An elite cricketer is no stranger to emotional and mental challenges, but this huge not-out on his scorecard is of a different order.
I’ve come to the Netherlands to find out what it has meant to him; and also just to find out what it’s like to go from being a man his friends used to call “the prince of Perth” to coaching an unusual team in a strange land.
The Netherlands is a country where cricket has a long history but is barely known or understood, and whose national team sits relatively anonymously on the fringes of the world game – although Australians might be about to get to know the Dutch T20 team a whole lot better.
The weekend before our lunch, Campbell announces that he is formally stepping down as the Netherlands coach, although he’s still going to travel with the team to the World Cup. Could this be part of the wash-up from the turbulent events of April?
He has chosen a restaurant called Republiek Bloemendaal, which is nestled in the dunes overlooking the beach about an hour’s drive due west of Amsterdam.
The Netherlands isn’t famous for its beaches, it has to be said. The North Sea is often drab and uninviting, the weather is typically lamentable.
But the coast itself is one sweeping extent of sand, stretching away to the horizon, and in these northern reaches it is fringed by often imposing dunes. In typical Dutch fashion, one minute you can be walking past a steel plant or a garish seaside resort, the next minute you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
The Dutch don’t mind building cafes, nightclubs and beach cabins right on the beachfront, and Republiek sits in a cluster of these. Many are unprepossessing and downmarket, but this one is a stylish construction of wood and glass with a designer interior complete with sofas.
It’s a great find, and Campbell says he comes here with the family every few weeks. “As a Perth boy, getting the sand between the toes is important,” he says.
The sun is out and it’s pretty warm for mid-September, so we take a table outside.
“We come during winter as well: we rug up; the kids, they’ll just play. And then inside, the fires are on and it’s warm, and you have a hot chocolate,” he says.
He lives about 20 minutes inland, in an almost painfully pretty historic town called Haarlem – the namesake of the one in New York, a city that of course used to be called New Amsterdam before the Dutch unwisely ceded it to the English in the 1660s.
It isn’t far from the headquarters of Dutch cricket, a bijoux oval called VRA in Amstelveen, which famously has a tree growing in the outfield.
“The Dutch cricket board put us up in Amstelveen, but we went down to Haarlem, we saw the market square and the big church. Me, a boy from Perth, I thought, ‘This is European living’.”
His wife and kids, aged seven and four, have – unlike him – picked up Dutch and settled right in. Another aspect of European living, he says, is the greater freedom and independence children are afforded – losing that will be “the hardest thing about leaving”.
His wife has Dutch heritage but her family is largely in England – which sounds like it could well be where his career takes him next.
But like many exiles who were deprived during the pandemic, he’s itching to spend more time in Australia when he joins the Dutch team for the tour.
“I can’t wait. Even the little things: I just want to sit and read a newspaper. In the morning, have a coffee, read a newspaper at a cafe and just relax, instead of living my life through Google Translate,” he says.
We’re pretty relaxed here in Bloemendaal right now – so much so that we almost forget to order. There is a fancy menu, but we’re both eyeing off the simpler fare that the Dutch do so well: burgers, chips and bar snacks.
“We’ve got to have bitterballen,” enthuses Campbell. He’s talking about the near-mandatory accompaniment to beer drinking, a kind of breaded meatball. I’m vegetarian, so I choose a similar bowl of snacks based on cheese, which turns out to be exceptionally good. And we each order a burger.
Then we wait. As a generalisation, Dutch waiters are very friendly and helpful, but things happen in their own good time. You just have to relax into it; but we’re at the beach, so it comes naturally. And we’ve ordered a beer.
We have time on our hands, then, so conversation ranges far and wide. We talk about cricket, of course, but also about Dutch culture and politics, the death of the Queen, bringing up kids as an expat, and about what makes a good coach and leader.
But we can’t really avoid the big subject: life and death. What, if anything, happened while he was clinically dead?
“There was definitely no white light. I didn’t see any pearly gates or anything like that. There was definitely not someone coming to get me, which was a bit worrying for me,” he says.
“I’m not overly religious. I went to a Catholic school, you know, I believe that we go somewhere afterwards.” But he has no revelation from the other side.
When he woke up, he thought he was in Bali and had been kidnapped. At first, his wife Leontina – or “LT”, as he calls her – didn’t tell him what had happened. When she finally gave him his phone, he realised the magnitude of it.
“When I turned my phone on, I was like, ‘Oh my God’, reading some of the articles and hearing news reports. Because I was a cricketer, we’d lost [Rod] Marsh and [Shane] Warne. I’m not anywhere near those blokes, but because of what had happened to them, it went a bit nuts,” he says.
“It was humbling, the amount of messages from people and calls. Steve Waugh bloody texting me – he’s my hero. Humbling is the only way I can say it.”
His chances of survival were less than 10 per cent. But now he is back to living a pretty normal life, his heart is fine, and nobody really knows why it happened. All Campbell can say is: “Somebody was looking out for me that day.”
So what does he do with an experience like that? As we eat – and I notice he doesn’t finish his beer, or his food – he says that it “woke me up a bit”.
It’s not about living each day like it’s your last, but about prioritising things, he says.
“I always thought that I was a family man. But I’m pretty new to being a father, and I was quite old when I became a dad. Making sure that my wife and kids are number one, that priority stands before everything,” he says.
He will still have to travel for his work, spending time apart. But he tries not to bring too much of it home with him, and to stay off the phone as much as possible in the evenings.
“I also want new adventures,” he says. “It’s not about us taking the kids to Disneyland and going and having this amazing time. We always kind of did those things anyway.
“It’s just embracing the moments, the little things: coming to the beach on a weekend, having a beer with friends, those little things that we kind of put on the back burner because we’re too busy. Now it’s like, let’s not be too busy for that.”
His big lesson is to “stop saying no”. “So many times in our lives – and now I’m starting to sound like a bloody guru or something – we all say no way too often, instead of going, ‘I’m going have a think about that [and] maybe come up with a pretty good answer’.”
He also says he now has zero time for idiots. “If you’re dragging us down, I’m sorry, I don’t have the time or the energy to waste.”
He still has time and energy for cricket. He loves the game, despite the mental pressures it put on him in his prime. At one point he suffered from depression, and couldn’t even face playing backyard cricket with his family.
He had the misfortune to peak as a cricketer when WA had another big-hitting wicketkeeper-batsman in its stable: Adam Gilchrist, perhaps Australia’s greatest ever.
As we have a coffee, I ask him how he dealt with the unlucky fact that, if it hadn’t been for Gilchrist, he might have played more than two ODIs for Australia. He is philosophical.
“Would I have loved to play Test cricket, would I have loved to play more ODIs? Of course. But it’s very easy to forget, what about the bloke that was behind me, who didn’t even play for WA because I kept him out for 11 years?” he says.
He also likes to focus on what a privilege it was to play state cricket at a time when Australia had such an efflorescence of talent.
“At the Sydney Cricket Ground, I’d be fielding and [WA teammate] Mike Hussey would be at square leg, I’d be at midwicket or something and we’d be looking at each other going ‘I hope they don’t get out – this is Mark Waugh batting with Steve Waugh’,” he smiles.
“And then next week, we’d be facing Shane Warne. That’s something that no one can ever take away from us: we played in Australia’s greatest ever period.”
Now he looks at the big money on offer in the franchise cricket world, where his power hitting could’ve made him into a valuable commodity.
“That wasn’t to be. So you can either get caught up in what you missed out on. Or you can go, ‘you know what, I’ve had a pretty good life’,” he says.
“And without being too deep, what happened in April to me has put a line in that sand. For all the times that people say, ‘Gee you’re unlucky, you missed out on this, you missed out on that’, look at how lucky I was. I was under a 10 per cent chance of survival, and I’m still here.”
Republiek Bloemendaal, Zeeweg 94, BLM 1, 2051 EC Overveen, Netherlands
Cheese croquettes, €7.50
Smash burger, €18
Meatless burger, €18
2 Deugden Brut IPA, €12.00
Total €70.50 ($104.50)
Read More:How one of Australian cricket’s unluckiest men got very, very lucky