Tragedy and Triumph: The Tale of Darren Berry

Updated: May 2, 2021

They say cricket’s a game of highs and lows.


Darren Berry knows it more than most.


While his lows reach far beyond poor performance, his highs are the stuff of childhood dreams.

Had Berry’s childhood dreams been fulfilled, however, the course his life took would have been starkly altered.


“I didn’t necessarily choose cricket, cricket chose me,’’ he said.

“As a kid I thought I was better at footy, and always wanted to play footy, but I wasn’t the fastest runner. I was selected for the Australian Under 19s cricket team, and they didn’t make me, but suggested I give up footy.”


Cricket it was. Growing up in Wonthaggi, Berry “was initially recruited to Melbourne by George Murray from Fitzroy-Doncaster’’.


“I was thrown into District (Premier) cricket at 16, 17 years of age. I got a scholarship to the brand new cricket academy in Adelaide, and David Hookes, who was the South Australia coach at the time, suggested that if I stayed for the next season I’d take the gloves. I did and played a season with South Australia, but my ultimate goal was to play with Victoria, and that’s where my friends and family were, so I came home.”


After returning to Victoria, Berry won his maiden Sheffield Shield at the age of 21.


“Looking back now as an old retired guy, it probably means even more. When you’re young, you don’t realise just how tough they are to win, but you do as your career goes on. We had a bloody good side that year.”


Berry had established himself as a prodigious talent with the gloves from the beginning. His first Shield season with South Australia included a world-record stretch of 2447 runs without conceding a bye. But in the summer of 1995-96, his batting found him out of favour.


“No one thinks they should be dropped at the time, but looking back it was the kick up the ass I needed, and it made me work harder on my batting,’’ he said.


“I was a sub-par batsman before I was dropped, but I came back a much better batsman. I had an ordinary fallout with Dean Jones over it all unfortunately.”


Conceding “I didn’t know if I’d ever get back in,” Berry made sure not to waste his opportunity.

“Peter Roach had taken my spot and done a pretty good job … in my first game back, I scored 148 against NSW, that was a pretty proud moment.”


His batting had turned the corner, and with it came greater chance of taking that next, and final, step.



Berry raises the bat



“It was a really difficult time, culminating to the most exciting time,” reflected Berry in reference to the one year turnaround between being dropped by Victoria and being called up to join the Australian squad on an Ashes tour.


“I married my long-time fiance in 1997 and we were actually in Europe on our honeymoon. I was over there when I got called up because Adam Gilchrist got injured and I left my wife on the honeymoon. Fortunately she stuck with me but she might be regretting that now,” he joked.


“It was only a small taste, but still a highlight. Playing for Australia is that missing element from my career. People say I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve; but I didn’t, and that’s the facts.”


Facts can’t be disputed, but can be deceiving. “There was Ian Healy, who was an outstanding keeper, and Adam Gilchrist who was an outstanding batter and improved his keeping. Sadly, that was my luck of the draw,’’ he said.


“You look at more recent times where Australia’s been through a transitional period and tried five or six keepers that didn’t really take their opportunity, I could’ve grabbed it and played 50 or 60 Tests.”


Although that baggy green eluded him, more success at Victoria awaited. “Stats and personal achievement is one thing, but team success is what drove me,’’ he said.


The 1998-99 Mercantile Mutual Cup victory, Berry’s second, is a fond memory. Berry’s next team triumph, one that would prove his swan song, was still four years and an ultimate season of highs and lows away.


At the beginning of that fateful 2003-04 season came one of the highs; “caretaker captain” Berry went full-time.


“There was Shane Warne, Paul Reiffel, and Dean Jones, but they’d all leave to play for Australia, and I’d fill in. So I’d captained a lot, but was never Victoria’s official captain,’’ he said. “Before the 2003-04 season, David Hookes said, ‘I want you, you embody the spirit of Victoria, you’re the elder statesman of the team’ … I was Victoria’s official captain, which was a huge honour.”


The “positive and aggressive” skipper “always tried to win, never played for draws, was very competitive’’. “I was ruthless on the field, against opposition, even younger players, and probably upset a few people along the way … It didn’t bother me if it was Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor, or Joe Blow.”


Sadly, the tribulations of life wouldn’t afford Berry a smooth-sailing stint as captain. Far from it. It presented a brutal double-blow.


“John Scholes was my biggest influence, not just in my career, but in life, especially considering I lost both my parents young. Then David Hookes was tragically killed … outside a pub in St Kilda. To lose those two really took its toll.


“I lost Scholes mid-year, my baby was born in October, lost Hookes in January, and knowing it was too late to play for Australia, my time was up. People say I could’ve played another year or two, and I probably could’ve, but I was done.”


In a dark period for all involved, one seemingly innocuous incident almost caused Victoria to turn its back one of their greatest servants.


“In Adelaide, I swore loudly in the dressing room, and the dressing rooms were more open so the public could hear it. It was the wrong thing but a spur of the moment thing, there was lots of backlash and Victoria wanted to strip me of the captaincy. Cricketers’ Association boss Tim May stepped in and said, ‘Look, this bloke’s been playing for 15 years, you can’t sack him over swearing,’ and thankfully they reconsidered.


“Looking back now it was maybe a sign they wanted to go in a different direction, which I didn’t pick up on at the time, but thank god for Tim May.”


Success was on the horizon. The Vics went through the season undefeated, won a string of games outright, and won the Shield final outright.


After a 13-year intermission, Berry was back atop Australian domestic cricket’s Mt Everest.




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He left on that high.


“Having won in a season of such tragedy and triumph, I knew it was the time to go … I had that fairytale finish, but I was absolutely spent, and with a young family my priorities had changed,” he said.


Like many sportspeople, Berry found the early stages of retirement challenging. Unlike many sportspeople, it wasn’t because he was directionless, but rather his direction.


“I went to uni and got a PE degree, but my biggest problem trying to break into the media was that I’d never played Test cricket, I wasn’t a legendary name. You play 100 Tests, you walk into the media. You play 50 Tests, you get asked. I had to work very hard to get an opportunity.


“I loved commentating the footy and it took lots and lots of practice calling before Triple M gave me a run. There’s bigger names from cricket too on radio, it was very difficult to hold down a position.”


Managing his media commitments, Berry pursued a career in coaching. His passion was to “making others better, and working with a group of men towards a common goal to win … I played to win, I coach to win, that’s who I am.’’


He started at Carlton.


“Anyone who coaches should always start at (Premier) level,’’ he said. “Some blokes think they can retire and go straight into first-class cricket, but coaching Premier Cricket’s a great experience. It’s fun and difficult; you’re the CEO, coach, and barbecue man. You have to deal with late outs on a Friday night and juggling teams, of course there’s people around you to help, but you’re the main man.”


Berry later joined Victoria as Greg Shipperd’s assistant. Then came one of his greatest opportunities, at Rajasthan in the newly-formed Indian Premier League, courtesy of “really good mate” Shane Warne.


“I like him as Shane Warne the person, not just Shane Warne the cricketer, we were mates when he was a nobody, and we’re still mates today,’’ he said.


“We were both St Kilda tragics and thought we could play footy, but he turned out to be the greatest ever leg-spinner, and I fared well in cricket too. I’m proud to say I played my career with one of the greatest.”


Admitting he “didn’t know much about the IPL or India” before arriving, it wouldn’t take long for Berry to fall in love.


“Warnie said I’d love it because they loved cricket as much as me. It’s not the same now, every match the stadiums were packed with 60 or 70,000 people; singing, whistling, screaming every ball. Previews, reviews, it was all over TV.

Warnie



“When I say this people scoff, but every match was truly like an AFL Grand Final. Unless you’ve experienced it, you have no idea. I’m very thankful to Warnie for the opportunity.”


Officially Rajasthan’s “director of coaching’’, Berry’s job entailed recruiting and strategy.


Having been written off before the tournament, the team defied the odds to claim the inaugural IPL crown.


We haven’t seen the last of the Warne-Berry coaching combination; the pair is due to reunite when Berry joins head coach Warne as a London Spirit assistant in England’s new ‘The Hundred’.


The biggest opportunity of Berry’s coaching career had come in 2010-11, and was significantly closer to home, as South Australia’s head coach. “I loved the job, and not dissimilar to Rajasthan we had a good young group of players,” he said.


“We were able to win the T20 and One Day titles and break some pretty big droughts.”


It’s safe to say he turned around South Australian cricket. But as his tenure progressed, key people departed, and with new arrivals came new expectations.


“Jamie Cox (high performance manager) recruited me and he, John Harnden (CEO) and Ian McLachlan (president) said, 'We’ve had no success for 20 years, we trust you to deal with the cricket and we’ll do the business.’ Things changed dramatically midway through, Cox got caught up in a BBL recruiting scandal, talking to players before you were meant to, which we knew for a fact everyone was doing. He was the scapegoat and when he got sacked, I guess it was the beginning of the end for me.


“Tim Nielsen, the new high performance manager, and Keith Bradshaw, the new CEO, they wanted to do things the old South Australian way, with all South Australians. I’d done things differently and bought in Adam Zampa, Johan Botha, Phil Hughes, Tim Ludeman, Daniel Worrall, and Joe Mennie, who I knew would be beneficial. Nielsen and Bradshaw wanted to take over the recruiting and get involved in the cricket side of things. My ability to do my job was compromised. I’m happy to go on record and say that they pulled the carpet out from under me, made it untenable.


“When you watch Australia play, you know Justin Langer (coach) is in charge, you barely know who James Sutherland (CEO) is. That’s the way it should be.”


In the five years that have elapsed since Berry’s departure, a lone Big Bash trophy been added to SA’s cabinet.


”I’d delivered One Day and T20 success, and we were a whisker off the Shield final two years in a row,’’ he said.


Berry at South Australia



“You look at the results in my last season and that can justify getting rid of me, but you have to take into account that Phil Hughes was killed in the middle of the season. That rocked me to the core, and the players were useless, they were just emotionally wrecked.”


Hughes’ freak death was another tragedy that took its toll on Berry, and his players. He describes it as “a scar I’ll live with forever.”


“It had an enormous impact on the team, they didn’t respond well. You look at Victoria, the death of David Hookes was motivation and drove the team. But Hughes’ death really affected the players, especially the kids, it was really raw.”


As for the impact on himself, “it broke my heart, broke my spirit, and I’ve dealt with my fair share of s---.”


Such is modern cricket, Berry was soon moving on to his next coaching role, this time at Islamabad in the Pakistan Super League.


“I spent four years as a strategy assistant to Dean Jones, similar to the work I’d done with Shane Warne in Rajasthan. I liked what I was doing because you could be really involved without the pressure of being the head coach,’’ he said.


“In my first year we won, I missed the second year because my brother died, and we won again in my third year, but bombed out in the fourth. Misbah-Ul-Haq was our captain, and he’s coaching Pakistan now, we were working with guys like Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, it was a very successful period, and Islamabad’s the most successful PSL franchise.”


Remembering where he came from, Berry awes at how far his career took him. “I was Dean Jones’ right-hand man, and to think I started out in Wonthaggi and was now playing a part in winning major tournaments around the world, I was very proud.”


Like others close to “Deano’’, Berry was rocked by the death of his great mate.


“I won’t say much because it’s still very raw, but it’s very difficult, came as a shock. I was on the phone with him for two hours on the Wednesday, there was no sign of illness, then on the Thursday I got the call that he was gone. It was sudden, tragic, gut-wrenching, a real shock. I can’t even say goodbye.


“We had an interesting relationship over the years, there was a fallout around the time I was dropped, his man-management skills were ordinary, which he’s admitted to not just me but others. I’m glad we got back together, I was at South Australia and called him up to help with the batting. Then he returned the favour in Pakistan, we were staying in the same hotel room for seven weeks.


“My message to anyone reading this is to live life to the fullest, you never know what’s around the corner. I probably know that more than most, I lost Mum and Dad young, John Scholes, David Hookes, Phil Hughes, Dean Jones. I lost my brother a few years ago, my nephew the month before Deano died, and there’s others close to me too.”


Now that he’s had time to reflect on the career that was, Berry “wouldn’t change anything, except maybe shut up more behind the stumps … 50-year-old Darren would tell 20-year-old Darren to pipe down.”


As for his proudest moment as a cricketer, Berry can narrow the many down to two.


“The Shield win dealing with the death of Hookes, that was success in the face of adversity,” as well as “the Australia tour, that was as close as I got, and was still a great experience.”




Also seen in the Herald Sun

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