It’s finals time in Darwin Premier Cricket and the temperature has hit the mid-30s at Marrara Oval.
Sydney-sider Anthony Adlam is sweltering in the sapping heat and has just scored a half-century for his new team, the Darwin Cricket Club.
In a parallel universe, the towering 22-year-old might have been in England right now, but earlier this year he had to postpone the trip for a second year running because of high COVID infection rates there and the accompanying uncertainty around international travel.
“When England fell through, Darwin was probably the next best thing. It’s become the best thing now, to be honest,” he said.
Adlam is one of dozens of talented players from the southern states — “imports'” as they are known locally — who have plied their trade this year in Darwin.
Under local rules, each team is only allowed four imports in their A-grade side, and the rest of them spill over into the lower grades, where the number of out-of-towners is uncapped.
A mix of reasons
Lawyer Lachlan Baird, the president of the local league, said interest in the Top End game from cricketers around the country had been growing steadily for years, but international travel restrictions caused a further rise in enquiries this season.
Meanwhile, the city’s cricket reputation is slowly spreading.
“Guys are going back to their grade clubs down south and telling their teammates how much they’ve enjoyed themselves,” Baird said.
“That’s now leading to some organic growth.”
The high-performance NT Strike League, a Cricket Australia initiative, is also playing a role.
The four-team competition is made up of fringe state players and up-and-comers playing each other in T20 and 50-over matches.
Selectors regularly attend the games and good performances can lead to state and Big Bash contracts being awarded.
Adlam said participating in the NT Strike League, as well as playing for an invitational Northern Territory side against a Cricket Australia XI, was an “awesome experience”.
“You get a real sense of where your game is at.”
One of Adlam’s opponents in this year’s A-grade semi-final is Southern Districts opening batsman Lochie Hardy.
The 20-year-old, who is originally from Perth, came to Darwin to experience different pitch conditions and learn from interstate players, and because it was the only off-season option available this year.
Hardy said playing in Darwin helped him gain confidence batting against spin and concentrating for long periods of time.
“Darwin has different wickets compared to Perth,” he said.
“Spin plays a big role up here, so I wanted to learn how to play better against a turning ball and grow my game a bit.”
Darwin Cricket Club president Morgan Yeo said Darwin’s dry season had “unrivalled” weather, with warm temperatures and almost no matches lost to rain.
But it has its challenges too, according to Hardy.
“The humidity does get to you. You’re always sweating,” he said.
With the influx of top-level imports and only eight clubs to play for, there have been concerns local players might get forced out of Darwin’s cricket scene.
But Baird said registrations across the city’s five grades for men had actually increased from 41 teams in 2019 to 53 sides this season. Women’s cricket has also grown from four teams to six since last year.
The rise in player numbers means grounds are operating at capacity and he admits not everybody is thrilled by that development.
“Guys that used to be B-graders but are now C-graders, who used to play on turf but are now playing on hard wickets,” Baird said.
“They’re the guys where you have the frustration.”
It is hoped the Strike League and other Cricket Australia initiatives will increase local investment in cricket, and Baird also wants the growth in Darwin cricket to flow into Indigenous cricket.
“In terms of direct outreach from the clubs, it’s not something that clubs are doing,” he said.
“It’s probably one of the things that clubs would like to be able to do, but it hasn’t happened because they are focused on their core business.”
He said local clubs, rather than the Territory’s cricket governing body, were now doing development work in schools and he expected that would bring more Indigenous children into cricket.
While a season in England is still seen as a rite of passage in Adlam’s cricket-mad family, he feels he has made the right choice coming to Darwin this year.
That’s not just because of the cricketing experience, but also due to things outside of cricket such as visiting the Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks with friends.
“Darwin is a place where everyone knows everyone really,” Adlam said.
“You go down Mitchell Street enough times, you sort of make a few friends and you see them all the time down there.
Perth batsman Hardy said he was also hoping to return to the Top End next year and had his eyes on a spot in the Strike League. He said the friendly club culture at Southern Districts had made it feel like a home away from home.
“Everyone in the team is very close. We all get on,” he said.
“It’s helped me play some good cricket, knowing that all the boys are behind me.”