As a kid playing for Merewether District Cricket Club, Ashley Gray dreamed one day he would find his way into the international arena with the sport he adored.
"I wanted to play for Australia, I wanted to wear the baggy green, of course," recalls the former Merewether Heights resident. "I saw myself on the big stage."
Ashley Gray is finally striding onto cricket's world stage, only not with a bat or ball, but with words.
He has written an acclaimed book that tells the stories of rebel West Indian players who defied official bans and toured apartheid South Africa in the early 1980s. The book is titled The Unforgiven.
Gray recounts the events surrounding the cricket world tightening its stance towards South Africa and its policies of racial discrimination and segregation. The author explains how members of the South African Cricket Union pulled off "the most daring cricket heist since World Series Cricket", using big money to attract players from the West Indies, a powerhouse in the game at the time, for two tours.
But what Gray's book concentrates on is the human fallout from those tours, as the players were shunned. Trinidad's Foreign Minister declared the players were "mercenaries fighting for the cause of apartheid".
As Gray writes of the rebel players, "Cashed up, but ground down, some coped with ostracism by deserting their homelands, others sought refuge in drugs and religion."
For The Unforgiven, Ashley Gray does more than put faces to this moment in history. He stands face-to-face with many of the players, as he goes on a cricket odyssey halfway around the globe and deep into the complex emotions of human beings to tell this story.
And it all began in the gutter in Kingston, Jamaica, where Ashley Gray saw just how far sports idols can fall when they tumble off the pedestal.
WHEN he was a boy, Ashley Gray loved watching the West Indies players, with their frighteningly fast bowlers and graceful batsmen.
"You just appreciated their athleticism and skill and their ability to absolutely slaughter Australia," he recalled. "And that was the thing. England could beat us, and you absolutely resented it, whereas the West Indies would beat us and you'd just think, 'Wow, there's not much you can do about that'. They were just so damn good."
The teenage cricket fan became a sports writer, living in Sydney. In 2003, Gray travelled to the West Indies and did stories for Inside Cricket magazine.
One night, after a match in Kingston, the taxi driver noticed Gray's media pass and offered to take him to meet Richard Austin.
An all-rounder who had played against Australia, Austin had joined the first West Indian rebel tour of South Africa. He returned with a stack of money, but an even bigger pile of criticism and a lifelong Test cricket ban. He took it hard, using drugs, and his life slid.
By the time Gray met him, Austin was begging on the streets in a part of Kingston called Crossroads.
"He was totally wrecked as a human being at that point in time," Gray said.
"I sat in the gutter with him ... and we started talking. And he turned out to be a really lovely guy who had fallen on hard times. In Australia, you can't imagine Test cricketers - or in England or New Zealand - living this way. I had to ask him what was the reason for it. And he said to me it was all about South Africa."
As the author listened to Austin telling his story, "I knew then there was a bigger story". The seeds of The Unforgiven were planted in that gutter.
It would be more than 15 years before Gray returned to the bigger story. But the writer never forgot about that meeting, and those memories were tinged with sadness in 2015, when he heard Richard Austin had died.
Gray resolved to "tell a story that hadn't been told before".
"These people had lingered in the shadows of history for a long time, and they had been shunned," Gray said. "It was like their lives didn't matter.
"And I knew from meeting Richard that their lives did matter. They were just young guys, and they had - in some ways - made a poor choice, but this had ramifications beyond anything that a lot of them couldn't have dreamed of."
While researching the book, Ashley Gray contacted a couple of the former rebels via social media, and in 2018 he returned to the Caribbean, hoping to speak with as many of the players as he could.
The reaction of the book's subjects to a white Australian from a comfortable middle-class background wanting to tell their stories was wildly mixed.
A few, such as pace bowler Colin Croft, wanted nothing to do with the project.
"But others felt that they had a story to tell, and it might bring them some closure, and also get their motives out there," explained Gray.
Money was a major motive. The players were offered many times more than what they could earn at home. Opportunity was also a driving force, as the West Indies had "a glut of talent", so competition to make the top side was fierce.
According to Gray, players also argued they could "show some white people that black athletes can compete on the same stage and do well".
The author believes the rebel tours did not arouse much interest in cricket among black South Africans, but there was an enormous reaction from the white community.
"After the day's cricket had ended, you'd get queues and queues of white boys just wanting autographs from these guys, wanting bits of their clothing, bats, and everything," he said, adding it was debatable whether that excitement translated into changes of attitude about apartheid.
"What I'm suggesting is perhaps eyes were opened, but for how long is hard to say."
Gray's odyssey was made all the more challenging by having to track down the former players. However, of the 20 profiles in the book, he managed to meet 15 former players.
He caught up with a number of them in the United States, where they had gone to rebuild their lives, including the team's captain, Lawrence Rowe. A superb batsman, Rowe had gone from being a hero in Jamaica to becoming a cricket refugee in Florida.
Rowe became a successful businessman in the US. The former international player told the author he had no regrets. Rowe is quoted as saying that only if Jesus Christ tells him he was wrong, "I will apologise".
In Barbados, Gray met with one of the country's greatest wicketkeepers, David Murray. The chapter on Murray tells a sad story of a cricketer who had it all now living in a squalid room in a house he shares with two aunties and who struggles to connect his thoughts and words after a few drinks with fellow rebel cricketer Collis King and Gray. The author writes that Murray "is often held up as the poster boy for rebel ruination" but says other aspects of his life contributed to the fall.
David Murray is not the only one in The Unforgiven who has been experiencing tough times.
The players' stories are reverberating around the cricket world. Just before I speak with Gray, he had done an interview with a Barbados media outlet, and later in the day, he would be talking to a British journalist.
Almost 40 years after those rebel tours, the consequences of decisions and judgements made - by the players themselves, by cricket authorities and governments, and by all those who had an opinion about the rebels - have been brought further into the light.
Gray believes the book has grabbed attention partly because "it's that classic bind that people find themselves in: 'Should I take the money or should I adhere to my principles?'. I think everyone at some point in their life are confronted with that situation".
"Then you throw in all these other variations," he said. "There's the racial aspect that these guys were actually black, going to a country where black people were second-class, third-class citizens."
There were also contemporary issues, he said, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, that made The Unforgiven seem timely.
Since the book's publication, Gray said, some of the cricket bodies in the Caribbean had contacted a couple of the former players "who have ended up in more straitened circumstances". But he believes South Africa's cricket authorities or even its government should offer some form of financial help to the rebel players as well.
With Gray having spent so long living with these rebel players, at least in the research and writing of The Unforgiven, I asked him what answer he had arrived at for the question in the book's subtitle: Mercenaries or Missionaries?
"I'm loath to come down on either side, because I just think it's too complicated an issue to rule on morally," he replied. "These guys had motives they thought were justifiable. But there was also the racial issue in the Caribbean, and the idea that these guys had betrayed their brothers and sisters. And that's a justifiable argument as well.
"Yet you see these guys in the flesh and you realise the impact it's had on their lives, this one decision made when most of them were very young. And you wonder whether they should be at least forgiven. I feel they should be at least forgiven."
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