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Russell Jackson

Can cricket hold on to its multi-sport players?

Young players often pick cricket over the richer football codes for the love of the game. It is a risky proposition for them, though

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
Alex Keath made 73, Australian Institute of Sport v New Zealand A, 1st day, Emerging Players Tournament, Brisbane, August 1, 2011

In five years Alex Keath went from potential star to being contractless  •  Getty Images

Victoria batting allrounder Alex Keath lost his state contract this week. Were it any other player, it might not have rated much of a mention, but Keath is unique. Five years ago he was being trumpeted as Victorian cricket's major coup; their first high-profile win over AFL football in the battle for young talent. Now he's not considered to be in the best 28 cricketers in Victoria.
Perhaps the talent drain to Australian Rules is a little overplayed by that code's media because there's a clear obstacle in measuring the impact once a talented junior cricketer disappears into the AFL system; none has the schedule space, contractual leeway and perhaps even inclination to prove during summer that they were anything out of the ordinary.
In fairness, you'd suppose that the current situation isn't the death knell for Keath's prospects in cricket. Plenty of players have reached Test level with greater and more frequent knocks on their confidence and status than this. Comparative to players of his youth and experience, he was also well rewarded in his original five-year deal with the Bushrangers, earning far more than any cricketer his age could hope to in state ranks. Still, on average, cricket can't hope to compete with the premium football codes in a remuneration sense.
Keath was a genuine, top-level prospect in both sports in his late teens. In 2010, when he was 17, the fledgling Gold Coast Suns AFL franchise was given the opportunity to scoop the best talent in the land and duly nominated the 196cm key position player as one of their desired picks.
He turned his back on a sport in which even at the elite level there are 720 senior positions available, all of them earning considerably more than the lowest-ranked state cricketer. He did that to pursue either a first-class batting allrounder spot (realistically, a maximum of 18-20 spots in Australia at any given time) or a specialist batting position (36 spots). That shows confidence, conviction, and also, you'd think, a love for cricket.
The early indications are that Keath will stick at cricket despite this knock, perhaps trying to add some pace to his sturdy but so far unthreatening mediums and break free of his reputation as a slightly stodgy batsman with a few technical deficiencies not aided by his considerable height. A Futures League knock of 196 not out and an assured 46 against the 2010-11 English tourists showed from the early stages that he could certainly play. Keath seemed to be on the national radar too, figuring in National Performance Squad games against South Africa A and India A during the 2014 winter.
In the season just gone he played in four of Victoria's one-day games. In his last first-class outing, against Tasmania last November, he played patient knocks of 45 and 30 as Bushrangers fell to heavy defeat. It's pretty hard to see how such a young and talented player has slipped so far in their estimation since. Each state selects its list based on clear criteria and with goals in mind, but you wonder what any 16-year-old dual-sport stars would currently be thinking about their options after seeing how Keath has fared.
There was a time when athletes in this position could have it both ways, of course. Keith Miller, Sam Loxton, Neil Hawke, Max Walker and Eric Freeman - all playing both Test cricket and top-level Australian Rules football - belonged to different times, but Simon O'Donnell was the last to achieve both feats, and even he had retired from playing football by the time he made his Test debut. International women's sport still remains at the point of accommodating the multi-talented, Ellyse Perry being ample proof.
A step down in first-class cricket, there are plenty of what-if stories too. Craig Bradley, a Premiership-winning champion at league football club Carlton, was also an Australian junior cricket representative who in summer dabbled in first-class cricket in the South Australian and Victorian Sheffield Shield squads. He called stumps in the end too, riding AFL football's wave of professionalism in the 1990s and packing in his cricket kit. When he'd started out in both sports there were lines of distinction between the two seasons. In both fully professionalised games, those divides are now gone, replaced by year-long training and playing regimes.
There's something slightly cruel about Keath's situation if you're the type of person who feels sorry for people blessed with multiple talents, as I do in this case. The guy probably spent his entire childhood being the best player on any given sporting field he stepped on. If Keath was ranked within the top 28 Victorian footballers right now - and there's nothing to say he wouldn't have been - he'd be earning many multiples of what he did playing cricket and looking forward to another seven or eight years at the top.
Instead he took the harder path: toiling away in Melbourne club cricket, sitting at the fringe of a Victorian side overstuffed with veterans and sorted for allrounders slightly superior to current-model Keath, spending unglamorous Australian winters (including the current one) in the English League cricket ranks. Right now he has nothing to show for his hard work. He's probably good at every single thing he does, but somehow he's also something of a rank underdog in the two industries that pursued him.
Already this year Keath has reportedly fielded calls from 14 of the 18 AFL clubs, a persistence that will undoubtedly strengthen throughout the coming months. "He's a single-minded young man who wants to make it in cricket," said Cricket Victoria operations manager Shaun Graf in praise of Keath this week. I really hope he does.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko