Sport – whatever the code, whichever the team – provides a rich backdrop to life in the bush.

Story By Amanda Burdon

Geoff Hinchliffe has never played competition cricket, but each summer for the past four years the 51-year-old has spent months preparing the pitch and outfield of the SCG. But Geoff’s SCG (Sunsetters’ Cricket Ground – it’s to the west of town) is a world away from the glare of international competition, in the western Victorian farming hamlet of Dunkeld.
It is home to the Wills Street backyard cricketers – one of eight motley teams playing in a competition co-ordinated by the Grampians Cricket Club. There are old lounges and sun beds for the home supporters, a dozing mannequin to lead the Mexican Wave and Bay 13 for the rowdier cricket tragics. Geoff’s not beyond a little ball tampering to give his side an advantage and under this SCG’s home-ground rules, hitting the chookpen earns a six – six eggs, that is – which go down a treat during the customary end-of-match barbecue and drinks.
The brainchild of Grampians Cricket clubman Steve Field, the street competition runs for four balmy Friday nights in February but its legacy lingers long after the chiacking and the smell of burnt snags have gone. The chance for a scratch cricket match may have been the initial drawcard, but it’s something much more that keeps teams and spectators flocking back.
“It’s really not about the cricket at all, but bringing people together,” Steve says. “The real competition is not in how well they play the game but who can dress up their backyard the best or come up with the funniest antics or songs. This competition has been particularly important in the midst of drought. It has created a happy, healthy community atmosphere in which people can connect and get things off their chest, even to meet newcomers to town. We’ve had young fellas batting alongside 75-year-old ladies – just like the family used to do on Christmas Day in the backyard. Like any great sporting example, it has helped to build mutual respect within our community.”

Social hub
After the general store, the pub and the cemetery, one of the first things established in many a fledgling Australian country town was a sporting facility. Commonly it was a racetrack, sometimes a footy ground or tennis court carved out of someone’s back paddock; if the climate was hot and there was ample water, possibly a pool.
Over time, these places where people tussled and talked grew change-rooms and grandstands and scoreboards, even a clubhouse honouring someone who wore the club colours more loudly and proudly than most. With the seasons, the loyalties, the networks, the economies and the stories grew, until these social hubs had earned a nickname and a reputation of their own, especially come finals time. Before long, the sport and all that went on around it – over lukewarm pies, a few beers and the bleating of car horns – became part of the cultural traditions of the town.
“Sporting facilities shape the physical space and the social geography of a community,” says human geographer Matthew Tonts, from the University of Western Australia. “They can take up some 15–20 percent of the footprint of a country town. The economic heart may be the main street but the social centre is likely to be somewhere else, usually associated with sport.

This story excerpt is from Issue #68

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010