Australia cricket September 18, 2013

Cricket endures in Australia's boondocks

Philip Sutherland
Bush cricket is in need of coaches, caretakers and administrators. It has seen droughts, floods and bushfires. But it has endured, and that's a story worth telling

Even in Australia, the sports section of larger second-hand bookshops can place one eye-to-page with publications on rural English cricket, whether it is the hardcover "The Rothman's Book of Village Cricket" with a foreword by Graham Gooch or "The Guide to Real Village Cricket" with a foreword by Trevor Bailey. By contrast, bush cricket in Australia inhabits a somewhat different sphere.

Largely, this is the result of geography and demographics. Modern Australia is a nation of urban dwellers, clustered heavily around the coastal fringes. The vast inland bulk of the continent, or the island of Tasmania for that matter, are as far-removed from the mega-cities of Melbourne and Sydney as John O'Groats, starting place for Ian Botham's famous end-to-end charity walk, is from London. Consequently, increasingly out-of-sight and out-of-mind, comparatively little has been written of the Australian bush equivalents and the cricket there played.

One such place is Warrenbayne in northern Victoria. It is not a village. Nor does it rank as a whistle-stop, for by any definition, such a place requires both through-traffic and somewhere to stop. Warrenbayne has declined to the status of a mere locality in a farming and bushland landscape. It has left to its name a volunteer fire brigade, a partnership in a land management group, a hall for old-time dances and a somewhat émigré cricket club.

Things were rather different when Warrenbayne played its earliest recorded cricket match back in 1883. The district was growing in both population and services. Cricket XIs could be easily filled by farmers and their sons. Paddocks could be used and sheep employed as mowers, grazing lower than cattle and leaving no inconvenient cowpats.

No doubt the success of George "Joey" Palmer, who had left the district for further schooling in the "big smoke" of Melbourne, was a convenient fillip to the spread of cricket back home in "the sticks". Palmer was discovered bowling accurate medium-paced offbreaks on the rough pitches at Albert Park in South Melbourne and subsequently, in 1879, went on to take 9 for 94 against Lord Harris' touring English side on his first-class debut. The following year Palmer toured England taking, in eleven-a-side matches, 80 wickets at just over 11 runs apiece.

Significantly, over two-thirds of those 80 dismissals were bowled. Palmer's success continued in the 1882 Ashes Tests, with an incredible 31 wickets in just four matches, followed by a five-wicket haul in England's only innings of the first Test of 1883 at the MCG. Typically, three of that MCG five-for were bowled, including both openers. Back home, Palmer's father owned a hotel rather appropriately known as the "Hit and Miss", in Baddaginnie, as well as agricultural land in neighbouring Warrenbayne. Such was Palmer's local celebrity status that Baddaginnie's Sinhala-inspired name was to be widely usurped for many years by the colloquial "Palmerston" and the road that first leads towards Warrenbayne became Palmerston Street.

The track that continued up into the Strathbogie Ranges was somewhat less travelled. Warrenbayne cricketers would walk that uphill some fifteen miles for a match against the hill-men. The Strathbogie Cricket Ground remains, but their team is no more. Time does not stand still, even if may appear to. For some years Warrenbayne cricketers could, if they wished to, look across at the weathered remains of a sign advertising an agricultural machinery business long-since closed like the Australian Rules football club it was erected for and ponder sporting mortality. Surviving the pruning of bush cricket clubs and leagues is the current equivalent of the uphill walk.

The journey of "Joey" Palmer too was to become a difficult one. He slipped and fractured his knee-cap whilst on a shooting expedition with his family at Baddaginnie. He was to finish his cricketing days as a batsman, coach, caretaker and administrator, including a stint in northern Tasmania, before his death to pneumonia in 1910. A century later, bush cricket is still in need of coaches, caretakers and administrators. It has seen droughts, floods and bushfires. It has seen touring parties come and go at the iconic Benalla Gardens Oval, including such modern luminaries as Lara and Tendulkar. Above all it has endured and that, like the story of "Joey" Palmer, is something worth writing about.

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