Cricket’s been keeping Aussie rules legend Mark Williams up at night.
It was during Australia’s World Cup match against West Indies at Nottingham that Williams — 17,000km and nine time zones away in Melbourne — bolted upright, whipped out his smartphone and clicked a picture of the previous Australian captain and the current vice-captain together.
“It was tight (Australia 79/5) and Alex (Carey) came in and steadied the ship with Steve (Smith). That’s when it suddenly hit me. I went ‘wow’”, Williams told The Indian Express. “It got me a bit teary-eyed. This is a kid who was down, was wondering about his future. His football career didn’t go the way he wanted, and the way he responded is a wonderful story.”
Seldom has Australia lost their cool after being tested in England, for the mantra has always been there: Keep calm and Carey on. Coming in at number seven, the keeper-batsman has scored 244 runs at an average of 61 and strike rate of 110. Depending on the situation, Carey either has to launch an all-out assault or a rescue act. Or sometimes both, like against New Zealand on Friday, where he came in at 92/5 and helped Australia to 243 with a 72-ball 71.
Ricky Ponting has called him a complete package and a potential Australia captain. Steve Waugh sees in him a mix of Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey. Two World Cup-winning captains singing praises would make you believe Carey is some cricketing prodigy, and not a player who has been delisted twice, from two sports.
A quintessential Aussie teen, Carey grew up in Loxton playing both cricket and Australian rules football. Named in the 2009 Redbacks squad, Carey instead chose the oval ball, siding with the expansion team Greater Western Sydney Giants.
In many ways, Giants was the house that Williams and Carey built; Williams as the 2004-Premiership winning coach and Carey as the captain and the best-and-fairest, the MVP of the club in its inaugural season. A second successful season got Giants into the AFL. And then, Carey was found surplus.
“They had a heap of young draft picks, up-and-coming players and boys that were on contracts for three or four years and it just pushed me down the list,” Carey told Cricket Australia last year. “I guess I didn’t really have that X-factor as a footballer, the leg speed or the height that was needed and that was it.”
The 5’8 midfielder was disowned and shattered.
“This was a boy who wanted to be the best he could,” says Mark. “A very honest, hardworking person. And he was always a team player, sharing the love. It wasn’t just about what he needs to work on, but what was going around him. His teammates would get all his awareness and care. Needless to say, he was very disappointed that he couldn’t take his career further.”
Enter Jenny Williams — Mark’s sister, 1986 lacrosse world champion, South Australia wicketkeeper and a sports psychologist. A chance run-in with Carey’s mother set the ball rolling.
“Even after Alex was delisted, he remained friendly with Mark. I had a chance meeting with Alex’s mum at a local store and we talked about his development. He had such a great relationship with Mark so I said if he wanted to come and have a couple of sessions with me.”
Jenny’s assignment was to lift Carey out of the funk of rejection and self-doubt.
“I simply thought maybe he just didn’t know how good he was, and often after delistings young men temporarily lose their mojo. Alex did so and we looked at some ideas to not only go back into cricket but also to see just how far he wanted to go.”
Carey returned to the bottom rung of cricket, his club in Glenelg where his clean-striking ways caught the eye of former Australia coach Tim Nielsen.
“I’m sure the delistment knocked his confidence around, and created confusion for him,” says Nielsen, the high performance boss of South Australian Cricket Association. “He had committed to the AFL system and then been told he wasn’t good enough after a relatively short period. To his ultimate credit, he used this as motivation, and after a flirtation with footy here in Adelaide, Alex made the decision to commit fully to his cricket.”
But it was another false start. Carey struggled as an opener, and a top score of 31 in six innings landed him his second delistment, and a cubicle job at a financial firm.
“Having a bad day on the sporting field is still a lot better than spending your whole week in an office and doing a job you’re not so passionate about… because playing cricket is not really a job, it’s a love,” Carey said last year.
Recalled after two years in the wilderness, Carey took up gloves as a value-addition, and eventually replaced Tim Ludeman as the top wicket-keeper at South Australia. So meteoric was his rise behind the stumps that Adam Gilchrist, while watching a South Australia match on mute, was impressed by a sharp catch by ‘Ludeman’, before a double take at the team sheet introduced him to the name ‘Carey’.
“Alex picks up things. You tell him once, he goes away, thinks about it, comes back and says ‘I haven’t slept last night but I understand what you mean’,” was former Test keeper and current fielding coach Brad Haddin’s assessment.
Williams testifies to Carey’s determination and tendency to spend countless hours toiling away just to pick up a new skill.
“He started out perfecting his cover drives, and now you see him playing ramp shots and reverse sweeps,” says Williams. “He will give it a try and perfect it to bring into his repertoire.”
Twin heartbreaks, a nine-to-five job, support of a pair of siblings and learning how to adapt to the situation has tempered Carey to the point of being identified as a future captain. His presentation last year to secure the deputy gig left a panel of Mark Taylor, Greg Chappell and Justin Langer impressed, and Nielsen believes he could shine in the role.
“Alex is a strong leader, usually by example, and a player that trains extremely hard and spends time supporting and working with his teammates and staff for the groups growth,” says Nielsen. “The challenge will be opportunity, both here in SA and with Australia. However, the success of Tim Paine as Australia Test captain may well have changed the adage that it is very difficult for a wicket-keeper to lead a team.”
Williams too gives a vote of confidence and the character certificate.
“Form is obviously the important thing. But when it comes to the character of a person, what you can do and how you can build the team, there will be no one better,” says Williams. “He remembers the words, he remembers the people he has talked to on the way.”
Jenny points out how the the AFL heartbreak couldn’t sour him on the sport or his teammates, including flatmate Dylan Shiel.
“Over the years I have sat with Alex at the Adelaide Oval stands watching our mutual friend Dylan play football. He takes great joy in watching others succeed.”
Before Carey, Williams cricketing claims included going to the St. Leonard’s — the primary school of the Chappell brothers — and a cricket bat signed by Donald Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. (“Probably need Virat Kohli on it now too.”) But his ward’s performance has rejuvenated his interest in the sport.
“Here, the trouble is we can watch the first innings, then there’s a break and then it’s 12:30 am which makes it difficult. With work the next day, you just go to bed hoping something good happens. But if Alex is just about to bat, I’m sitting there watching,” says Mark. “I always end up looking back at those footy days, everyone who was involved with that team is so proud of Alex. And honestly, we follow cricket a bit more attentively because of him.”