Rookie deal narrows the margin between pleasure and Paine
As a wave of fanfare and a splash of headlines has made clear in recent weeks, it will soon be that Australian cricket has its first million dollar player. Within such a context, it has been easy to lose sight of the unprecedented opportunities also being created for cricketers at the other end of the spectrum.
In the elevation of young wicketkeeper-batsman Tim Paine to Tasmania's new list of contracted players for the 2001-02 domestic season, though, there can't be too much room for misunderstanding.
At his tender age of 16 years and 188 days, Paine's stunning emergence is significant for a number of reasons.
And not simply because he has just become Australian cricket's youngest ever contracted player; younger, certainly, than new state teammate and personal idol Ricky Ponting was when he made his domestic debut all those years ago in 1992-93 as a prodigious teenage talent himself. Younger, also, by six months than South Australia's Mark Cosgrove, a fellow newcomer to a state list for 2001-02. Younger by five months even than Western Australia's Shaun Marsh was when he was offered a contract with the Warriors at this time last year.
In short, Paine's acceptance of a so-called 'rookie contract' with the Tigers is also significant in that it is symbolic.
Although talk might still rage about the ageing complexion of the current national squad, attention these days is increasingly being paid to the development of genuine cricketing career-paths for Australia's aspiring young players. Introduced as part of the recently-signed Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Cricket Board and the Australian Cricketers' Association, the sort of deal to which Paine has been tied provides evidence of the latest innovation in such thinking.
"It's all going to be a really good experience, I think," says Paine of the chance not only to join the Tigers' inner sanctum but to become one of the first players in the country to accept an agreement of this type.
Potentially available to as many as thirty players in total across the country, the advent of the rookie contract scheme has been aimed at reducing the gap between junior and domestic cricket and at making the transition between the two arenas less daunting. It not only permits each of the six state associations the chance to recruit, retain, and financially assist five previously-unsigned players under the age of 23. As such, it also supplies incentives to cricketers who might not otherwise have received the opportunity to train with, and/or form part of, their state's first-class squad.
"These new contracts are a great idea; I'm pretty happy about them anyway!" adds Paine.
"It's good to give young players something (along these lines) to show them that they're in the back of the minds of the administrators and the coaches."
The sort of opportunities that await Paine - now that he has been handpicked as one of at least two Tasmanian youngsters worthy of such encouragement for at least the next twelve months - have simply never been available before.
He is not expected to become a serious challenger for selection in the state team for some time yet. He also potentially faces the enduring curse for wicketkeepers of having to bide his time behind another player - in this case Sean Clingeleffer, a similarly accomplished young gloveman who currently occupies the post.
But even to a talented and versatile young athlete with a passion for, and a noteworthy pedigree in, at least one other sport, it means that a long and successful career in cricket has now become the central focus of his sporting ambitions.
Where a burgeoning career as a hard-running half-forward flanker in Australian Rules Football might have lured others away previously, this early investment of faith from cricket administrators seems set to be a decisive catalyst in settling the issue.
The nephew of Robert Shaw (a well-known figure in Australian Football League circles as the current assistant coach at reigning premier Essendon and former senior coach at fellow league clubs Adelaide and Fitzroy) has seen enough of what cricket can potentially offer him to know where his future lies.
"Cricket would have been a pretty important priority still without the contract, but definitely not as important as it is now. I've pretty much got to train now all the time so it's taking over from footy from here on in. My attention is on cricket."
In truth, it won't really be possible to make worthwhile judgements about the effectiveness of the new system until much further down the track. And, on basic retainers of $A10,000, players like Paine still remain a long way away on the pay scale from those of their countrymen whose salaries are soon expected to traverse the seven figure mark. But, even this early, he is proof positive of its potential utility.