The rain softened at that same moment, leaving in its place a blue sky dotted with clouds and a refreshingly warming sun taking their place to listen.
In addition to the elements, Tom’s attentive audience is made up of friends, family and co-workers, as well as a 30-strong contingent of West End Redbacks players and support staff midway through a three-day Connection Camp on the eve of their preseason.
Overlooking his family’s farm in Stokes Bay, located on the northern coast of the stunning Kangaroo Island, Tom is bringing everyone into the toughest day of not only his life, but one of the toughest in South Australian memory.
True to character, and despite the harrowing nature of his subject, Tom is unable to start without a laugh. He achieves this by correcting the bowling figures that precede his introduction, figures that were taken in the recent Grand Final pitting Parndana against friendly rivals MacGillivray. With a sideways look towards Redbacks Head Coach Jason Gillespie, Tom clears his throat as the crowd are told of his player of the match performance, headlined by seven wickets for just 34 runs.
‘It was actually only 15 runs,’ he says with a grin.
For the next few minutes, while continuing to create perfect arcs with the tennis ball, Tom speaks about what his community endured on the evening of 3 January 2020, a day that began with telling jokes at a mate’s place and ended with a scar across the landscape that destroyed much more than property and terrain.
“As the day went on, we were getting updates of what was happening. It was so hot and windy, just perfect conditions really. We heard it got to a mate’s farm and we realised it was heading straight towards ours. So, I made the decision to get back here. I made it back and I just thought what can I do? The main reason I came back was to get the dog, so I got him and that was pretty much all we had time to get.
“It was devastating. Later in the evening, the fire came through here and it sort of settled down a little so we could make our way back. Everything was gone. The house, the sheds, the whole infrastructure was gone. But the worst thing was all the livestock. We didn’t have any time to shift them. That was really hard.”
For the Redbacks, their Connection Camp rarely saw the introduction of a cricket bat; instead focusing on reaching out to the local community as much as possible. It was this desire to help that drew them to Stokes Bay, an area that lost so much during the bushfires that ravaged Australia throughout that unfathomable summer.
When preparing for the camp, those organising had heard that Stokes Bay was in desperate need of help to plant a huge number of trees on the site that once housed the community hall before it was lost to the flames. After a brief lesson in the required skills from locals in the know, each player and staff member dove headlong into the task of planting every single tree provided. The only allowable break was to pet Twiggy, the excitable border collie thrilled to be the centre of attention at every opportunity.
Once every budding tree was resting in its correct place, a barbeque was set up around which tales were told, connections were made and Twiggy kept a watchful eye for spilt scraps. Speaking at the conclusion of the three-day camp, Gillespie wore a broad smile thinking of the impact he believed the journey would have on his players and hopefully on the local community.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for us all. We’ve got some new players and staff, new members of the Australian cricket family, and we felt it was a great opportunity to connect and spend some time together. This camp has been all about connecting with each other and connecting with the community, and we have certainly done that.
“For us to then be able to go to Stokes Bay and be able to contribute in some small way by planting trees… I think the beauty was that everyone from players to support staff all worked together. It was very satisfying to be able to help. It’s been an amazing experience. Something that we will all remember for a long time.”
Beginning with an early morning jaunt across the fortuitously calm stretch of water between Cape Jervis and Penneshaw aboard the SeaLink Kangaroo Island ferry, the Redbacks Connection Camp took them all over the island, with a central campsite set up at the Kingscote Sports Club.
Situated just a moment’s walk from the stunning north-eastern coast, Kingscote’s beautiful football and cricket oval became the Redbacks home during the stay. Many braved the elements in their swags on and around the lush green surrounds, but thankfully the Club was kind enough to offer their clubrooms for those who didn’t fancy the potential of a night spent in the company of unpredictable weather conditions. In addition to involving several Redbacks players and staff in a footy training session, Kingscote also fed the masses on Wednesday night in their clubhouse. While the main meals were delicious, the longest line of the night occurred when apple crumble was announced as dessert, inducing a chorus of scraping chair legs and hastily gathered spoons.
Over lunch at local eatery Tru Thai on the opening day, the Redbacks heard the story of Andrew Sincock, a former South Australian first-class cricketer and SACA board member who calls Kangaroo Island home. Sincock was present during the bushfire disaster, and he shared his experiences in that moment as well as the efforts since to rebuild the close-knit community. He also shared more than a few hilarious stories from his playing days that enthralled the young group, including his battles with the likes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
Many other wonderful local businesses including Millie Mae’s Pantry, Dudley Wines, Emu Bay Lavender Farm and Queenscliffe Family Hotel welcomed the Redbacks with open arms and showcased the stunning hospitality and kindness that is synonymous with Kangaroo Island. Players also attended local schools in Kingscote, Penneshaw and Parndana to meet the children and teachers while passing along stories, advice and cricketing tips.
The pride within Gillespie shines through as he talks about the willingness the players and support staff had to throw themselves into the experience.
“We just want a united team, from support staff to players and everyone at the SACA, we want everyone to connect. We’re all part of this, we’re all in this together and for me that is really, really important. SACA is a wonderful place, it has been a huge part of a lot of people’s lives for a long time and we are a team, a family. We want to go places together.
“The last few nights we’ve stayed at Kingscote Footy Club, and I can’t thank the local community here on KI enough. Everyone we have met have been just wonderful and for the support they have given us, offering us the opportunity to stay at their club rooms here, I can’t thank them enough. I know I can speak for each and every person here that this has been a wonderful experience.”
In such a positive place, the last word must go to the intrinsically positive Tom Wurst, Parndana’s Grand Final hero, who ended his monologue with a message of hope.
“Afterwards, we just sat there wondering where to start. We didn’t have a fence left, no tractor, nothing. The support we did get from the community has been incredible. The amount of help we have had has been overwhelming.
“We made a conscious decision to stay positive and just get into doing what we could to rebuild and get things happening as fast as we could. I think that attitude has been everywhere throughout the community. We have looked at what can be done to make things better. We have a very long way to go, but I want to end up with an even better farm than we started with.
Thanks for coming, have fun planting some trees!”
05 July 2021