The best time of the year is upon us.
It is the week before Christmas, and all across the nation the finishing touches are being applied to backyard pitches in preparation for a time-honoured family tradition — bullying your less talented relatives and friends.
Come about 3pm on Monday, aunties, younger cousins, introverted uncles and unsuspecting in-laws will be at the mercy of the host curator of Christmas lunch.
The vast majority of any family are once-a-year cricketers, handling the willow (or plastic) and leather (I wish) only when forced to during the festive period.
But for the cricket tragics among us, this is our chance for glory.
The main cricketer in every household will have already measured out where this year’s battle will take place.
If that person is handy enough with the bat (averaging double figures in grade cricket counts as Bradman-esque when it comes to Christmas Day), there will be not a blade of grass in sight by the time Santa lands his sleigh.
But if you are like me and rate yourself with the moving ball, the pitch will resemble something out of a Test opener’s nightmare and the Bunnings will have already had to order more red tape.
I am far from the best cricketer in my immediate family — in fact, I struggle to scrape into the top three — but give me a hooping ball and enough runway to get my large frame off of the ground and I am every chance for a stirring 6-15 spell against stomachs stuffed with roast and shot-making decisions affected by alcohol.
With two younger brothers though, my backyard cricket experiences extend far further than just when the jolly man in the red outfit is around.
From the moment the first advertisement for the summer of cricket hits the airwaves until well past the final throes of the limited over competitions, our backyard was filled with the sounds of gladiatorial combat.
Shouts of appeals, followed immediately by unbridled indignation at the audacity of attempting to snare an lbw call, rang out for months — as did the thump of ill-directed shots into sheds and garden furniture.
The deafening silence that came after a window strike was always the most nervous time, though.
That and facing Ethan on the shortest of our arena incarnations.
I have been a number eight at best through most of my grade and junior cricket career — mostly due to my fear of the short ball — and it was a fear Ethan regularly exploited.
As a family that moved around a lot, the number of backyard pitches we created was more than a handful.
The shortest one offered up enough for both of us (and later the much younger Bevan) to be an all-round favourite.
Ethan enjoyed the searing pace it delivered him, with a huge shed covering backward-square to mid-wicket crippling my ability to play a pull-shot and forcing me to either wear the pain or hit my way out of it.
If I managed to drag a few cross-bat shots towards mid-on, he would revert to bowling yorkers.
It allowed me to exploit my favourite part of the ground — the wide-open space from the edge of the house at cover to the often-stencilled (on the fence) third slip.
There is no coincidence that now, years later, my ability to play the short ball remains ugly at best and hilarious at worst, while the region behind point is the most crowded in every wagon wheel.
It is interesting that the backyard pitch every cricketer grows up on shapes the way they play the game for their entire career.
While highlighting the impact of windows and garden beds on Test careers, it also means the quality of the backyard arena is of the utmost importance.
So who has the best backyard set-up in the region?
Surely every cricketer in the Goulburn Valley believes their pitch and surrounds stands head and shoulders above their neighbour?
Let me give you the vehicle to prove it.
I am on the hunt for the Goulburn Valley’s best backyard arena.
This includes every aspect of the experience, from quality of pitch to space for fielders and everything in between.
So send in a picture of your arena, and an explanation of why you think it’s the best of the best, to [email protected] and I’ll shortlist my favourite ones for the public to vote on.
The eventual victor will receive bragging rights (of course) and a visit from the sports team to test out the conditions and write a feature on the unequivocal champion of the backyard.