Cricket has scored a rare victory over Australian rules football with the multi-talented teenager Alex Keath choosing bat and ball over a potentially lucrative AFL career. Keath, 18, has signed a several-year contract with Cricket Victoria despite the probability that he would play senior AFL football next year.
An allrounder who has been compared to his fellow Victorian Andrew McDonald, Keath was part of the Australia team that won the Under-19 World Cup. He scored 216 runs at 43.20 to be the eighth leading scorer in the tournament, and also collected six wickets at 16.33 with his medium-pace bowling.
However, his football prospects appeared just as promising when he was named as one of the dozen 17-year-olds chosen by the newly-formed Gold Coast club, which will make its first appearance in the AFL in 2011. The Victoria coach Greg Shipperd said Keath could be ready to make his state debut next summer, although 2011-12 was more realistic.
His decision has gone against the trend in recent years of talented young cricketers choosing to pursue careers in the AFL, where there are greater opportunities with 16 clubs each listing around 40 players. The current West Coast player Brett Jones opted for football after being named as a rookie batsman with Western Australia, his West Coast team-mate Shannon Hurn also went for football, while several other AFL stars were also promising young cricketers.
"Money was never part of the decision, it was about what I love," Keath said. "But I think it's a really exciting time for cricket. Opportunities are really opening up, so I'm sure that will have a bit to do with the strength of cricket at the moment.
"It's definitely difficult to say goodbye to football at this juncture but I'm excited by the opportunity that Cricket Victoria have placed in front of me. I've been building towards this for quite some time."
Keath is still completing his high school studies and will play football for Melbourne Grammar this year. As he stood on the damp MCG grass in the middle of AFL season with bat and ball in hand, it was clear that Cricket Victoria was thrilled with its acquisition, which followed on from Western Australia last summer securing Mitchell Marsh, another highly talented young footballer.
"For us, the coaching team, it's like having a young Brad Hodge or Cameron White or Andrew McDonald walk through the door and say 'I want to play cricket for my state and I want to play cricket for my country'," Shipperd said. "That's a fantastic challenge for us to make this young man's dreams come true. He's well placed to go to all of those levels."
Keath's decision effectively ends his football career, as the professionalism in both sports in recent years has meant year-round training is necessary. In previous decades there have been a number of men who have played Test cricket and Australian rules at the highest level, not since Nick Jewell and Michael Clark, who each played a solitary AFL game, have first-class cricketers combined the sports.