Cricket’s T20 Champions League tournament lasted only six years before it was abandoned following the 2014 edition.
It unearthed and launched several prominent careers. West Indian stars Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine are two of the genuine success stories who announced themselves through the CLT20 concept.
It pitted franchises from around the world against each other in a concerted bid to find the best domestic team on the planet.
It strengthened bonds and ties between nations and helped raise the international profile of domestic cricketers.
But one of the best CLT20 stories had nothing to do with cricket at all. Instead, it’s a tale of circumstance and maybe fate. And ultimately, a warm and tender yarn about the young cricketer who found the love of his life in the most bizarre setting imaginable.
This is the story of an Australian who met an American in an Irish bar in India.
It’s the early hours of the 24th of October, 2009. The very early hours. We’re in an underground Irish bar at our five-star hotel in the Indian city of Hyderabad.
It’s hosted many civilised sessions among cricketers over the past decade as a downstairs watering hole at the hotel of choice on the famed Indian Premier League T20 circuit. But rarely, a night like this.
I’ve walked in later than most. I’ve been travelling with the New South Wales, and occasionally Victorian teams for the past month at the inaugural Champions League T20 tournament.
New South Wales has just beaten Trinidad and Tobago in the final. They’ve just been handed a giant $2.5 million USD cardboard cheque in return.
I was working for the TEN Network and filing daily stories on both teams as they progressed through the tournament.
After a month in camp you do get swept up in the emotion of the occasion too and I was invited downstairs to join in the celebrations.
After filing my story for the morning news back home, I walked into a party in full swing.
It’s packed to capacity. Too many to provide adequate service. The bar staff give up. The bill was being footed anyway. A help yourself system ensued.
Spirits are high. Both teams are in attendance and they’re letting loose after a big few weeks abroad.
There’s a DJ in the corner spinning retro tunes. The big West Indian boys are putting the Aussies to shame on the dancefloor. Pollard and Bravo know how to cut a rug.
Apart from a brief moment where I was confronted by a former test star (not involved with either team) who took umbrage at the presence of a member of the media, there were laughs aplenty and good banter to be found.
There was a lot going on. Captain Katich was in awe of his team’s performance. He had this glued on grin that wouldn’t shift. Brett Lee was at the peak of his powers and held court. The late great Phil Hughes, bless his soul, was in fine form, drinking, singing and parading questionable dance moves honed at his local in Macksville. A young Steve Smith called it the greatest moment of his life. David Warner sat on a bar stool sipping water, watching it all unfold.
And in a corner of the room, oblivious to everything else going on around him, a young fast-bowler from Newcastle who’d immersed himself in conversation with a pretty blonde he’d first locked eyes on only hours earlier.
Burt Cockley didn’t play a game at the 2009 CLT20 tournament. That’s not to say he wasn’t worthy. But the Blues had taken an all-test pace cartel of Lee, Stuart Clark and Doug Bollinger into that final. That’s a tough trio to dislodge.
He was the next cab of the rank and ready to go if required. His reputation was quickly growing steam as a fearsome quick perhaps shaded only by Lee for pure, raw speed.
Still, it might be said, Burt got more out of that night than anyone else who suited up for the New South Wales squad.
Burt found the love of his life. His future wife. The mother of his child. And the lady who would be there through some of the darkest times – and help bring him out the other side.
“We literally saw each other at the game that night. I wasn’t playing so I was running drinks for the boys and we kind of locked eyes on each other as I was going past her. That’s how it started,” Burt said from his home in Kansas, almost smack bang in the middle of the United States of America.
In late 2009, Rachel Bruursema was a highly-skilled cheerleader who took a job working in India on an obscure tournament in an even more obscure sport.
Gospel in India. A foreign language to a young lady from America’s mid-west. But with a sense of adventure she set off and took up a role helping provide the glitz and glamour for this sport called cricket.
There were games all over India. Cheerleading troupes were posted on mini-stage platforms in four spots around the boundary.
They’d play it up to the crowd. Get strange wolf-whistles and chants from the fanatics in the bleachers behind them. Every boundary a calling card to punch out a choreographed routine and flash a pearly white smile for a hovering camera on the constant hunt for the most marketable shot. All part of the theatrics of cricketainment on the sub-continent.
Rachel just so happened to be assigned the final – in Hyderabad – and sent to the exact spot where Burt would be delivering Gatorade to his big quicks in between overs.
“So at the after-party I saw her across the room so I went over and said hello. We literally didn’t leave each other’s side all night,” Burt said.
“It was definitely different to anything I’d felt before but I was like well what now? I’m pretty much departing to go back to Australia tomorrow.”
“So we said let’s keep in contact. We exchanged emails and just kept talking.”
“I remember thinking this is weird for me. I was always just so focused on my cricket. I was just a pretty simple guy from Newcastle who was really invested in my game but now I was up all hours of the night talking to a girl on the other side of the world.”
“So then Rachel came out to Australia for three months. She loves to travel so it was a good chance for her to see Australia.”
“We definitely got closer in that time and after three months we were both like, well what now? So we had a long-distance relationship for three years.”
“She was still at University so she would come over to Australia every holidays and I’d head to America in the cricket off-season.”
August Cockley will turn one tomorrow.
He’s a spritely, active young boy. The son of Burt and Rachel.
He spends plenty of time with his grandparents too. Rachel’s Mum and Dad.
After the run they’ve had with health scares in recent years, they savour every moment.
It’s nearly three years since Burt and Rachel made the decision to relocate to America after receiving horrific news.
“Rachel’s Dad got diagnosed with prostate cancer and got told he only had six months to live,” Burt said.
“It was an easy decision to make. So we packed up and sold up and headed to the States.”
It wasn’t long after that, Rachel’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“We couldn’t believe it. It was just so weird that two healthy and very active people went from being perfectly fine to both being diagnosed with such serious issues in such a short amount of time.”
“We are so grateful that they are both still with us and doing well.”
The move came at a pivotal time. The newlyweds were setting up a life for themselves in Australia but family came first.
Cricket had dealt Burt a cruel blow and his playing days were over.
But just like that chance locking of the eyes on a ground in Hyderabad in 2009, circumstance found a way to change their course and set them on a different path.
You see Burt had risen through the ranks almost as quickly as the outswingers he was firing down from 22-yards.
Despite not even nominating for the IPL draft he won a contract with the King’s XI Punjab franchise when coach Tom Moody added him to their roster.
There was a call-up to Australia’s ODI squad in India – only to be denied an international debut by a washout.
But in between, the desire to succeed and impress those who had him in their sights had taken its toll. He suffered stress fractures in his back.
He spent time on the sidelines. His action was transformed. His pace diminished. He never played for New South Wales again.
It was more than a year before he returned, only to hyperextend his knee and tear an ACL while bowling in a meaningless intra-club match. It was cricket’s version of a pin being pulled out of a grenade under his kneecap.
His body was failing him and young prodigies Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins were being fast-tracked through the state system.
Mental demons were surfacing. It was Rachel who helped keep him intact.
Broken and “aged” according to narrow-minded cricketing parlance at 26, in 2012 Burt hauled his remodelled bowling action firstly to Darwin and then to Perth in the hope of a second-chance at first-class level.
And in the west he thrived initially, taking wickets for fun in the local grade competition to win a Sheffield Shield recall and a state contract with Western Australia.
The following summer, things came to a crashing halt against the touring English. His knee gave way again.
Surgery and rehab followed, but that was the end of his cricket career.
His days of terrifying batsmen on the famous WACA strip were over.
His state contract wasn’t renewed and it was time for some big decisions. Cricket was the only identity he knew.
So he enrolled in a sports science degree at University.
The WACA and the Australian Cricketers Association offered their support and within a year he had his own strength and conditioning business up and running.
The young man who had been through career-ending back and knee injuries was now helping others avoid the same cruel fate.
It was a rather successful business venture. There was stability and for the first time in a while clarity around what the future could look like.
Then came that call from the States. Within a month, Burt and Rachel were living in Kansas.
A decade after his rapid call-up to the Australian squad, Burt Cockley has returned to international cricket.
It’s a role and setting he could never imagined as he fired down rockets in the Mumbai nets to Ricky Ponting all those years ago.
He has taken on the role as Physical Performance Manager for USA Cricket and works closely with the national men’s, women’s and under-19 teams.
“It really came about through a series of circumstances when I look back on it. I was doing some work with different University teams here in other sports so I reached out to some friends at Cricket Australia to see how I could get involved in cricket here in America. They connected me and that’s how it all started.”
“It’s a pretty broad role but I do things like running athlete monitoring sessions and put together strength programs for athletes and work with them through that process,” Burt said.
For all his expertise in the sports science field, his own experience playing at the elite level is just as invaluable for an emerging nation in a sport the population is yet to fully grasp.
“I think it is a really exciting time for cricket in the United States. I honestly don’t think there is any other country in the world where cricket could have this type of potential,” he said.
“It really is evolving here but there are a lot of grassroots building blocks that we’re trying to put in place to set it up properly for the future.”
“It’s different to coming from a full member nation. I’m from that system and it’s a different beast. At the moment there are none of the systems in place that I guess I kind of took for granted as a kid growing up in Newcastle and just being able to go out and play with my mates on a Saturday.”
“There is still a long way to go but the trajectory is exciting and definitely moving in the right direction. If we set it up properly we are going to make the game more accessible to people, make more people aware of it and also give us better opportunities to identify talent and bring them through. There is some freakish talent over here and we just need to make sure we have the systems in place so they don’t fall through the cracks.”
“Once our national team really starts performing at the highest level I have no doubt it will take off. That will get it on your ESPN’s and different sports channels and get it in people’s loungerooms.”
“At the moment you have to really seek it out in America. It’s not in people’s faces like it is in Australia so there is that to overcome. But we already know that when people see it and get involved in the game, they love it.”
“If we can get to a World Cup and achieve some success there, I think it has the potential to boom quite quickly.”
One day, Burt and Rachel think they’d like to move back to Australia. Maybe. But there’s no rush.
If the oddity of 2020 and their own extended family ordeal has taught them anything it’s to slow down and savour the moment while it lasts.
“It’s definitely been a bizarre year but good in so many ways. Because of COVID we’ve been able to watch August grow up and be part of the entire journey,” Burt said.
“He was only in childcare for a week when we had to take him out so we’ve been together the whole time and it’s been brilliant.”
“I love being a Dad. It’s awesome. It takes all the focus off yourself and there is someone far more important to put your energy into.”
“It’s about being a role model. Teaching him the right things. It’s changed me. It makes you think totally different about everything. It’s brilliant.”
It hasn’t slowed the couple down either. Rachel is working at Kansas University and is finishing off a master’s degree in clinical psychology.
Burt has just a thesis away from completing a master’s degree himself and with his little wingman by his side, is fitter than ever.
“I’m really active so I’m always out and about. August doesn’t have much choice with us as parents. I think he picked the wrong dad if he wants to chill out,” he laughed.
“For the time being we are really enjoying living here. It’s been a really productive few years and probably against the odds it’s opened up opportunities and we’ve been kicking down doors.”
Family is what took them to America. And it remains priority number one. Beyond that, everything else is comparatively irrelevant.
“We’ve landed in a pretty good position. But we’ve had to work hard for it and we’ve certainly been through a fair bit to get to where we are.”
“Like I said. I’m just a pretty simple bloke from Newcastle. I never imagined any of this but it’s all worked out pretty well so far.”
Incredible what can happen when an Australian meets an American in an Irish bar in India!