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The Rise and Rise of Alex Carey

S eptember 16, 2016. The West End Redbacks have just finished their final training session ahead of their departure for the Matador Cup, a gruelling fixture which will see them spend the next month on the road as they travel between Sydney and Perth – the result of an increasingly hectic summer schedule that has been forced to accommodate the rise of the ever-popular KFC T20 Big Bash League.

Which is a problem. Because Alex Carey hasn’t had his headshots taken yet.

A member of the SACA communications team dials Alex’s number. He has no real reason to be nervous – by all reports Carey is a really nice guy – but hauling a new player into the office for a media commitment they’ve forgotten is never a fun call to make.

Carey picks up on the third ring. Pleasantries are exchanged as the two chat (they’ve only spoken a couple of times since Carey came into the squad) before the staff member nervously arrives at the purpose of the call – the headshots. And, more specifically, their necessity.

At the other end of the line there’s a brief pause before Carey groans in realisation and apologises. He’d finished his weights early and, after checking to see if there was nothing else on his calendar, headed home to spend the afternoon with his new wife Eloise before flying out the next day, forgetting to stop by the office to have the photos taken.

The mix-up is hardly Carey’s fault – he should have been sent a calendar invite to remind him. Luckily, the comms member has a solution. The photos don’t need to be taken in a studio, so he can travel down and take them at Carey’s house if he has a spare five minutes that afternoon.

It’s a good compromise that won’t affect Carey too much – the shots won’t take long and he doesn’t have to travel all the way back to Adelaide Oval from his home in the southern suburbs. But, at the other end of the line, he doesn’t sound satisfied.

“Won’t you need to go back to the office afterwards?” he asks.

“Well, yes…” the staff member begins, before being cut off.

“It’ll take you ages mate. I should have remembered – I’ll head back now. See you in an hour or so,” Carey says and hangs up.

The comms member stares bemusedly back at his phone and then looks across to his manager.

“That was Kez. He’s coming back in for the photos.”

The manager’s expression now turns to confusion. “Did you tell him we could take them at his place? It was our stuff-up.”

The staff member nods. “He said it would take me too long to get there and back.”

The two stare at each other for a moment.

“Who is this bloke?”

* * *

Andy Shearer, one of Alex’s best mates from school, laughs when he hears the story.

“Yep, that sounds like Alex,” he says.

“We went out to dinner the other night and I was with a young bloke from my footy club. Kez had just been picked for Australia A and I was pretty keen to hear about it but we hardly ended up speaking about it.

“He wouldn’t stop asking the young guy questions about how he went in his first local A-grade game on the weekend. It’s just the way he is.”

Enthusiastic is a frequently-used description of South Australia’s newest rising star. Carey’s enthusiasm is what drew his wife Eloise to him when the pair met in 2012.

“He’s just interested in everything,” she laughs.

“I remember thinking what a positive person he was when we met. He’s fascinated by everything and new ideas. In the off-season he always comes home and tells me all about something new he’s learned about – yoga, meditation, anything he thinks could make him better.

“When he came home from the NPS camp in Thredbo [a gruelling pre-season camp in the Snowy Mountains with Cricket Australia’s National Performance Squad] all he could talk about was how he wanted to start doing more camping and outdoor stuff.”

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A positive attitude alone isn’t what’s driven Carey to become one of cricket’s hottest young prospects on the domestic scene.

A natural athlete, Carey was blessed by the sporting gods from a young age. A composed football midfielder with a talent for reading the play as well as a star left-handed batsman in junior cricket, the southern suburbs boy was a regular selection in junior representative teams for both sports, footy in particular.

As a 15-year-old Brighton High School student he was already lacing up his boots against grown men in Glenelg’s reserves SANFL side, although according to Andy you wouldn’t have known it.

“I remember just thinking he was a good bloke initially, one of the guys. It wasn’t until you saw his name in the paper that we realised he was playing ressies on the weekend,” he recalls.

“He certainly didn’t draw much attention to it. The only clue you got was when he would order a sandwich instead of burger and chips when we were out, or offered to be designated driver on a night out because he had training or a game the next day.”

Was Carey the type of introverted, reserved character immune to the temptation of a fast food binge or a big night out?

“Not really. It wasn’t that he didn’t like going out or socialising, he was just super disciplined,” Andy says.

“He knew what he wanted to do and what was required to get there. That was it.”

Carey took to the sport from a young age.

13-year-old Carey playing for Glenelg in the BankSA Shield under-17 competition.

Carey’s dedication eventually paid off. Despite being surprisingly overlooked in the national draft after an impressive under-18 national championship, the young ball magnet was picked up by the fledgling Greater Western Sydney, which was a year off entering the AFL.

Football, it seemed, had won the battle for the promising dual-sport star and it wasn’t long after completing his Year 12 studies that the 18-year-old’s bags were packed for Breakfast Point, Sydney, to play alongside future AFL stars like Dylan Shiel, Tom Bugg and Adam Treloar.

But even sandwiched between a bevy of the nation’s most talented young draft picks, Carey stood out. Named captain of the young GWS side that competed in the TAC Cup in 2010, he not only led the inexperienced Giants to the finals but also took out the club’s inaugural best-and-fairest award, even after missing the final four matches through injury.

But, despite a seemingly stellar season on and off the field, an AFL contract wasn’t forthcoming at the end of 2011 – a lack of explosive pace cited as the chief concern about his game translating to the next level.

“He was shattered,” Alex’s older brother Adam recalled about the axing.

“He’d spent two years away from home after passing on a Redbacks rookie contract and he’d thought he’d done everything he could to earn a spot on the Giants’ list.

“That was the hardest part for him, I think, knowing he’d given it his absolute best shot and believing he was good enough but being told he wasn’t.”

With little else than a now-defunct AFL dream tying him to New South Wales, Carey returned to Adelaide in 2012 with the intention of playing football for Glenelg, which he’d won a reserves premiership with in 2009. But a week before the Tigers’ first internal trial, he informed them he’d decided to return to cricket again after a conversation with then-SACA high performance manager Jamie Cox.

“Coxy had a chat to him and basically said if he decided to commit to cricket he was still very much on their radar,” Adam said.

“He’d always loved cricket and, after all the heartache with football, I think he thought it’d be a good fresh start for him.

“He was still hell-bent on being a professional athlete. He didn’t talk about it much but you could tell that’s what he wanted to do.”

* * *

Carey’s return to cricket, though undoubtedly successful, was far from a linear trajectory.

But, despite a bumpy road back to State cricket, Emerging Redbacks coach Shane McDermott says there were signs from the get-go that Carey belonged at the level.

“That first season when he decided to come back he was working in a finance job of some sort but you’d hardly know it. He seemed to always be in the nets hitting balls,” he remembers.

“Three times a week he’d be in during his lunch break or either before or after work outside of his other training requirements. He had the attitude of a pro right from the start – he was always looking to get the most out of himself.”

And, from the start, it was clear there was still plenty to extract. After averaging close to 50 in all formats for Glenelg in 2012-13, Carey’s form was so strong that by February he made his List A debut for South Australia at No. 3 in the Ryobi Cup, scoring a solid 38 against New South Wales.

But, while a first-class debut soon followed, success wasn’t anywhere near as immediate.

Having averaged a meagre 10.1 runs from his first six innings at first-class level, Carey was eventually dropped from the side but showed enough to secure a rookie contract for the following season. However, a disappointing 2013-14 season saw the young code-hopper fail to add to his games tally for South Australia as he missed out on an upgrade to the senior list – another blow for his dream of becoming a professional athlete.

But, if Carey was discouraged, McDermott said it didn’t show in his approach to training.

“He was so eager to get better I reckon he was trying to adjust his game too much every time he got out,” he said. “He was overthinking it a bit.”

“The other thing was that, as hard as he’d been working, he’d only been back playing cricket for less than 12 months. He was always going to go through a flat patch at some point.”

While a blow at the time, the axing did provide the impetus for Carey to assess his position as a specialist batsman – an introspection that would eventually see him break into the first XI as a keeper-batsman rather than as a top-order player.

“At the time he was keeping for Glenelg but we had Ludes (Tim Ludeman) and young Harry Nielsen in the Redbacks squad, so he was only playing as a batsman for us in Futures League,” McDermott said.

“He was considering giving up keeping altogether to fully concentrate on his batting but we encouraged him to persist with it. He clearly had a lot of natural ability.”

Eventually an opportunity behind the stumps arose in the Futures League – and Carey took full advantage. Not only was his glovework clearly up to standard but batting down the order seemed to provide a new lease on life for the former first-drop, who was always a great player of spin but had struggled at times against the new ball during his comeback.

Meanwhile, the following season saw the runs return again in Premier Cricket, before a breakout season in 2015-16 that saw him average 90.22 for the Seahorses from 10 outings, leaving little doubt he was a cut above the competition.

The rest, as they say, is history. A call-up for the final four rounds of the Shield competition – including the final – preceded a record-breaking 2016-17 season, in which Carey not only played every game for South Australia but also broke Wade Seccombe and Chris Hartley’s single-season keeping record with 59 dismissals.

Add that to the 594 runs he scored – making him just the fourth keeper-batsman in Shield history to achieve the rare 50-dismissals, 500-run mark – and it’s not hard to see why he’s being labelled as one of Australia’s most promising young stars a mere 12 months after arriving on the domestic scene.

In fact, according to McDermott, it’s the height of his ceiling that’s exciting his advocates just as much as his ever-growing highlight reel.

“He’s so athletic he gets to everything and pulls off some incredible catches but he’s actually still got a huge amount of upside with his keeping and batting,” McDermott said. “As good as he is, he can get better.

“The best part about that is, the way he trains you know if there’s a way he can get more out of himself, you can be sure he’ll find it.”

* * *

“Why does everyone want to see him succeed so much?”

On the other end of the line, Eloise and Andy pause to think about their answers for a moment.

The question is well-founded. Despite its eventual cancellation due to the pay dispute, Carey’s selection as sole gloveman in the one-day and four-day Australia A squads to tour South Africa signifies an arrival of sorts in cricket. The return of a talent that, despite being tipped for national representation from an early age, was nearly lost to the sport has been met with a flood of positive sentiment beyond even what would be expected for a local player on the cusp of the big time.

So what is it about Carey’s rise that has captured not only those who know him well but others from afar?

“I think it’s the way he celebrates the success of other people,” Eloise eventually says after a few moments’ thought.

“People get excited for him when things are going well because he gets so excited for them. He’s just one of those people who genuinely cares about other people. He’s very genuine.”

Andy agrees his mate’s positivity is a big factor in terms of popularity but adds his story is what he thinks gives the young gloveman such widespread appeal.

“To me, it’s what he’s had to go through to get to where he is now,” he says thoughtfully.

“He had so much talent growing up but he’s had to go through a lot to get to where he is now. There were plenty of people with talent running around in juniors but once they suffer a setback like he did, they don’t come back.

“He’s had to earn everything that’s come to him and when you combine that with just him being such a good bloke, it’s hard not to want to see him succeed.”

Which is lucky because, if current trajectory is anything to go by, there could be plenty more of it left yet.

Redbacks keeper Alex Carey has his eyes firmly on the ball as he takes a return in his record-breaking 2016-17 campaign.