Tending to Australia's grassroots
There is more to Australian cricket than the baggy green and the Sheffield Shield. After Gideon Haigh's Bradman Oration, three Australian players discussed why club cricket is so important.
Michael Clarke played club cricket a couple of weeks ago. It was a news story. Imagine the novelty of seeing Australia's captain turning out with the regulars at a suburban ground in Sydney. His appearances for New South Wales have been few and far between in the past few years, let alone for Wests. Among Australia's elite cricketers, that is a common theme. In part, it is due to the international team's rigorous schedule. Who can find time for a club game when Australia play nearly 100 days of international cricket per year, on top of state commitments?
But a disconnect between club and country has been occupying the minds of Cricket Australia for some time now. Administrators have been canvassing clubs for ideas about what needs to be done to help cricket's foundations. International players have been encouraged to return to their clubs when they can. It's all about the grassroots. The importance of club cricket was the theme of Gideon Haigh's Bradman Oration on Wednesday. After the speech, three international cricketers - Ricky Ponting, Ed Cowan and Mel Jones - sat in the ballroom of the Langham Hotel, one of Melbourne's finest five-star establishments, and reflected on what club cricket had meant to them.
For Ponting, arguably the best batsman Australia has produced since Bradman, club cricket was everything when he was young. The Mowbray Cricket Club in Launceston was the centre of his universe. His father, Graeme, had been a first-grade cricketer in his younger days, and came out of retirement to play in the third grade when Ricky was starting out as an 11-year-old. Ponting is an all-time great but his story could be that of any amateur player anywhere in Australia.
"My club survived on volunteers," Ponting said. "We're a very working-class club that basically was run and operated on how much money we took over the bar on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people who would put their $2 in to get a beer out of the fridge and they'd take $5 out. We've done things pretty tough at my club. I'm very proud of my upbringing and where I came from.
"I remember as a nine- or ten-year-old boy, getting on my BMX and riding all over northern Tasmania to find wherever the Mowbray Cricket Club was playing. I was always the first there. I'd be sitting in the change rooms when the boys got there and when they went out on to the field I'd be going through their bags and picking their bats up and putting their gloves on, and making sure I put them back in exactly the same position again so they didn't know.
"They'd come off at lunch and I'd be sitting in the corner waiting for the boys to come in. Then after play I'd sit around and listen to the stories they were telling about the day's cricket. That's where I learnt the game. I learnt from my club-mates and older guys who had been through many on-field battles. Through listening and watching and learning, I think a lot of what I learnt from them is part of what I am now as a cricketer."
Ponting put something back into his club as soon as he was able. When he emerged as a first-class cricketer, while still a teenager, he was sponsored by a local Launceston bakery. He appeared in a TV commercial for the bakery and he donated his fee to the Mowbray Cricket Club. It was enough to build new club-rooms. Mowbray had made Ponting, and he wanted to return the favour.
Cowan also has fond memories of life as a teenage club cricketer. As a 15-year-old, he started playing with Sydney University so he could play with his brother, a uni student. As a kid in a university environment, he learned quickly the ways of the world. He also learned that a cricket club doesn't run by magic. As every volunteer at every sporting club around Australia knows, keeping the cogs turning is a hard, and sometimes thankless, task.
"At the time when I went to Sydney Uni it was really a struggling cricket club in the competition," Cowan said. "There was talk of mergers, there was talk of being kicked out of the competition. At that point of time it was a very amateur club being run essentially by undergraduates. Some very good people behind the club got the club moving forward, and it's done a full circle. It's probably now the premier cricket club in Sydney, has a very effective management and some great players are coming out. I think for 50 years they didn't produce a first-class cricketer and all of a sudden they've had five or six in the last five years. It shows what a cricket club can do when it gets its act together."
Cowan now lives in Hobart and plays for the Glenorchy Cricket Club, and for Tasmania. But he feels more a part of the Sydney University community than his new club. Every Saturday he texts his old mates to see how the club fared. A group of his Sydney club-mates flew to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test last year and watched Cowan make his Test debut. They had seen him through his ups and downs, progressing from fringe state player to a recipient of the baggy green.
The sense of community provided by club cricket isn't exclusive to men's teams. Jones represents the oldest women's cricket club in the world, the Essendon Maribyrnong Park side. For 108 years it has been providing female cricketers with a base. Some go on to play for their state, a few for their country. They all call their club home.
"As much as most Australian cricketers would like to play more and more international games, the beauty of it is we spend 90% of our time in club land," Jones said. "When you speak to most of the girls, they have some of the strongest connections to club cricket. It is really like a family. We probably know our people and our club members more so than the guys do.
"Last Friday night I put the hessian and the covers down while all the young kids were doing something else, it's all the same things [as the men]. You go through the fact that the club-rooms are rat-infested, you try to clean the barbeque, all those sorts of things. All those things are exactly the same. We used to wear culottes so we'd get bad wedgies. That's a bit different to the guys, but overall it's the same sort of community."
So what is the future role of these clubs, these mini-societies that have allowed Australia's finest players to blossom? For decades, they were the only avenue a player could take if he or she wanted to progress to state cricket, and ultimately to represent Australia. These days, that is not always the case. Skilled junior players can be identified early and are whisked off to under-age carnivals, where their talent is further spotted. Names are pencilled in as future first-class players and piles of club runs are not a pre-requisite. It's an issue that worries Cowan.
"[We need to] make sure that club cricket is still the most important pathway to first-class cricket," Cowan said. "I think there has been a tendency to maybe veer away from that and look at youth carnivals and these kind of things. But a strong club competition where young players can play with men and learn about the game and learn about themselves, I think that's the most important thing for Australian cricket.
"I've seen people come into state squads who haven't done particularly well in club cricket, because they've done well in youth cricket, and they haven't quite understood the game or how to succeed at the game. I think club cricket gives people that base. You know if you've succeeded at club cricket you're ready for first-class cricket. I think that's the biggest challenge, to make sure it's the most important pathway."
Reconnecting Australia's international players with their clubs can only help in that regard. Last year, Cricket Australia asked its players to ring some randomly selected club cricket volunteers from all over Australia and thank them for their hard work. Coincidentally, Ponting called a woman from Mowbray, who was thrilled to hear from him.
"The four or five other guys who I rang thought their mates had set them up on a prank," Ponting said. "Thirty seconds into the conversation they were saying 'mate, I'm busy, I've got some work to do, I've got to go'. I'm not sure how it went down or what the feedback was like back at Cricket Australia but I thought it was fantastic, one to be recognising the volunteers that have made our clubs survive."
Having the international and state players return to their clubs as often as possible is another goal. Last time Ponting played for Mowbray, nearly 5000 people turned up to watch the match. But that was seven years ago. International commitments, combined with the fact that he now lives in Sydney, have prevented Ponting from playing for his club since then. That's something he wants to change, and he has a genuine passion to give back to the game that has provided him with so much.
"If there's been a regret in my life it's the fact that I haven't had a chance to be around that club more," Ponting said. "The way that my life has been, being a professional cricketer at the age of 17, being on the road and away from home for most of that period of time, you just don't get as much time back at our clubs as we would like. I know that's a big thing that has been spoken about in the last 12 months since the Argus review, international players being back in their states and playing more, and what that hopefully means is you can get back to your clubs more, and be involved with a younger generation of people.
"Cricket and young cricketers need to be able to see their heroes. It would be great if I could spend more time around my club, or around primary schools, promoting the game and giving these young kids something to aspire to in the flesh. I've always been passionate about that. Once my life starts to wind down a bit as far as cricket is concerned I'll make sure I'm doing that, because I feel that's a role of mine."
And you never know. The next Ricky Ponting could be in one of those schools, or he could be sneaking into a club-room somewhere around the country, absorbing everything he hears. All the more reason for Australian cricket to tend to its grassroots.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here