Songs of 84: It’s Just Not Cricket / The 12th Man

This week’s edition of Songs of 84 isn’t really a song. It was, however, marketed as a 12” single, and therefore made the top 20 bestselling singles in Australia for the year.

In researching for this piece, the most overwhelmingly frequently made comment, used by pretty much everyone I asked about it, and it’s even been said by the creator of the work himself, was “you’d never get away with that these days.”

I am, of course, talking about “It’s Just Not Cricket” by The 12th Man.

The creator of the 12th Man was Billy Birmingham. He was a sports reporter, comedy writer, satirist and one time promotions man for EMI Music Australia, who was able to work with the biggest names on the label’s roster at the time, including AC/DC when Bon Scott was their singer.

Birmingham was notoriously stage shy. He felt he was a great writer of comedy, but that he didn’t have the skills to deliver the laughs on stage. He wrote a monologue entitled “Australiana” filled with cheeky double entendres and puns on Australian towns, places and animals. He gave it to stand up comedian Austen Tayshus and was a massive success, becoming the biggest selling single of 1983.

In coming up with the follow up, Birmingham wanted a crack at something himself. At the time, the recently created cricket franchise World Series Cricket, with its short form of the game (played for 1 day instead of 5 like the test matches) was massively successful and, as far as Birmingham was concerned, ripe for parody. Using a makeshift soundproof booth made from 3 mattresses and a doona, he recorded the voices onto a reel-to-reel tape in a bedroom at his house on the southern highlands of NSW. He parodied the style and the voices of the Channel 9 commentary team of the day, including Richie Benaud, Bill Lawrie, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell, and using his trademark wordplay and wit, invented numerous hilarious player names like Sunil Havisgar (pronounced: Soon He’ll Have a Scar) and Iwana Wheresadani (pr: I wonder where’s a dunny?). He added some crowd noise and other sound effects to make it sound authentic, used his contacts at EMI to get the record pressed, and a legend was born.

Terrified of a lawsuit, Birmingham’s name or photo did not appear anywhere on the record or the sleeve. With such biting satire and a boatload of language and dirty jokes across the record’s 11 minute running time, he thought he was a ripe target of litigation. He sought legal advice and was told he could be sued, but it was unlikely as sportspeople don’t like looking like a sore loser.  That said, management of Channel 9 approved and he was invited to be on the cricket coverage as a guest, and clips of the record were included in broadcasts. As a result, the record sold like hot cakes.

There were occasional censored excerpts played on the radio over the course of time which no doubt helped the sales of the single. It has even been reported that the players, especially those in the Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Indian sides, used to listen to the 12th Man recordings in their dressing rooms, doubled over in laughter. However, as an 8 year old growing up in the Hunter Valley in 1984, there was NO way I was ever going to listen to this, despite the fact there were probably heaps of people all around me with copies of it. Once I hit high school a few years later, my brain was irreparably warped by the riotous madness of the 12th Man, but that is another story….

There are slight differences in the track between formats. At the end of the first half, Ritchie repeats “a firm grip on this game indeed” 3 times and then asks for the record to be turned over. On the vinyl, you hear the producer go “oh s***. Cut to a commercial” and then half a mock ad is played, before the listener is forced to get up and flip the record over to hear the rest. On the cassette, Ritchie says the same thing and the producer replies “it’s a cassette ya w*****. Get on with it” before the program continues. It’s also worth noting that the censored version only appears on the original cassette release and not on vinyl or on the reissue of the 1987 album Wired World of Sports (which includes It’s Just Not Cricket as a bonus track), and has never been reissued ever since.

Would The 12th Man fly today if a record like this was attempted again?

Probably not, and Billy Birmingham has said publicly that he is not taking the risk. In an interview with Cricket Legends on Fox Sports, he said:

“I was never trying to be racist or offensive, however these days someone would go looking to find something in there to be offended by.”

Birmingham’s last 12th Man record of cricket satire was “Boned!” in 2006 and there won’t be any more in the future, especially since the passing of his “good mate” Richie Benaud in 2015.

Billy Birmingham’s creation The 12th Man has been part of the cultural fabric of Australia, almost as much as the people and voices he has lampooned. His work is almost as easily quotable for most people as the words of Bob Hawke when we won the America’s Cup in 1983, or Gough Whitlam reaction to his dismissal on the steps of Old Parliament House in 1975. His work will live on in our hearts forever.

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

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