Category Archives: Jock Serong

Jump*

One way authors invite readers to engage in a story is to begin that story at a climactic moment. In other words, authors invite the reader to ‘jump right in’ to the action. This climactic plot structure has the advantage of ‘hooking’ readers immediately. Then, as the story goes on, the author adds in details about the characters, about what led to the story’s climax, and so on. It’s got some disadvantages, too. Readers don’t really get to know the characters well before a major incident happens. So, it can be hard to identify (or choose not to identify) with a character. It can also be tricky to keep the story moving if it’s started with a major plot event. Still, it can work well.

There are lots of examples of crime novels in which this happens. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins with the trial of Elinor Carlisle for the murder of Mary Gerrard. We don’t know who those two people really are at first, nor what, exactly, led to the murder. Soon enough, Christie fills in the gaps, starting with an anonymous letter in which someone alleges that Mary Gerrard is unduly influencing Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. The inference is, of course, that Elinor may want to look into the matter if she’s to be assured of her considerable inheritance. So, she and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman do just that, and pay a visit to Aunt Laura. Unexpectedly, Roddy is smitten with Mary, to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned, and there is evidence that Elinor is responsible. But is she the killer? The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, wants her name cleared, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Then, the story leads up to the trial, and we learn the truth about what happened to Mary.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn begins as Paul Bradley is driving his silver Peugeot in Edinburgh. He brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian and is hit from behind by a blue Honda. The Honda driver gets out and the men begin an argument. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and attacks Bradley. Mystery novelist Martin Canning happens to be nearby, and instinctively throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of obligation, Canning accompanies Bradley to a local hospital, and gets drawn into much more than he imagined. After detailing this climactic event, Atkinson begins to tell the different characters’ stories. We learn what they are like, how they happen to be at that place at that time, and what led to the crash. Then, we learn what happens after the crash, and how it impacts everyone involved.

There’s a sort of climactic plot structure in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). It starts as an unnamed character is involved in a desperate situation. We don’t yet know who that person is, nor how that person got into that situation. But the reader is invited right away to engage in the story and learn more. And very soon, Adler-Olsen starts to tell the rest of the story. Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting incident in which he was badly injured. One of his colleagues was left with paralysis, and another was killed. So, he’s taken some time off for recovery. A lot of people think he’s not ready to come back, though. He’s even more difficult than usual to work with, to the point that his colleagues don’t want to work with him any more. So, he’s placed in charge of a new department, ‘Department Q,’ that’s dedicated to investigating cases of ‘special interest’ (unsolved cases). It’s a strategy to placate members of the press and public who think the police aren’t doing enough to solve difficult cases. The first case Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. She disappeared during a ferry ride, and it was always believed she went overboard in a terrible accident. But there are hints that she may still be alive. If she is, she may not have much time left. So Mørck and Assad will have to work quickly. As the story goes on, Adler-Olsen shares more about the characters, and fills in the blanks, as the saying goes.

Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons also begins with a climactic event. The narrator, whose name is also Finn Bell, is precariously perched on a cliff, with every chance of going over it. He’s in a wheelchair, so there’s very little he can do. Then, Bell goes on to tell the story of how he got to where he is. He reached a crossroads in his life and needed some change. His marriage was over, and a car crash had left him in a wheelchair. Wanting to start all over again, he took a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. When he happened to learn about a mystery concerning the cottage’s former occupants, he got curious. Two people, a father and daughter, disappeared a year apart. Neither was found, and the mystery’s never been solved. Slowly, Bell tells the story of his interest in the mystery, the questions he starts asking, and the danger it all means for him. As he does, we learn more about his character and those of the other people involved in the story.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. As that novel begins, Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot/trunk of a car. He doesn’t know where he’s being taken, but he is utterly convinced he is going to be killed. We don’t know anything, really, about him other than his predicament. But, soon enough, Serong starts to tell the story. Darren and his brother, Wally, have both always loved cricket. They played backyard cricket as children in the Melbourne suburb where they grew up, and both showed talent for the game. As time went on, they developed in different ways, mostly because of their very different personalities. Wally is very driven and disciplined. He is determined to be the best and works very hard to achieve that. Darren, who is two years younger, has rare, once-in-generation talent. But he is far less disciplined. When he is at his best, he is absolutely superb. But he is inconsistent. As the two boys grow into men, they enter the world of professional cricket, and they find that that world isn’t what they imagined. It takes its toll on both, in different ways, and ends up with Darren being trussed up in the car. The reader is invited right away to engage in the story, because it ‘jumps right in’ to the action.

And that’s the thing about climactic plot structures. They involve the reader immediately. What are your thoughts about structures like that? If you’re a writer, do you use them?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Van Halen song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Finn Bell, Jock Serong, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kate Atkinson

Be Careful What You Wish For*

In John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a dedicated Buddhist, has this to say:
 

‘To the evolved mind of the Gautama Buddha, any desire was an obscene distortion…’
 

And one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that the cause of all human suffering is desire, in some form or another.

The whole concept of wanting things (or a particular outcome, or…) is seen differently in non-Buddhist cultures. But even so, we’ve all been warned against greed. There’s even the old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.’ And there’s something to that. Getting what we think we want may come with all sorts of consequences. Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look at crime fiction, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, who owns and runs an exclusive girls’ school called Meadowbank. It’s been a great success and has a gilt-edged reputation. In fact, things are going so well that Miss Bulstrode feels that it’s all gotten a bit dull. Some of the spark has gone out of her work, and she’d like to feel passionate about it all again. All thoughts of dullness go away when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot late one night in the new Sports Pavilion. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now, parents start removing their daughters from the school, and there’s a real chance that the school might have to close. Hercule Poirot works to find out who or what is behind all that’s going on at the school. He finds that it’s all connected to some valuable gems and a revolution in a faraway place. Miss Bulstrode might have wanted things to be less dull, but she certainly didn’t want the havoc that’s wreaked on her school…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance agent Walter Huff. When he goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, he meets the man’s wife, Phyllis, instead. He’s immediately attracted to her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells her lover about a plan she has to kill her husband. She even persuades him to write the double-indemnity policy she needs to benefit from his death the way she wants to benefit. The two plan the murder, which is duly carried out. Now, it really hits Huff that he’s committed a murder because he wanted Phyllis Nirdlinger. As he gets drawn further and further into the web, he learns what can happen when you get what you think you want.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we meet Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They’ve just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Their goal was a nice home in an affordable place with low taxes and good schools. And they think they’ve found it. In fact, Stepford seems to be an ideal place. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something might be very wrong with Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe it. Everything Bobbie mentions seems to have a logical explanation. Besides, Joanna doesn’t want to move again so soon after moving to Stepford. Then, other things begin to happen, and Joanna learns that what she thought she wanted has turned out very differently.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing very well, but she knows that there are younger, hungry journalists right behind her. What she would really like is the story that could cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. And she gets that chance when she hears about the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are little hints now that Bligh might not have committed the crimes. If he is innocent, then this could be the story Thorne’s been wanting. She starts to ask questions, and soon finds herself getting much closer to everything than she should. And she discovers that getting that perfect story isn’t all it may seem on the surface.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. Wally and Darren Keefe are both cricket-mad. As children, they play it in the backyard of their Melbourne home, and both of them want to be famous cricketers. Their mother wants that for them, too. It’s not out of the question, either, because both are quite talented. As time goes on, their talent is honed, and they both get what they want: cricket stardom. They have very different personalities, though, and that impacts what happens to them. Wally is the disciplined one. He works very hard and is driven to be the best. Darren has rare talent – the once-in-a-generation kind – but is more impulsive and less disciplined. When he’s at his best, he is superb. But he doesn’t have his brother’s focus. And these differences play an important role in both lives as the two brothers learn the hard way that what they thought they wanted isn’t at all what they imagined. It all leads to real tragedy.

And that’s the thing about getting what you think you want. Sometimes, it works out really well. Other times…it doesn’t. And that can have all sorts of consequences.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a song by Doug Adair.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, James M. Cain, Jock Serong, John Burdett, Paddy Richardson

Till You Turn it All Upside Down*

If you read enough crime fiction, you start to develop expectations about crime stories. That’s natural enough, as we all have assumptions and expectations that help us make sense of the world. For instance, unless you know your car’s not working, you expect that, when you start the car, the engine will engage, and the motor will run. When you open a book, you expect that the first page of the story will be the first page you encounter. That’s part of how we humans sort out all of the stimuli we experience.

Crime writers know this, too. And sometimes, crime writers use those expectations to misdirect the reader. It’s not easy to pull that sort of misdirection off and still, ‘play fair.’ But it can be done, and when it is, it can be very effective.

For example, one expectation most readers have is that the sleuth is not also the killer. Sometimes the protagonist is, but most readers assume that the sleuth won’t turn out to be the murderer. Agatha Christie was well aware of that expectation and turned it on its head. I won’t mention title or sleuth, for fear of spoilers. But she did violate that expectation. And she’s not the only one (no more names – no spoilers).

Crime fiction readers also often make assumptions about the identity of a victim. When the police are called to a murder scene, they (and readers) believe that the dead person is, well, actually dead. But that isn’t always the case. For instance, in Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is called to the scene when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. She was killed with a shotgun blast which has obliterated her face, so there’s no question that this was a murder. With that information, McPherson starts to investigate. It’s not spoiling the story to say that McPherson is shocked when Laura returns to the apartment one day while he’s there. It turns out that the dead woman wasn’t Laura at all, but a woman named Diane Redfern, whom Laura knew, and to whom she’d given permission to use the apartment. Laura’s arrival turns the whole investigation on its head and changes the course of the story.

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone is the story of what happens when four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing. She disappears from her Dorchester, Massachusetts, home one night, and the police and public soon start a massive search. Dozens of police officers from more than one department do the ‘legwork’ of trying to trace the child. Many volunteers join in the search, too. Still, there are no traces of the child – not even a body. The child’s aunt and uncle, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find her. At first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t sure what they can do that the police can’t, but the McCreadys insist, so the two PIs get started. Reader expectations about what they will eventually find are turned upside down when the truth about Amanda’s disappearance is revealed. And that violation of expectations adds several layers to the story.

William Deverell’s Trial of Passion introduces his protagonist, Vancouver attorney Arthur Beauchamp. As the story begins, he’s just retired and decided to start life again in the peace and quiet of Garibaldi Island. He’s no sooner settled into his new home when his former colleagues press him back into service. It seems that Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of the School of Law at the University of British Columbia, has been arrested and charged with rape. His accuser is a law student, Kimberly Martin. O’Donnell isn’t happy with his current representation and wants Beauchamp to take his case. At first, Beauchamp is reluctant to get involved. But, he’s finally persuaded, and he and his team start looking into what happened. Both parties agree about some of the facts. On the night in question, the Law Students’ Association (Martin is a member) held a dance, to which several members of the faculty (including O’Donnell) were invited. Then, a group of people went on to another party, and then to O’Donnell’s home. A great deal of alcohol was consumed, and not just by O’Donnell and Martin. Beyond that, the two parties disagree. Martin claims O’Donnell raped her; O’Donnell eventually admits that he and Martin had sex, but that it was completely consensual. As the story goes on, we learn more about each of the parties, and we see how their lawyers manage the case. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the final bit of the story turns a reader expectation upside-down.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. As the story begins, Darren Keefe is bound up and locked in the boot/trunk of a car. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he knows that the people who have him are planning to kill him. He sees this as inevitable, so we know right away that something terrible has happened. Keefe then begins to tell his story, beginning with scenes from his childhood backyard near Melbourne, where he and his older brother Wally are playing cricket. As the novel goes on, we see what happens as the brothers grow into adults. Both are natural cricketers. Wally has discipline, focus, and determination along with his talent, and those serve him as he rises to the top of Australian cricket. Darren has unusual talent for the game, but he is less disciplined and more impulsive. He is, to put it mildly, uninhibited. But he can be superb – once-in-a-generation superb. As the Keefe brothers get older, they experience the dark side of cricket – and there is a very dark side to it. And their different personalities have a real impact on what happens to them when they do. Here is what the late Bernadette, who blogged at Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime (and who is very sorely missed) said about the ending:
 

‘The resolution to the story was the second surprise. In the way that being struck from behind with a brick might be.’
 

I couldn’t have said it better. Certainly, it turns readers’ expectations inside out.

The expectations we have as crime fiction readers help us a lot in making sense of a story and following it. They can also be useful tools for the author who wants to manipulate them. It’s got to be done carefully, but when it is, such a strategy can make a story memorable.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Spin the Wheel.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Jock Serong, Vera Caspary, William Deverell

You Have Lost Your Innocence Somehow*

As we get older and (hopefully) mature, we also tend to lose our innocence about the way the world works. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we become complete cynics. Rather, it means that we learn (sometimes, sadly, the hard way), that not all people can be trusted, and that there’s plenty of corruption and worse in the real world.

That experience can be very difficult for a person, and we all deal with it in different ways. And, in a crime novel, it can add to a character’s development. It can also add tension and even suspense to a story as the character faces that loss of innocence.

There’s a sense of that experience in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In it, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. On the surface, she tries to be jaded. But she is quite innocent in her way, although she’s neither gullible nor completely naïve. One evening, she is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. At the party, one of the other guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, several of the same people, including Egg, attend a house party at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. At that gathering, Strange dies, also of poison. It seems clear that the two deaths are linked, as is another death that occurs. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, as he attended the first party. And in the end, he finds out who the murderer is, and how the killings are connected. As the novel goes on, we see how Egg loses her innocence about who can be trusted and who can’t.

John Grisham’s The Firm is the story of Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. As the novel begins, he’s a Harvard Law School graduate, and an attractive candidate for a number of law offices. He’s smart and ambitious, and that’s exactly the sort of lawyer that the Memphis firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want to hire. They make Mitch an irresistible offer, and he accepts. He settles in, and all seems to go very well at first. Mitch’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and everyone welcomes him as a colleague. But then, he begins to have questions. It seems that several members of the firm have died, and he wants to know more about why. By the time he begins to see some things going on at the firm, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And he’s going to have to find a way to get out of his situation if he’s going to stay alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Mitch loses his innocence about what can happen in law firms, especially this one.

Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? Introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrrand. He doesn’t have any clear plans for his future; in fact, he’s rather aimless. But he does have something very valuable: a driving license. And that’s just what professional assassin Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearing the end of his career, but he wants to complete one more job before he retires. He hires Bernard to drive him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he’ll carry out this last job. Bernard isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t know what his new boss’ business is. When he finds out, there’s a loss of innocence as things start to spin out of control.

In Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat (set in the 1950s) we meet twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village with her parents and her older sister Bethan.  Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s what a lot of people call a dreamer, and she’s very much a reader. She’s curious, too. Life in the village goes on as it has for a long time, until the day that Ifan Evans goes missing. Gwenni has a vision/dream in which she sees a body, and when Ifan’s body is eventually found, she wants to know what happened. So, she starts to ask questions. As she slowly puts together the truth about the death, she also learns some dark truths about some people in the village. And, she learns some things about her own family. All of this teaches Gwenni some unhappy lessons, and in the process, she loses some of her innocence.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. That’s the story of Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally. As children growing up in Victoria, they’re passionate about cricket, and play it whenever they can. And, as it turns out, both have real talent for the game. As they get older, they begin to play professionally, and soon enough, they learn about the dark side of cricket. There’s plenty of ugliness that goes on behind the scenes, and, each in a different way, the Keefe brothers are impacted by it. It affects them differently, because they have very different personalities. But in the end, they both lose their innocence about the game. And the result is tragic.

Of course, not all loss of innocence is tragic. But it’s often sobering. It also can make for a solid layer of character development in a novel, to say nothing of the possibilities for tension and suspense.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jock Serong, John Grisham, Mari Strachan, Pascal Garnier

In The Spotlight: Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Noir stories come in different shapes and sizes, so to speak. No matter what sort of noir story, though, the reader knows that the outcome is going to be both unhappy and inevitable. Let’s look at an example of this today and turn the spotlight on Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket.

If I may, let me begin with a comment about the novel from the late and sorely-missed Bernadette, who blogged at both Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime:
 

‘The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read.’
 

There you go, Bernadette. I took your suggestion to read this one.

The story begins in the boot/trunk of a car, where Darren Keefe is tied up. He’s sure he’s on his way to being killed, and to him, it seems inevitable. So, readers know right away that something terrible has happened, and that something even worse is about to happen.

As the novel gets underway, Darren begins to tell his story (first person, present tense) from the beginning. And that beginning is his backyard, where he plays cricket with his brother Wally, who is two years older. The Keefes grow up in the Melbourne suburb of Altona, where playing cricket is almost as natural as breathing. For the Keefe brothers (and their mother, Pamela), cricket’s more than a pastime; it’s a way of life. And it’s not long before both brothers show unusual talent for the game.

Pamela knows that. She also knows that, as a single mum who earns a living working at cheap pubs, she can’t provide much in the way of a future for her sons, So, she scrimps, saves, and gives up a great deal to provide them with cricket gear and other things they need, so they have their chance. For them, it’s the most likely way to have a better life.

As the years go by, we see more and more how Darren and Wally develop, both as people and as cricketers. Wally is disciplined, intent on the game, and determined to be the best. Darren has a great deal of natural talent, but he is, to put it mildly, less inhibited. He’s the sort of player who can be superb – even brilliant – in the game, but who is neither consistent nor disciplined. And as time goes on, that contrast between the brothers plays a critical role in what happens between them, and what happens to both of them.

So does what they experience when they learn the hard way about the darker side of cricket. As is the case with many lucrative professional sports, there’s plenty of corruption and worse behind the scenes, and the brothers learn about it all. That, too, plays a critical role in the outcome. As the story evolves, we slowly learn what happens to both brothers, and how it is that Darren has ended up where he is. I won’t say more about the ending, because it’s most effective if the reader knows as little as possible about it.

This is a noir story, and elements of that sub-genre are woven throughout the novel, including its look at cricket. This isn’t the happy, ‘clean’ game of cricket that you might have watched, played, or heard/read about. Serong shows readers the ugly side of the game, and we see how the Keefe brothers lose their ‘cricket innocence,’ if you will, as the years go by.

And cricket matters a great deal in the novel on a few levels. On one level, in many ways, it defines the Keefes’ self-identities, interactions, and more. And that has consequences for both. On another level, cricket is a main topic in the novel. There’s quite a lot of detail about cricket positions, strategies, and more. It’s a passion, even an obsession for those who love the game, and that’s clear in the novel.

Cricket is, of course, played in many places in the world. This novel is uniquely Australian and shows the love affair that many Australians have with the game. In culture, language, and more, Serong places the reader squarely in Australia, especially Victoria.

That said, though, this isn’t a ‘history of cricket’ sort of novel, or even a ‘behind-the-scenes’ description of the game. Rather, cricket is the backdrop and context against which the Keefe brothers’ stories are told. As the novel goes on, we see how their different personalities impact the way they play, and how they impact the outcome of the story. They are opposites in many ways. Wally is single-minded, hard-working, and responsible with a sharp focus on the game and an inability to connect emotionally in any way but through cricket. Darren has once-in-a-generation natural ability, but he has difficulty with impulse control and self- discipline. He makes no excuses for himself and blames no-one else for the consequences he faces as the novel goes on.

In keeping with its noir nature, this isn’t a light, easy novel. Serong explores the dark, ugly side of people and of cricket. The outcome is as tragic as it is inevitable, and there aren’t really any heroes. Readers will also want to know that there is violence, some of it very much ‘on stage.’ The language, too, is consistent with the dark sort of story this is.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is the story of two boys, both natural athletes, who lose their innocence as they move from childhood cricket play to the world of professional athletes. It takes place in a distinctly Australian setting and features an uncompromising look at the world of cricket. But what’s your view? Have you read The Rules of Backyard Cricket? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf  – Zoë Ferraris

Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith

Monday, 14 May/Tuesday, 15 May – Silent Scream – Angela Marsons

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Filed under Jock Serong, The Rules of Backyard Cricket