Posted June 15, 2018 06:40:51
Croquet may not seem at first glance to be the most Territory of ball sports, but in a shed in rural Darwin, competition-standard croquet balls are being made.
It's a career Paul Manwaring never thought he'd pursue; prior to making croquet balls he was a gardener at a Northern Territory school, doing a bit of plastering work on the side.
Now he's one of only a handful of people in the world working in this niche field.
He stumbled upon the Australian Croquet Company while playing croquet in Melbourne with his parents.
"I was down south and I heard that the club needed more balls and they mentioned something about [the ball manufacturer] selling the business, so I looked into it and followed through and bought it," he said.
Mr Manwaring bought the business from Bryan Dawson, a legendary croquet player, who concocted a special mix that makes what players describe as the perfect croquet ball.
"I met with him a few times and he showed me how to do it and then I moved it up here to Humpty Doo," he said.
"It's pretty scientific, it starts from a plastic base and then you stir it, mould it and press it."
The operation runs out of Mr Manwaring's shed, where the moulds are set and pressed at a special temperature.
Three hours later, they're prised from their case.
He then polishes, packs, and ships the balls to more than 300 clubs across Australia.
His are the ball of choice in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand.
The sport's premier governing body — the Croquet Association — has just three approved suppliers: in Taiwan, Kentucky in the US, and the Australian Croquet Company.
"Every three years I have to send them to England to the Croquet Association where Alan Pidcock puts them through a rigorous process," Mr Manwaring said.
Mr Pidcock was the world leader in manufacturing croquet mallets before he retired in 2016.
Mr Manwaring is proud he was able to save the business from shutting down completely; its previous owner had been trying to sell it for years.
"I like being able to keep small manufacturing going in Australia," he said.
"It's a niche product that people love around the world, so I decided that I'd keep on Bryan's legacy and keep making the balls."
More than 3,000 kilometres south in Adelaide, every local club uses Paul's Dawson croquet balls, and president of the South Australian Croquet Association Eileen Ferguson counts herself a fan.
"They are the best I've ever played with," she said.
"I've played with about five different sorts of balls since I've been playing, they're just fabulous.
"It's so great that we can have and buy croquet balls right here in Australia that we can … play with, it's really amazing."
Ms Ferguson said many people were surprised to discover Australia's sole croquet ball manufacturer was housed in a shed in Humpty Doo, on a dusty street just down the road from jumping crocodile tours.
Mr Manwaring agrees, noting that croquet is a sport normally associated with royals, manicured English gardens, and Alice in Wonderland.
"It's rather strange actually … No flamingos around here!" he said.