During the six week red dust cricket season the weeks are filled with school clinics and the weekends filled with three cricket carnivals, each held over a weekend in the respective communities of Timber Creek, Borroloola and Kalano. Each carnival has its own definitive features of diverse country and hospitality. Yet there is one constant of these carnivals. This constant is the palpable spirit of community; it is the true spirit of cricket. The formal cricket world is embedded with the term the ‘spirit of cricket’ but here standing amidst the red dust the spirit of cricket is abided by without regulation. It has not been taught, nor even seen; rather it is simply the way the game is played here. It is the way generations before have played and it is most certainly the inspiration for the local children of the future. It is difficult to understand exactly what drives this spirit but it can be seen when a team calls the batter back for falling onto his stumps after missing a pull shot, when children take the field alongside their older sisters and fathers, the sense of humour when a catch is put down or a misguided throw lands on the wrong side of the wicket. Sitting on the sidelines there is a sense of family, fun and enjoyment that transcends throughout these carnivals and it is this that is truly contagious.
The Red Dust cricket season kicks off with the Dingo Cup, held in Timber Creek, the last settlement on the Victoria Highway before the Western Australia border. The Dingo Cup, in its 11th year, is hosted at the picturesque Timber Creek Oval which lies just west of Judburra National Park amidst towering red ochre escarpments that surround the community. The carnival has attracted teams from Western Australia, Darwin, Katherine and as far as Robinson River, a 2,400 kilometre round trip..
The carnival is a series of ten over matches that take place in the unforgiving 40 degree heat. The Vic Daly Shire hosts a BBQ and around the oval teams set up eskys and camp chairs under the relief of shaded trees from the intolerable October sun. For the first time in the history of the carnival the local Timber Creek Dingoes take out the Dingo Cup. The pride of the trophy is closely held by the members of the team. Each day of play is completed with a congregation at the Timber Creek Hotel. People from different country and different cultures sit amidst the confined surroundings of the Hotel’s front bar to share stories of cricket from the day and stories of cricket from years gone by.
Two weeks later we travel along the Savannah Way toward the Queensland border to the community of Borroloola, home of the Barra Cup. Looking over fine leg from the pitch you can read the road sign bearing the words ‘No fuel for the next 360 kilometres’. This simple landscape captures the remoteness of these carnivals and the lengths to which teams travel to participate.
Our final stop on the road for 2013 is the Nitmiluk Cup in Kalano Community just north of Katherine. In its 11th year the carnival has a new home at Kalano. We arrive on the Thursday afternoon; a ute stands in the middle of the field with men securing stumps at the end of the pitch. We greet Marcus Rosas, a local cricket identity and Indigenous Sports Officer who tells us the pitch was laid just 24 hours earlier and the guys are having their first hit on it.
Just twelve months earlier NT Cricket Development Officer Tim Sparks was standing on the ground in the tropical monsoonal rain watching teams practice for the Imparja Cup.
Since then the Kalano Community led by CEO Rick Fletcher has been busy preparing the ground to host the carnival. The pride that is taken at their home oval is evident from the newly laid pitch. Ice is handed out to teams off the back of a ute for the duration of the three day carnival.
In 2013 junior cricket competitions were introduced at all Red Dust cricket carnivals in the Top End. These carnivals provided an arena for children living in remote areas to participate in a modified and fun cricket competition against surrounding area schools.
The enthusiasm for events like these within local communities is demonstrated by the large number of team registrations.
In its first year 16 school teams competed at three remote carnivals throughout the Top End. The impact of the senior carnivals is evident in the kid’s enthusiasm for the game. The junior Nitmiluk Cup hosted teams made up of boys and girls that travelled hundreds of kilometres to play in the day long carnival. It is the dedication of teachers, particularly in remote areas that not only supervise and teach the kids, but also drive the bus, often far beyond the scheduled school hours to ensure their students have every opportunity to play sports.
Following the junior carnival, a record number of senior registrations ensure games begin immediately and so we can play into the night the lights are turned on at Kalano Oval. It is early November and the temperature rises above forty degrees. This does little to detract the eagerness of the players as back to back games are played from 8:00am through to 7:00pm. The officers from the Indigenous Sports Unit and players from all teams not only play but step in to umpire and score the carnival, relieving anyone from the harsh effects of the Territory sun.
Twenty four junior and senior teams compete over the three days of competition. The Timber Creek Dingoes have travelled across as well as the Robinson River Brumbies and Filles. These along with numerous local teams scatter the circumference of the boundary to watch the days play. The sense of community surrounds you as teams of mothers and daughters battle it out and uncles and cousins take to the field. Local team Bad Company, made up by a large contingent of the Rosas family field two teams, spanning several generations. Recently a couple of young brothers from Western Australia have moved to Katherine and have been included in the Bad Company team. The raw talent of these boys is impressive. Later in the weekend I ask one of the brothers “how many games have you played on a cricket pitch?” He stops, thinks and replies “this is my third game this weekend, so I have played three.” The opportunity simply to play competitive cricket on a pitch is enough to travel long distances to play in these unique carnivals.
Day two sees Strongbala, a team of medical staff who work with the community take on the Longreach Warriors who have travelled up from Elliott. A team from Katherine High School is made up of teachers taking their weekend to play alongside their students in the carnival. Two women’s teams are competing in the event with Bad Company taking on the Robinson River Fillies, as well as competing against the men’s sides. The carnivals attract such a diverse range of age, gender and abilities. It is this commonality of cricket which brings them together onto a field in a community in the outback of the Northern Territory. At the conclusion of the carnival following a BBQ put on by the Kalano community for all teams, Tim Sparks is asked to say a few words on behalf of NT Cricket. He captures the essence of the carnivals in his words: “I want to thank you all for allowing NT Cricket to be involved in these carnivals. We feel privileged to be invited to your communities and to be able to share in the spirit in which these carnivals are played. So thank you. And we look forward to coming back again next year.”
The culmination of the Red Dust cricket season is Imparja Cup, the National Indigenous Cricket Championships held in Alice Springs in February. Many teams from these carnivals will be packing up the troopies once again and making the long journey to Alice Springs by road to participate in the Men’s Community Division of the competition. The Timber Creek Dingoes, the Robinson River Brumbies, the Longreach Warriors and the guys from Kalano community will all be vying for the Imparja Cup. For most it is not the first time they have travelled to Alice for the event, in its 21st year. Imparja Cup is a place to catch up with friends, to see family and to complete their cricket season for another year.
Upon returning to their respective communities teams will continue to practice for the upcoming season and remain to be role models for the kids of the Red Dust cricket program. The remote cricket season may be over for another year but the spirit of cricket is entrenched in the red dust that covers the vast landscapes of the Northern Territory.