt demanded attention amid a sea of sensible dress shirts, but in one sense, it was a false representation of his natural inclination.

"I tend to be the guy who stands back," he says. "I'm more of a people watcher, I guess."

They are never very far from his mind anyway, but the reunion brought Scuderi's playing days into sharp focus. His ability as one of the best young allrounders in the country. The players he opposed and teamed up with. The opportunities seized and missed.

"I still think about to this day what it was like," he says. "I watch cricket and I miss it, but I don't miss it at the age of 49 – I miss it at the age of 24, and how I played back then.

"You have that in your mind and I guess you wish it could stay that way, but it doesn't.

"We all get old, and getting old sucks."

***

Joe Scuderi wields his drumsticks at the back of the stage, hammering away furiously as the adrenaline courses through him. From here, in front of a couple of thousand screaming fans, he is master of all he surveys. In this moment, he is the rock god he always dreamed of being.

For a couple of hundred nights a year, Scuderi's existence flits between this and the pub music scene in the north of England. He divides his talents among four groups. There's the tribute acts for Bon Scott and The Clash, which have drawn considerable interest on the UK festival circuit, and there are a couple of bands – The Joe Publics, and Hot Dog Hobos – which offer him variety and plain good fun. He has always been known as a lover of heavy metal, worshipping at the altar of AC/DC, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and particularly KISS. So to be performing on stage, pounding relentlessly on the drums, seems a fitting kind of existence for this ex-cricketer who will be 50 on Christmas Eve.

Scuderi as part of the Bon Scott tribute band
Scuderi as part of the Bon Scott tribute band

Scuderi first spent time in England in the 1990s as an overseas pro and has called the town of Nelson in Lancashire home for 19 years. Nowadays the cricket theme continues in his life via a number of coaching and junior development gigs, which he juggles adeptly. It is the music though, that offers an escape from an everyday reality that can grind him down.

"I've been involved in cricket now as a job for 30-odd years," he says. "So the drumming stuff is a great diversion away from that life.

"The Clash band is really starting to take off," he says. "We've booked a couple more festivals."

He pronounces 'off' with a Queensland twang, so that it comes out like 'orf'. It is a nod to his upbringing on a sugarcane farm in Ingham, a small town about 90 minutes north of Townsville, where the seeds of cricket and music were sown. His brother, Sam, who is nine years Joe's senior, has almost mythical acclaim in the far north, and is regarded as one of the best country cricketers never to have played for Queensland. But when the brothers lost their father after a long illness – Joe was eight, Sam 17 – it was left to Sam to carry the burden of maintaining the family property, robbing him of the opportunity to pursue his cricket dream in Brisbane and beyond. Instead, those chances fell to Joe.

"You always think about ifs and buts, and what might have been," Scuderi says. "I'm very grateful for what my family has done for me – my mum and my brother. That's the cards life dealt us. I'm not the only kid who ever lost their father. But there's no doubt that it had a huge impact on everyone.

"But life goes on."

A couple of years before his death, Scuderi's father came home one day with a drumkit for Joe, who was six. The nearest neighbours were more than a kilometre away, so it was only his mum who he drove batty as he crashed away with his drumsticks. It wasn't until his late teens that cricket took over completely, and soon enough, he returned to music once his playing days were over. Now, as a middle-aged bachelor, it means more to him than ever.

"If you sit around on your arse for too long, that's when you start to dwell and think about the past or whatever," he says. "I like to keep myself busy."

Scuderi tweeted not long ago that the Skyhooks song All My Friends Are Getting Married had become the soundtrack to his life. He was one of only a couple of men at the reunion either not married or without children. It has been a recurring theme for him in recent years. He thinks back to his playing days and the way he pursued a professional career at South Australia and Lancashire. Two sides of the planet, one endless summer. But with that came logistical drawbacks.

"That was in what I guess you'd call the prime of my life, and it was just the way things worked out," he says of relationships and reality.

"I never pursued it – I never thought, wow, I've got to get married, all me mates are.

"There was probably part of me that thought if I did, it might restrict me a bit with what I was trying to do in terms of cricket. Going back and forth from one side of the world to the other every six months, that's a big commitment from another person.

"If I found the right person, no doubt … but I never thought, I've gotta get married, and I've gotta have a kid.

"You might find from some of the things I'm saying that I'm fairly free; if something happens and I want to do it, I'll do it. If I don't want to do it, I won't. That's freedom maybe other people don't have. I didn't plan it like that but that's the way my life has evolved, I guess.

"If (marriage) happens one day, it happens."

That's not to say there aren't times when Scuderi considers the what ifs. He finds his to be a lonely existence at times, but he knows recriminations – be it about choices made in his personal life or the impact of professional cricket – can lead him down a dark road.

"Sometimes I think, have I missed the boat here?" he says. "I mean, I'm going to be 50 soon so the likelihood of me being a father is quite low.

"But you can't dwell on it. This is the life I chose – you've just got to carry on. If you're going to dwell on it, and just mope about, well then you are going to make yourself feel ordinary.

"Let's face facts – I think everyone at some point would have had an element of depression in their life, or struggled with certain things.

"There's no doubt I've struggled with a few things, more to do with cricket perhaps – missed opportunities, but also what it was like, when you're playing constantly, and this probably goes for a lot of elite sportspeople – when you play for a long period of time and then that's gone, it's trying to find ways to fill that void.

"For me, that's where the drumming comes in."

***

Scuderi was a very capable first-class cricketer who, for a while early in his career, was talked about as a young man destined for higher honours. He played his first Sheffield Shield match as a 19-year-old in the summer of 1988-89 and went on to take 33 wickets that season, the seventh-most in the competition and behind only off-spinner Tim May at the Redbacks. The tally included a treble of five-wicket hauls and the prized scalp of then Test captain Allan Border, bowled for a duck. A couple of seasons later, just days before his 23rd birthday, he cleaned up a star-studded New South Wales team with 7-79 and crashed 110 from 129 balls. It was his second hundred of the summer, and suddenly the whispers grew louder that Australia might just have a world-class allrounder waiting in the wings.

He knows the tale of the nearly man is a familiar trope across the sporting spectrum, particularly having plied his trade as an overseas pro and now as a coach; international cricket is reserved for a special few, and there is no shame in not having scaled such lofty heights. Besides, he believes he played with and against superior cricketers who also never got their chance at the top level. Such were the riches of the era within Australia.

During his playing days with Lancashire, 2000 // Getty
During his playing days with Lancashire, 2000 // Getty

"You get no complaints from me," he says. "I got close a couple of times to playing for Australia, nearly broke through.

"The reality is I probably wasn't quite good enough, but I thought I was a solid first-class player.

"It's all about timing. How would someone like Stuart Law, or Jamie Siddons feel? They played a lot better than I did and probably deserve to play for Australia more than (some recent players).

"Blokes like Darren Lehmann averaged 50 for eight years before getting a gig. That doesn't happen now, and it's disappointing."

Scuderi's fine record in Sheffield Shield and county cricket did afford him other opportunities. Owing to Italian heritage on both sides of the family, he found himself on the radar of Cricket Italy in the late 1990s. He attained a passport and found another way to extend his playing career well into his 30s, captain-coaching the fledgling cricket nation before later moving into a coaching role. Geographically at least, the experience took him far beyond where he had been as a first-class player.

"I played tournaments in Tanzania, Belgium, Holland, Scotland, Ireland and on synthetic pitches in Italy," he remembers. "I played a couple of Twenty20 tournaments in Dubai, and my last tournament as coach was in Los Angeles. So the team got around.

"I definitely feel fortunate to have been able to have done the things I've done."

As he has gotten older, Scuderi has contemplated the possibility of uprooting his life once more and heading back home. He was there just last month, spending three weeks in Ingham, basing himself at his mum's place in the centre of town. Last year he was around to celebrate his mum's 80th, and he plans to be home again for his brother's 60th next December. This time, the family had an early celebration for Joe's 50th, while he also attended a primary school reunion, and spoke at his old high school's Year 12 leaving assembly. Most of his childhood friends have long since moved away, though his brother Sam is still there, working at the local sugar mill.

"I left Ingham when I was 17, so that's 32, 33 years ago," he says. "People's lives change, people move on.

"You see a familiar face every now and then, but most of the time when you walk down the street you feel a bit like a stranger in your home town."

He says he would need a good reason to come home, likely in the form of a cricket coaching and development role somewhere in the far north. As with most jobs, he does find a monotony to it after a couple of decades, but it remains a passion.

"There's nothing more satisfying than seeing someone you work with move forward and develop their game," he says. "Not just for myself, but for that person and the enjoyment they get."

***

Whatever justifications he offers himself, however genuine they are, there are times when he revisits his playing days, mulling over the different paths his life might have taken had he gotten that break he craved. It can gnaw away at him, he knows, and he does his best to avoid it, busying himself in work or music or on social media, which he enjoys as a source of interaction with the "outside world".

"I'm sure there's a lot of other people in the same boat – being on the brink and not quite breaking through," he says. "You can't be human and not think about it, and think, maybe if I had my time again, maybe I could have trained a bit harder at this point … things like that.

"But if you dwell on it too much, you just send yourself nuts."

Instead, Scuderi is embracing all he has accomplished and all he has. He knows his life is different to that of most of his peers, but far from dwelling, he is revelling in the ride and basking in the love and support of his family.

"After being a 'nearly-man', I guess you could say, in those early days, how can I complain?" he says. "At the end of the day I had a 12-year first-class career between South Australia and Lancashire.

"I've been able to travel the world, whether it be through first-class cricket or my involvement in Italian cricket.

"I got to play with and against some of the best players the game has ever seen.

"I just feel very fortunate to have done the things I've done. I'm sure there'd be a million club cricketers all round the world who would be happy with that. So I feel fortunate and try not to take it for granted.

"My family is quite proud of the things I've achieved. It's great to be able to say you've done this or that, but none of it would have happened without their support – my Mum, and what my brother did when he was 17 years old, sacrificing his dreams of cricket stardom. So there's that I consider as well."

He has no idea what the future holds, and welcomes the unpredictability. Five-year plan? Not for Joe Scuderi. It is likely that a few years down the track he will still be involved in music and cricket. Where in the world it will be, he isn't willing to wager. With whom? Only time will tell.

"I guess I have the luxury of not knowing, in a way," he says. "It'll depend on where life takes me. Something might come along in 12 months' time.

"It might be a woman who changes my life. It could be a job. Who knows?"