I woke up early. My head was full of cricket. I suppose this is one of the prices you pay for being captain. There is always something to think about or a problem to fix.
The NIPS XI team, together with coach Spinner McGinty, are in Melbourne to compete for the Harmony Cup, and Lan has a lot on his mind: a new star batsman with something to hide, a mystery from Spinner's past, conflict with his best mate, Izzy, and his fast bowler laid low just before their biggest match ever. Will Lan resolve his problems? Will the Nips get it together in time? Is the Pope Catholic?
The awesome sequel to NIPS XI.
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Prizes and Awards:
- Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book (2004)
Also in this series:
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF NIPS GO NATIONAL
Day Four, Australia v England, Melbourne Cricket Ground.
All out for 123. It's an extraordinary collapse by the Australians.
In the tea-break, the captain approaches spin bowler Lan Nguyen.
'Australia's in trouble,' he says grimly. 'It's a dog of a wicket and their bowlers exploited it superbly. We threw away a winning position. England's got eight hours to make 137 to win. Which they will, unless...' He looks at Nguyen and the appeal is in his eyes as well as his voice. 'What we need now is a miracle. I'm looking to you, mate. It's a big ask, I know.'
Nguyen's gaze doesn't falter. 'I'll do my best, Captain.'
'But your shoulder... You copped some savage bouncers. Almost bodyline. They were out to get you.'
Nguyen shrugs, ignoring the pain. It will mean surgery after the match but that's a small price to pay for his country and, in the meantime ... 'I'm fine,' he says. 'What's your game plan?'
'Just go out there and take wickets.'
Nguyen nods. 'I'm a bowler. That's what I do.'
He leads the team back onto the field. The home crowd is unimpressed with 123 and there are few cheers.
The England captain strolls to the wicket.
Nguyen breathes deeply and secretly flexes his spinning finger. It's sore, possibly fractured, but this is no time for first aid. Take out the captain and Australia has a chance, he thinks. Why not bowl up a flipper first ball? It's a risky decision. If he doesn't get it spot on it could be hit for a four or a six; the fielders will lose confidence. It will be the beginning of the end.
The batsman sees the ball bounce on a length that looks perfect for a sweep to the boundary. He smiles and lifts his bat. But the ball is coming at him faster than he expects, and then it seems to drift in the air, like a balloon slowly losing air. He's forced to hold his bat stiffly, waiting for the ball to spin from right to left.
It doesn't. It flies straight on, sneaking between his pad and bat and smashing the stumps. It's the perfect flipper. Perhaps the best flipper ever bowled.
Nguyen punches the air with delight. The batsman looks stunned. What just happened?
The MCG crowd have come alive. They're on their feet, chanting, cheering, waving the flag. His team mates are rushing to him. Everyone's giving him high fives.
'Well bowled, mate,' the captain says quietly, and shakes his hand. 'I knew I could rely on you.'
'One down, nine to go,' says Nguyen.
Out comes the new batsman, fear in his eyes ...
'Nguyen, I don't know where you are right now, but it's certainly not in the classroom. Perhaps you'd care to enlighten us?'
Lan came out of his daydream and found Mr Thistleton glaring at him. For a split-second, he considered actually telling him. Mr Thistleton was a cricket fan, after all. 'I was at the MCG, sir, winning the Test for Australia.' Just as quickly he decided that honesty was unlikely to be the best policy. Mr Thistleton's expression was not that of a man eager to hear the sporting fabrications of a student whose best grade in Ancient History was a C minus.
'Sorry, sir,' he said meekly.
'You've heard of Aristotle, I take it, Nguyen?'
Reluctantly, Lan left the second batsman at the crease and turned his mind to the question.
'I've heard of him, sir,' he said cautiously. 'Um, wasn't he an ancient Greek?'
The class tittered.
'We've moved on from that fundamental point, Nguyen, and if you'd been paying attention you would have moved on with us,' said Mr Thistleton.
'Aristotle was a Greek scholar who lived about 400BC. We were discussing his views on women. What were those views, Nguyen?'
Views on women? What did that mean? He hazarded a guess. 'Um, he was in favour of them?'
The class roared. Mr Thistleton rapped on his desk.
'Aristotle held that females were inferior to males, but if he was in this classroom now, Nguyen, I think he might revise that view. In ancient Greece, however, women were indeed considered inferior to men in all areas of life.'
Lisa Huynh's hand shot up.
'Not in having babies, sir! Women were pretty superior in that.'
'Big deal,' jeered Ryan West, but Mr Thistleton conceded the point.
'But socially, politically and intellectually, women were considered inferior. Greece was a warrior culture, and women's lack of physical strength prevented their participation in war. Nor were they considered intelligent enough to govern.'
'Right on!' crowed Ryan West, raising his fist in the air.
Lisa scowled at him. 'What did women do, sir? Besides have babies?'
'Their work was largely domestic. They cooked, kept the house in order, looked after children, fetched water. Decorated pots and vases of the period show women spinning and weaving.'
Things hadn't changed much, Lan reflected. His mother still did all those things, although she had a sewing machine. He was glad he was a boy. The only spinning he was interested in was on the cricket pitch.
'Of course, there were exceptions,' Mr Thistleton went on, seeing Lisa's expression.
'A woman called Agnodice disguised herself as a man in order to practise medicine. She was so good that patients flocked to her, and other doctors became jealous and suspicious. They took her to court where the truth was revealed, and she was prosecuted. But her patients protested and she was later acquitted.'
'So women have to be better than men to succeed?' Lisa said. 'They can't just be as good, or average?'
'Well...' said Mr Thistleton.
Lan's thoughts were still running on cricket. He raised his hand. 'Did women in ancient Greece play sport, sir?'
Mr Thistleton felt on safer ground here.
'Definitely not. It would have been unthinkable. And even if a woman did want to run or throw a discus, athletes usually performed naked, so disguise was out of the question.'
Ryan West and Adam Morris sniggered. Ryan picked up his pencil and flipped open his exercise pad.
'I don't think an illustration will be necessary, thank you, West,' Mr Thistleton said, fixing him with a steely glance. Ryan dropped his pencil.
'That's enough about what women didn't do,' the teacher said firmly. 'Let's move on to what they did do. I have some overheads here of glazed pots which illustrate aspects of women's life. The first shows an Athenian wedding procession about 440BC ...'
The overhead was upside down and Lan's mind switched off again. He wasn't interested in weddings, and especially not when a capacity crowd at the MCG was holding its collective breath for the start of his next over. What sort of ball should he bowl? The batsman would be expecting another flipper, so maybe a standard leg break? Maybe two or three leg breaks, and then another flipper?
The wedding procession disappeared to be replaced by a fuzzy picture of women mourning at a funeral. Mr Thistleton fiddled with the knob while the class fidgeted and weeping Athenian matrons came in and out of focus. There was a knock on the door and a junior student came in, clutching a note.
'Message from Mr Drummond, sir.'
'Thank you. Leave it on my desk,' said Mr Thistleton.
'He said it was urgent, sir.'
'Oh very well, bring it here.'
The student delivered the note and scuttled out of the classroom. Mr Thistleton unfolded the paper and read it, frowning. 'I must say I don't see what the particular urgency is, but the principal wants to see you in his office, Nguyen.'
At yet another mention of his name, Lan's mind was once more jerked back from the MCG. What was Old Thistleton asking him now? What had he been talking about? He frowned with deep concentration at the screen as if fascinated by ancient Greek burial customs.
'Well, get along,' said Mr Thistleton briskly. 'If the principal says it's urgent, he wants to see you now, not this time next week.'
'Yes, sir.' Lan got to his feet, grateful his knowledge of ancient history wasn't to be publicly tested again but nervous about what the summons might mean. His mind raced over more recent history. Had he done anything to attract the attention of Mr Drummond?
His best friend, Izram Hussein, screwed his face into what was obviously meant to be an expression of sympathy and solidarity, but looked instead as if he'd just bitten into a hot chilli. Ryan West grinned maliciously and muttered 'You're in for it,' as Lan passed his desk.
Lisa Huynh, who'd been looking to pay Ryan back, said loudly and indignantly, 'Why should Lan have done something bad? If it's urgent, someone in his family could be ill or had an accident, couldn't they, sir?'
Lan stopped in his tracks. Mr Thistleton had now managed to adjust the projector's focus knob and the overhead of the Athenian funeral suddenly sprang into sharp relief on the screen. Lan stared aghast at the tomb and the wagon carrying the body.
Mr Thistleton was about to tell Lisa not to be so silly, of course nothing like that had happened, but he paused. How did he know? It was possible, wasn't it?
He whipped off the overhead of the funeral and replaced it with one of women with urns around a fountain.
'Get along, Lan,' he said kindly. 'I'm sure it's nothing of the sort.'
Lan didn't miss the change of tone and it convinced him that some terrible accident had indeed happened. Perhaps crates of coconuts had fallen on his father's head as he was unloading at the shop and he was now in a coma in hospital. Perhaps his mother had been electrocuted at her sewing machine; she always overloaded the power board in the garage. Perhaps one of the twins had chased a ball into Dunrobin Street and been mowed down by a speeding car. By the time he'd raced, panting, into the administration block he'd run through a dozen fatal scenarios.
In the front office Mrs Moody looked up from her computer and greeted him with a smile.
'Hello, Lan, you're in a hurry. How's the bowling going?'
Lan's mood lightened. Mrs Moody would hardly smile and enquire about his bowling if the principal was about to inform him that unfortunately he was now an orphan. And Mr Drummond would have warned her: 'Have a glass of water standing by in case he collapses,' he would have said. 'I have to tell Nguyen that his parents have been killed by a crazed gunman and his brother and sister kidnapped.'
Lan looked at her desk. He couldn't see a glass of water and Mrs Moody was still smiling at him.
'Getting better,' he said, trying to slow his breathing. 'Um, Mr Drummond wants to see me. D'you know what it's about?'
Mrs Moody looked mysterious. 'I'll let him tell you.'
She got up and Lan followed her down the corridor. She knocked lightly on the principal's door and stuck her head into his office.
'Lan Nguyen's here to see you, Mr Drummond.'
She nodded to Lan that he should go in and then closed the door behind him.
The principal, seated behind his desk and seemingly occupied with scrawling his signature on various documents, barely looked up but indicated with a wave of his hand that Lan should seat himself. Lan sat and waited, certain now that nothing terrible had happened to any member of his family. Surely not even Mr Drummond would go on signing papers and let him sit there in ignorance if it had.
The principal eventually capped his pen, shuffled the papers together, and looked up.
'Ah, Lan,' he said, as if surprised to see him sitting there. 'How's the cricket going?'
'All right, sir.'
'Keeping up the … er, practice, are you? You and the team?'
'The Nips, sir? Yes, sir.'
A flicker of distaste registered on the principal's face. He still didn't like the name but he could hardly complain when it was formed from the initials of North Illaba Primary School. Nothing to do, apparently, with the fact that the team was almost exclusively made up of students from Asian backgrounds. Well, they wouldn't be his concern much longer. The last days of the final term were approaching and next year most of them would be going to North Illaba High School (the NIHS?) and he'd be able to forget about cricket and the embarrassment of that unfortunate name. In the meantime ...
He removed a document from the pile in front of him and scanned it again, even though he'd read it through twice already.
'I've received this letter,' he said.
Lan's anxiety rose a few degrees. Obviously his family had suffered no terrible accident - the news was unlikely to be conveyed by letter - although he supposed it could be a ransom note. But why send it to Mr Drummond? More likely to be a complaint of some sort, perhaps from one of the property owners whose yard backed onto the eastern boundary of the oval. Balls were always being whacked or kicked over the fences. There was a school rule against trespass but everybody ignored it: balls were too valuable to abandon. A little frown was drawing Mr Drummond's caterpillar eyebrows together so probably somebody's plants had been flattened.
In fact, the principal was frowning because he was perplexed. When he'd first sighted the letter, he'd quickly taken in the thick cream paper and the green and gold embossed letterhead of a kangaroo and emu holding a shield and assumed in some excitement that the prime minister was writing to him. A closer look had proved this not to be the case, but he had still been impressed, despite himself. Few letters of such magnificence landed on his desk.
'This letter from the Australian Cricket Board,' he continued. 'From the General Manager, Game Development.'
Lan's mouth fell open.
'He's interested in your team, for some reason.'
Lan nearly fell off his chair.
'I'm surprised he heard about our little game,' Mr Drummond said, stroking his chin and narrowing his eyes at Lan. 'Did you send a report to the Australian Cricket Board?'
'Gosh, no,' said Lan.
As if! The idea had never occurred to him. Why would the ACB be interested in a school cricket match? Although in his eyes and the eyes of the other Nips, it certainly hadn't been a 'little' game. The rookie team had come within a whisker of beating the powerful King's College XI. Something occurred to him.
'It was probably all the publicity we got, sir. You know, the TV crews that came to the school and the stories about Spinner - M r McGinty - in the papers.'
In the week or so since the match the principal had all but forgotten about the old chap everybody had made such a fuss about. What was he, some former Test player? The boys had discovered him sleeping in a corner of the local library and somehow persuaded him to be their coach. The level of media interest had been amazing. Typical, of course. Nobody wanted to know about deteriorating buildings, large class sizes and widening gaps in primary school education, but resurrect some old forgotten sporting has-been and the media beat a path to your door.
He scanned the letter again. And obviously there was money to burn, as long as you used the magic words 'cultural diversity'. He looked up at Lan, who could hardly contain his curiosity.
'Apparently there's a federal program called "Living in Harmony". The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs have got together with the Australian Cricket Board to-' he consulted the letter again - 'use sport in multicultural communities to promote greater understanding and harmony between cultures. Ms Trad will know all about that. The point is, they're running some intrastate cricket carnival and have invited selected teams from around the country, including yours, to compete for something called the Harmony Cup. Interested?'
Was the Pope Catholic? Of course he was interested! Lan nodded vigorously.
'It's a great honour, sir.'
'Hmmm. I suppose it is.'
Privately the principal considered the whole thing rather discriminatory if, as the letter implied, only indigenous and culturally diverse teams were involved. What did that say about the so-called level playing field?
'Would we have to go to Canberra, sir?' Lan asked.
'Canberra? No, no. Melbourne.'
Lan's eyes widened. Hadn't he not fifteen minutes ago been dreaming of cricketing glory at the MCG? It was a sign, it had to be. 'Wow!' he breathed. 'Imagine the Nips at the MCG. Spinner will be rapt!'
'I think it's highly unlikely that schoolboy teams will get anywhere near the MCG,' Mr Drummond said. 'You might have to set your sights a little lower.'
'Does it say in the letter, sir?'
'No, the letter merely asks for a registration of interest and says details will then be forwarded. The event will be held over three days in mid-January, during the summer holidays.'
That was only about a month away. Oh definitely, the Nips had to go. He could hardly wait to tell them, and to tell his parents. They'd be so proud. Except ... He knew the first question his mother would ask.
'It'll cost a lot of money, won't it, sir?' Lan asked anxiously. 'Melbourne's a long way and we'd have to stay at a hotel, and pay for food and stuff.'
'That seems to have been taken care of.' Mr Drummond consulted the letter. 'Interstate teams will be accommodated in the boarding house of St Paul's Grammar School; meals, transport, and all equipment will be provided, although players are free to bring their own. It seems that your only expense will be getting to Melbourne, and there's even subsidies available for that if needed.'
'Wow! The government's being really generous.'
'Indeed. Amazing how there's always money for this sort of thing. Anyway, the point is, by next January you and the other boys will no longer be members of this school. Your days at North Illaba Primary will officially end next week. Which means that the school cannot be responsible for you should you decide to accept this invitation. Do you understand?'
Lan frowned. 'Not really, sir.'
'This can't be regarded as an official school excursion, nor can I assign a teacher to accompany the team. You'll need at least one responsible adult to go with you, perhaps two. That will be for you to arrange. Possibly a parent?'
'Oh, Spinner - Mr McGinty, that is - will come with us for sure, sir. He's our coach. He won't want to miss out on this.'
'Well, that's for you to decide,' the principal said. Old McGinty certainly wasn't his idea of a suitable supervisor for a group of boisterous boys, some of whom could barely speak English - God knows what problems lay ahead or what mischief they'd get up to - but it was hardly his concern.
He passed the letter across the desk to Lan. 'You might as well have this. I suggest you talk it over with the other boys and with your parents and then inform Mrs Moody of your decision. She can then reply on your behalf. From then on, it's between you and them.' And the school can get back to normal and forget all this fuss about one of the most boring sports ever invented, he added silently.
'Thanks, sir.' Lan took the letter as if it were a sacred object, which irritated Mr Drummond even more.
'You may return to class.'
As he was passing the front office Mrs Moody, looking as pleased as if she'd been invited to Melbourne too, said 'Congratulations, Lan! Aren't you thrilled?'
'You bet! I thought it was going to be bad news. Why did Mr Drummond say it was urgent?'
'He sent a message saying he had to see me urgently.'
'And you thought the worst?' Mrs Moody gave a sympathetic shake of her head. 'He has a Rotary lunch, that's all. I guess he wants to get away quickly.'
Lan was too happy to feel annoyed.