The AFL is out-muscling Cricket Australia in attracting our multitalented young sportsmen. By Michael Filosi.


Cricket Australia and the AFL fight for best and brightest

Meet Alex Carey, a young man blessed twice over by the sporting gods. Growing up, Carey excelled at both cricket and Australian Rules football, making state junior representative teams for both sports. 

In his teenage years, recruiters from both cricket and AFL made overtures about the bright lights that lay ahead for him in their respective codes. At 17, Carey was offered a rookie contract by both cricket and AFL clubs, and had to decide which sport to pursue professionally. 

“I didn’t really choose until I had two offers on the table,” says Carey. “There was always a little lean towards football and I had the thrill of maybe playing AFL one day in my mind. I put all these decisions on the table and I spoke to my family and asked what they thought. It was a hard choice.”

There is a certain irony in the fact that Australian Rules, a sport invented in the 19th century to keep cricketers fit during the winter months, now looms as cricket’s biggest threat in this country. While this nation’s cricketers ride the wave of success following last summer’s Ashes victory, off field the brains at Cricket Australia are firmly focused on the sport’s newest battle: the fight for young players.

For some time, the AFL and its clubs have been laying siege to some of the most talented junior cricketers in the country, and cricket has been struggling to retain its best young players against the promise of fame and fortune that lure many to pursue a career in the AFL at its expense. In the battle for the hearts and minds of this country’s most talented young athletes, cricket is losing many of its most talented young tyros to the sporting behemoth that is the AFL. 

The war begins in primary school. Both cricket and the AFL have grassroots programs targeted at five- to 10-year-old children, promoting participation in their sports. 

While In2Cricket is unassuming in its aim – an “entry level participation program” – the AFL Auskick program does not shy away from its goal of snapping up young athletes. Its official website states that the program “serves as an introduction to a lifetime of involvement in the game”.

That the pre-eminent summer and winter sporting codes in this country are locked in a fiercely contested battle in playgrounds across the nation says much about the importance each sport places on ensnaring the next generation of elite athletes.

1 . A numbers game

Faced with choosing between competing sporting loves, Carey shelved his cricket whites to pursue a career in the AFL. And while his case may appear rare, his circumstances are far from an outlier for this country’s best junior athletes. In the traditional AFL states of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, there is a significant overlap between elite junior cricket and football squads. The tall fast bowler in the summer months becomes the powerful key forward during football season; the fleet-footed cricket fieldsman morphs into the agile wingman with the piercing kick and skilful hands in the winter code. 

A considerable number of AFL players were elite junior cricketers who, like Carey, were forced to choose between the two sports in their teenage years. 

The list of those who opted for a career playing football over cricket reads like a rollcall of the AFL’s greatest players from the past decade: Brownlow medallists Robert Harvey and James Bartel, triple premiership player and Coleman medallist Jonathan Brown, Norm Smith medallist and premiership captain Luke Hodge, AFL Rising Star winner Brett Deledio and AFL club captains Simon Goodwin, Brad Green and Marc Murphy. And that is just to name a few. 

David Scholz, South Australia’s under 17s cricket coach, is troubled by the outflow of talented young cricketers to the AFL ranks. “Definitely it is a concern that we’re losing players of that ilk. They’re obviously super-talented at football, but there’s a fair chance they’d be similarly successful at cricket if they’d gone down that path,” says Scholz. 

“There are so many more opportunities to be drafted and to make a career out of football than there are out of cricket that it’s very challenging to retain promising cricketers in the sport. It’s a numbers game, and certainly a career in football makes more sense from that perspective.”

The numbers Scholz refers to are unpleasant reading for cricket administrators. There are approximately 800 playing positions on AFL lists for young athletes to aspire to, compared with fewer than 200 positions within cricket. Adding to this burden for Cricket Australia is the immediacy with which AFL casts its limelight compared with cricket. Promising young athletes see footballers barely removed from their teenage years thrust into stardom and gracing the pages of newspapers and websites. By comparison, the best cricketers in the country peak much later in their careers, often not until their early 30s. 

For the current crop of talented young athletes from Generation Y – famed for its need for instant gratification – this 10-year differential in peak performance is half a lifetime away. 

2 . Clawing back ground

Aware of the impact of the AFL poachers, Cricket Australia has been attempting to peg back some of the ground lost to its winter sporting cousin. The rise of Twenty20 cricket, the lucrative crash-and-bash variant of the game, has gone some way to matching the colour and spectacle associated with the AFL. 

Last year, Cricket Australia also signed a watershed five-year broadcast deal worth $590 million, which will give the sport a much-needed boost in its attempts to compete against the war chest of money at the AFL’s disposal to recruit and retain talented young athletes. 

Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland has taken it upon himself to trumpet the game’s wares on the back of the landmark broadcast deal. 

“I don’t think people realise just how much cricket has to offer talented young athletes,” says Sutherland. “We’re really focused on looking at ways we can embrace younger talent in those teenage years to help them and their parents understand what a great opportunity cricket presents. We haven’t had the firepower to focus on that in the past, and we now have that opportunity.”

Sutherland’s message is clearly pitched to those youngsters weighing up their sporting options in an attempt to stem the tide of young players opting for a Sherrin over a Kookaburra. 

Meanwhile, Alex Carey’s football career took a hit when he was delisted by his club, Greater Western Sydney. Carey took the unusual step of resurrecting his cricket career, and has since represented the South Australian Redbacks state team. Most youths who don’t succeed in the AFL end up in bush footy leagues or drift away from professional sport. It is a great lament of cricket administrators that many promising cricketers lost to AFL who ultimately fall short and leave the AFL system in their late teens or early 20s never return to cricket at a serious level. Following up on these potential prodigal sons is another area Cricket Australia is working on.

Nonetheless, in the three years since he first opted for AFL, Carey has seen improvements in the way cricket attempts to retain its most talented young players. 

“I think it’s a lot more exciting now,” Carey says. “There are a lot more competitions both in Australia and overseas. You add them all together and they’re definitely competing with the AFL.”

The AFL’s recent expansion into Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast means that Sutherland and Cricket Australia will need to remain proactive if they are to keep their talent pool kitted out in cricket whites rather than football guernseys.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Turf wars".

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Michael Filosi is an Adelaide-based writer and broadcaster.

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