Keeping count

Russell Jackson
A historic sporting artefact adds a touch of character to the purpose-built capital

The Jack Fingleton scoreboard: a Canberra icon © Getty Images

It's my single favourite thing about Canberra, the Jack Fingleton scoreboard. An understated, beautiful relic of cricket's past. With every cog and nameplate redolent with the dust of history in the calm, quaint surrounds of the Manuka Oval, the scoreboard is also a symbol of everything notable about the lush, green and famously roundabout-ed national capital of Canberra.

Fingleton had won a significant reputation as a flint-hard and stubborn opener for New South Wales and Australia between the wars when, in 1944, he arrived in town as a member of the parliamentary press gallery. Now he was not in Australia's cricket capital but in its new political equivalent. In both senses, he was still always right on the spot.

One day in 1951, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was cornered in the parliamentary library by deputy senate clerk WI Emerton, who in his other life as the ACT Cricket Association president had been dismayed to learn that Canberra's Manuka Oval had just had its upcoming match against the touring West Indians handed to Newcastle. What could the cricket-loving Menzies do about this slight to the city?

His plan was to stage the first Prime Minister's XI match. On the way out of the room, he bumped into Fingleton; of course, he would captain Menzies' side. Thus Canberra's one truly significant cricketing tradition was born. Till that point, Menzies' visits to Manuka were hailed with little fanfare. Sometimes local players and administrators would only know he'd stopped by to watch a game when his chauffeured car was spotted pulling out from the boundary's edge.

Like the man himself, the Jack Fingleton scoreboard is an import to Canberra. From its construction in 1901 - seven years before the future Test player was born - till 1982, it sat at the MCG. At that point it was superseded by a giant electronic number. Today it is one of the last significant hand-operated scoreboards in Australia. When the local cricket association decided that the future of Manuka was the past of a more famous ground, they also had to pay $110,000 to relocate the scoreboard. I think it was worth every penny.

My message to visitors for the Oval's three upcoming World Cup matches: enjoy it while it's still there. The maintenance of its winches, pulleys and panels is just as expensive as hiring the eight people it needs for operation. Unusually for its type, player-name panels are colour-coded to match their respective team strips.

When the local cricket association decided that the future of Manuka was the past of a more famous ground, they also had to pay $110,000 to relocate the scoreboard. I think it was worth every penny

It's fitting that the great cricket landmark of this man-made capital should be shipped in from somewhere else. Dreamt up but never quite completed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin, Canberra is a composite. Manuka, the area set aside for the Oval and a shopping precinct, now sits on Canberra Avenue but Burley Griffin had originally named it Wellington Avenue in anticipation of New Zealand joining the Australasian Federation. It didn't but Manuka, the Maori word for tea-tree, remains.

One thing is for certain, though: the World Cup fixtures will not hark back to the chaos that surrounded the 1984 return of the Prime Minister's XI game at the insistence of another cricket-mad leader, Bob Hawke. Around 13,000 tickets were sold for the then-12,000 capacity venue; another 2000 more people were encouraged by radio reports to turn up on the morning of the day to buy an extra allocation. As early-morning queues swelled, front-runners somehow convinced staff at the gate to sell them lots of 40-50 tickets at a time and proceeded to scalp them at the back of the 1500-metre line. An estimated 17,000 fans crammed into the stadium on that infamous day but it's testament to the relaxed nature of the locals that there was no riot. Bangladesh and Afghanistan might struggle to pull similar numbers but fans can, these days, experience the game in far more comfort, thanks to the addition of the Bradman, Menzies and Hawke stands over the years.

If you're in town for an extra day either side of Manuka's three World Cup clashes, rewards lie mostly in the city's galleries and museums, because like a leafier, slightly more friendly Washington DC, the genuinely interesting things happen in Canberra behind closed doors.

The town was purpose-built for politics. On the top of Capital Hill lies Parliament House and its swooping grassed roof, the ideal place to get a panoramic view of the small city. A full tour around town doesn't take long but you'll need a hire car or the help of a friendly local to see anything beyond the city centre because public transport is still an abstract concept.

Poppies placed in remembrance of Australians who lost their lives in World War I, at the War Memorial
Poppies placed in remembrance of Australians who lost their lives in World War I, at the War Memorial © AFP

Unless you want to watch parliamentary proceedings - accessible on free guided tours - a more moving local experience awaits at the Australian War Memorial. It's impossible not to be affected by the sight of row upon row of red poppies placed in remembrance of fallen Australian soldiers. It's here that I found a sense of Canberra as a repository of Australian history; far more than is evident, for instance, when you arrive in town through the oft-mocked maze of roundabouts.

If you're not museumed-out or overwhelmed by the War Memorial experience, the National Gallery of Australia lets you judge for yourself whether the Whitlam Government's $1.3 million purchase of Jackson Pollock's Number 11 (Blue Poles) was worth the ire generated in 1973. Many more treasures await visitors to the gallery but I can't recall many museum experiences as vivid as the first time I looked at Pollock's work as a 12-year-old.

Foodies might leave Canberra wondering exactly what it is that the hordes of local public servants eat because quality restaurants are scarce and mostly prohibitively expensive. You'll find mixed results anywhere in the middle of the spectrum between fine-dining and down-and-dirty takeaways. The lower end of the market satisfies the local population of Australian National University students, whose presence characterises the surprisingly raucous local nightlife.

If this all makes Canberra sound like a sterile and lifeless place, it's worth noting that many of the most pleasant surprises will come from the people you meet and the unique angles and landscapes within Burley Griffin's grand vision.

Canberra's charms are too subtle for some. While joining some fellow MCC tourists in paying the friendless city a non-playing visit during the 1932-33 Bodyline Ashes series, Douglas Jardine chose to forgo a trip to Manuka in favour of a spot of duck-shooting. Now on a calm summer afternoon as you look across the ground to the Fingleton scoreboard, you'd have to agree that he was missing a trick.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

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