LIGHT was fading late on the opening day of last summer's Boxing Day Test when Harry DeMattia found himself standing in the middle of the MCG, copping a few choice words from veteran South Africa batsman Dean Elgar.
With only 10 minutes of play left in the day, Australia batsman Marnus Labuschagne was trying to waste every second possible, testing the patience of the former Proteas Test captain. With a handful of Kookaburra bats in his arms, DeMattia was caught in the crossfire, waiting for Labuschagne to make a choice.
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As a member of the national under-19 program, DeMattia was invited to run drinks and spend time around the Australian Test team last December, watching the best of the best go to work up close, at a time when he hadn't yet decided between footy and cricket.
DeMattia grew up dreaming of representing his country on the world stage. His underage performances had him on a path to doing that when he found himself speaking to David Warner before the Boxing Day Test. For more than an hour, he asked questions and listened to the 36-year-old explain how to handle pressure. Days later, Warner dug himself out of a form slump with a double century that illustrated the grit required.
Earlier this month, DeMattia returned to the MCG for a very different reason. Sitting back at the famous venue during the AFL's National Draft Combine, DeMattia still cherishes that money-can't-buy experience, which has become even more special since he opted to turn his back on cricket and go chips in on footy.
"I was in South Australia for nationals with the under-19s and I got the call that they would like me to come and run drinks," DeMattia told AFL.com.au of his Boxing Day experience.
"I came Christmas Eve to do training with them and just see how they prepared. It was a great insight into how mentally they prepare as well as physically and emotionally.
"Then on Boxing Day I came in at 8am and spent the whole day. It was cool being out there on the ground and watching the MCG start to fill up and just soaking it all in. I was lucky enough to do that. The conversations you have with blokes like Warner and guys like that who have been up the top of the tree for so long, you can take little things into your game.
"Even though footy is so different to cricket, the mental side of the game is similar."
DeMattia had known for some time that he would eventually have to make a choice - cricket or footy? The life-altering call adolescent Australians have been making for generations. When the Dandenong Stingrays appointed him as captain on the eve of season, the Edithvale-Aspendale junior was all in on the winter code. Decision made.
That decision has paid dividends this year. DeMattia was named in the Coates Talent League Team of the Year after playing four games for Vic Country in the national championships. Some clubs view him as a midfielder at the next level, some as a half-forward, others as a small defender. No matter where he plays next – club or role – he isn't expected to still be available too deep into the second round of next month's National Draft.
"I made the decision this year when I got appointed Dandenong Stingrays captain. That took over and my full undivided attention had to go towards that and how I could positively impact the group as captain and help develop the young boys as athletes and people," DeMattia says.
"My love for the game has always been there a bit more than cricket, especially in those two years of lockdown where we missed two seasons. It reminded me that is what I want to become over a cricketer. That's nothing against cricket, because I wouldn't be here without cricket. But that's what it came down to in the end, just that little bit more enjoyment."
Leadership has always come naturally to DeMattia. It has always been a key part of who he is, something that has made him a very attractive proposition to AFL clubs. Recruiters were impressed with the way he conducted himself in Combine interviews, just as they were when he finished in the top 10 of the 20-metre sprint, stopping the clock at 2.996 seconds.
DeMattia captained Australia in indoor cricket at the age of 12 during the 2018 Junior World Series in New Zealand, where they fell just short to South Africa in the final. This year, he not only captained Dandenong, but he was also co-captain of Vic Country, leading the likes of expected No.1 pick Harley Reid.
"It is always something that has been there for me," he says. "I was lucky enough to captain Australia in indoor cricket at 12 and I've just always been a leader, always wanted to help out others. I feel that energy rubs off on others in the group. I've been fortunate enough to captain Stingrays and Vic Country this year, so it stems from a young age but it's more about being selfless."
DeMattia spent a full week training with Melbourne earlier in the year, completing three main sessions with the Demons, lifting weights, sitting in meetings, peeking behind the curtains again, like he did in a different sport last Boxing Day.
Simon Goodwin was so impressed by his training standards he joked that DeMattia should play cricket for the next three years so the club could sign him as a Category B rookie, just like the Western Bulldogs did with James O'Donnell in April. The premiership coach was only half joking.
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"That was really cool," DeMattia says. "I had three training sessions with them that week and just got to see how they go behind the scenes. It was great to see how they all go about preparing for training individually. I've always dreamed about being an AFL player, so to live that out for a week was really special. I'll always be grateful for the Melbourne Football Club for giving me an opportunity and having guys welcoming me and allowing me to pick their brains."
The 185cm, 78kg utility with the long, curly locks has now met with every club after completing the list of all 18 when he finally sat down with Hawthorn at the Combine. He has been all in on getting drafted since making that decision during the pre-season. And while Cricket Victoria hasn't shut the door on him returning to the game if things don't work out with a Sherrin, DeMattia may not play another game of cricket until he is in his 30s.