“That was a scary moment because guns were drawn.” Sharon King stresses on the word “guns”. It’s like she doesn’t want the seriousness of the moment to be lost on you. And understandably so.
For, she is by now very used to her husband, Leroy, laughing it off, or finding ways to make light of the “scariest” moment of his life. So much so that it has become a comical anecdote retold frequently around the dinner table over the years in the King household.
“It was just mistaken identity when I was pulled up. I had a beard at that time. When I went home another friend was there and I said to him, ‘Just give me five minutes to remove my beard’. And after that I never grew a beard,” recalls Leroy, still smiling, and stroking his chin under the mask, even as Sharon stands next to him shaking her head.
We are at Canberra’s Manuka Oval in January, where Alana King has made a significant impact on Test debut. A week later, she’s back in Melbourne for the first time as an international cricketer. And her welcome is of course a lot different to the rude awakening her Anglo-Indian father had received during his first week in the country over 35 years earlier. In fact, the talented leg-spinner has her own fan club waiting for her at the Junction Oval, calling themselves the “Alana Army”, thankfully with no “guns” in tow.
And you can expect Alana’s homecoming to be even grander, with her fan army having grown much bigger when she lands in Melbourne with the rest of the Australian team later this week. She’ll after all be returning not only as a World Cup winner but also as the most influential bowler for her country in the big final against England. Not to forget an overall haul of 12 wickets at 24.50, including that of Heather Knight on Sunday (April 3). Her easy-going, fun-loving parents will be there too, like they always have been. From the time their diminutive daughter would put on her whites and join Leroy and her brother Marc in games where “father, daughter and son would play for the same team”, the time Alana decided to travel to Perth to further her cricket pursuits to the point when she received his first Australia cap only a few months ago.
“Like being in La la land,” is how Leroy had described Alana’s Test debut as having felt. You’d expect a few more superlatives from the proud father for sure as the Kings prepare to soak in and celebrate the latest achievement from the baby of the house. And you just know that they’ll enjoy every moment of it like they seem to do whenever they’re all together.
Whether it’s in the way each one of them seems live and breathe every single delivery that Alana bowls in the middle or in the way she gives them a nod, literally at times, after every wicket she takes. Back in Canberra, she’d genuinely sounded more anxious about her family giving their first real interview than she did while accepting her Baggy Green.
“I can’t believe you’re about to speak to the press. I am nervous,” she had told them. And then walked back and made sure you knew her brother’s name “Marc” is spelt with a “C and not a K”.
It was Marc who the family attribute with having encouraged and inspired his sister to get into cricket.
“Both of them (Leroy and Marc) are mad cricketers. And she followed her brother’s footsteps actually. He was playing representative cricket in Melbourne. While he was at his games, she was mucking around playing and one of the coaches saw that she had some talent and asked her to come and play cricket, but it was with the boys. With great reluctance we allowed her to go and play and she played till the age of 15 for Oakleigh Cricket Club with the boys,” Sharon recalls.
Cricket wasn’t always Alana’s first choice of sport though. In fact, she’d made impressive strides in her young tennis career before the cricket ball overtook the tennis racquet.
“Yes, it was her first passion and had gone on to play Pennant (league). She was a ball kid for the finals when Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open. She still loves her tennis,” says Sharon.
It was witnessing another significant sporting moment in person at the MCG in 2006 that the family believes might have been the trigger for her to take up leg-spin.
“Yeah we were there to see Shane Warne take his 700th Test wicket. We were pretty close to Bay 13 at the time as well, so it was a good moment,” Marc chips in while admitting that he might have pushed her in that direction too.
“I guess it started with me. She started as a medium pace bowler and realised she could spin the ball more than she could swing the ball so I made her concentrate a little bit more on spin in the front yard and it went from there,” he says.
Alana then moved on to Dandenong and then went on to Prahan before finally moving that move to Western Australia. It was a sacrifice that has shaped her cricket career ever since before eventually propelling the 26-year-old to international stardom. Like with most settlers, the Kings too have had to make a lot of sacrifices to ensure their daughter’s dream comes true. It’s meant Leroy, who started as a chef, had to constantly change professions to ensure that there were no compromises made when it came to Alana’s sporting ventures and ambitions.
“I was in the hotel line, where you had to work weekends. Then after that, they played sports. I changed my career to drive a tram where I could do the early shift and then take them to their sports in the afternoon and all their extra-curricular activities. So, Sharon used to drop them to school, and I used to pick them up and give them their evening tea or something and take them to all their sports.”
“We used to do it as a team, it was a team effort. From Monday to Friday, I got up at 3 in the morning and on Saturday and Sunday I didn’t have to set the alarm, both of them would come and sit at the end of the bed and drop something, ‘Oh Dad, it’s time for cricket’. They were really very keen, and it just took off,” Leroy says, while his wife and son reminisce about the good old days.
Leroy King moved from his hometown of Chennai in 1984 after the rest of his immediate family had visited Australia and fallen in love with the country.
“Mum came here for a holiday and said, ‘Listen, it’s good here’ and I came here to join my sisters who’d already moved,” he explains.
Sharon has all her family in Australia too now and she moved Down Under in 1989.
“Yeah yeah, unfortunately, I met her and that’s where it started,” Leroy jumps in followed by a hearty laugh and a few not so pleasant stares from his wife.
While the Kings do still retain some extended family in Chennai, they don’t visit too often. They haven’t retained any Indian customs or any great connection to their roots though. Except of course when Marc reveals that he can “swear in Tamil”.
But Leroy does break into a big smile when you get him talking about how good his “rasam” and “meen kozhambu (South Indian fish curry)” are, even if he generally prefers sticking to some butter chicken-“since it can be made mild”-whenever Alana’s friends or teammates visit Melbourne.
The Kings have slowly begun to accept their own growing fame as their daughter continues to put the cricket world in a spin. At Canberra, Sharon had played along with some of the other parents as they teased them in jest over the sudden attention that was come their way, each offering to be their “manager”. But for now, they still insist on being in a space where they’re coming to terms with Alana’s constantly burgeoning profile as the bright present and future of Australia’s spin bowling department.
Like Leroy puts it, “I don’t think it’s even sunk in. Sometimes I think I’m dreaming of what has happened so quickly.”