"They are not professionals...they were invited to play and if they don't like the conditions there are 500,000 other cricketers in Australia who would love to take their places." These infamous words, by the Australian Cricket Board secretary Alan Barnes, were for decades associated with the curmudgeonly attitudes of the board in the years before the World Series Cricket split.

More than 40 years on, however, the barrier to the professional game is long gone and instead the current battlefield for cricket has far more to do with the latter part of the statement. The assumption about the number of cricketers potentially available to replace the likes of the Chappells, Lillee, Marsh, Walker and Thomson can now be far more closely monitored. And according to Cricket Australia's own numbers, that 500,000 figure may need adjustment.

This week saw the release of the annual Australian Cricket Census, trumpeting a headline participation figure of 1,650,030 men and women, boys and girls from a vast array of geographical and cultural backgrounds. Since breaking the million mark in 2014, this overall tally has grown every year, representing impressive work in terms of rolling out ever vaster and wider school and introductory programs to add more numbers to the total.

The telling numbers

But the more problematic area of the census does not often make its way into the top of the annual press releases or fact sheets. That's the annual check-up on how many junior and senior, male and female cricketers are formally registered to play with clubs - a far more robust indicator of their relationship to the game, whether it be playing, watching or organising. Over recent years, that area of the census reporting has grown increasingly opaque, as previously reported on ESPNcricinfo, with changing and broadening definitions not always adequately explained.

That has not necessarily reflected internal attitudes, and certainly since the appointment of Belinda Clark as the executive in charge of community cricket and by extension participation, CA has been a lot more frank with itself about how headline participation growth does not reflect a slowly creeping drain away from clubs. For the first time, the governing body has revealed its formal club cricket figures over the past six years since 2014, painting a far more challenging picture for cricket than has been previously publicised.

Over that time, club cricket totals rose from 356,681 in 2014 to 392,812 off the back of the 2015 World Cup and that year's Ashes tour in 2016. From that peak, however, the fall has been unrelenting, slipping to 388,242 then 375,915 and, as of this year, 365,076. Of course the time for club registrations last year also happened to be around the same time that the scathing review of CA's culture was released off the back of the Newlands ball-tampering scandal. That meant the most indelible images of cricket in the national mind in pre-season were those of the then chairman David Peever being walloped on television, a few days before he was forced into resigning.

CA knew at the time that those passages could not be good for the game's image, and earlier this year the head of participation Stuart Whiley forecast that a drop-off was expected.

Role models

Having now digested the census results in full, the acting head of community cricket, Kieran McMillan, said that the key point for growing CA's club cricket catchment ahead of this summer will be a far louder and better presence for the game on television screens between June and October. With the World Cup followed by an Ashes series and then the inaugural standalone WBBL running more or less one after the other, the landscape will be rather different to 2018.

"Last season we were slow out of the blocks in terms of registrations and in October we usually get a bulk of registrations, particularly in entry level programs," McMillan said. "That was a tough month for cricket last year. We've got more cricket on TV, high profile, in that period this summer. Our job now, with the benefit of a long lead-in to our planning is to really make the most of that from how we piggyback our marketing campaigns on top of all that."

History indicates that yes, these factors will encourage growth in the game's heartland this summer - food for thought for others in the game, not least the ECB in a summer where its home World Cup is being seen by a small subscription television audience in keeping with the deals done ever since the 2005 Ashes. McMillan said there was plenty of research indicating that any sport will slowly wither in the absence of strong role models.

"I think Sport Australia made it pretty clear in some of the research they've done of the importance of role models," he said. "I think the growth in girls' cricket is a good example of that where you've got a national women's team who've got some fantastic role models, and they're successful - they perform well on the field but they're fantastic off the field.

"You've got the WBBL as a world leading domestic product, it's high quality cricket TV. So you've got the stuff at the elite level and it's able to inspire. Then the work we've been able to do at that grassroots level, we've now got 100 associations offering girls-only competitions. So no matter where you are in Australia there should be somewhere where your young daughter can find a place to play cricket. Marrying that top down and bottom up is where the secret sauce is."

Keeping the kids

For the moment, at least, it is far from the happiest marriage. The problem of retaining club players, and also of bringing interested juniors across from school programs to a broader and deeper relationship with the game, is something occupying plenty of minds at CA, from the community cricket office to the executive and the board itself, now chaired by a former club president in Earl Eddings (North Melbourne). McMillan pointed to recent moves to modify junior formats to be more inclusive of all ages, sizes and skills as a pivotal step in creating more love for the game.

"You've now got almost 80% of all junior associations over the country running formats which are appropriate for those kids whether smaller teams, smaller boundaries, more fours, more sixes, more action, shorter timeframes," he said. "So the actual formats kids are playing from under 10s onwards, the results we've got from those are hugely encouraging in terms of the ability to then retain kids that are coming into the game."

One of the knock-on effects of the Newlands scandal and its aftermath was a slow start for CA's new entry level program, Woolworths Cricket Blast. As discouraging as that was, McMillan said the signs were there that in a more favourable environment, the concept had plenty of chance to grow. "Parents provide a score on whether they'd recommend the activity to other parents for their kids and it's on a scale of -100 to +100, so +100 is amazing, but above zero is a positive, and we're at +39. So parents are saying they're likely to recommend this activity to other parents.

"The other thing we've changed is the packs - they get a shirt with their name on it, aligned to their BBL team of choice. That linkage of what they can see on TV at a BBL game and being able to bring that kind of colour, excitement, personalisation to their local community club, I'm personally really excited about us really nailing the second year of Cricket Blast and I see if we get this right then we can get a lot more kids then we've got quality junior formats to retain them through to teenagers."

Alongside the census results sits the Sport Australia AusPlay sample data, based on detailed surveying of 20,000 Australians. Among its most salient findings was that the peak participation age for cricket is among children 11 years old, with a steady decline following every year thereafter. Australian Rules Football, by comparison, retains far more participants into the late teens. McMillan acknowledged that CA needed to become more "creative" in building better bridges between the schools where their programs introduce the game to children, and the clubs where their interest will grow into something deeper.

"I think one of the things that we have found out is that where there's successful recruitment from schools into clubs, there's a strong role the local club has to play in that school," McMillan said. "That might be because there's individual relationships where there's a parent from the club on the board of trustees or a teacher who plays for the seniors, but regardless there's a strong presence that club has with its local schools that enables that frictionless kind of transition to playing more regularly outside of school hours."

So while the landscape of the game has changed irrevocably from the time of Alan Barnes, the ACB and the cricket war with Kerry Packer and the players, there is plenty to be done to make that statement about "500,000 other cricketers" ring true once more.