Cricket

Cricket at a grassroots level was already struggling before the pandemic, but lovers of the game are confident it can rebuild against the backdrop of a Covid-safe summer. By Peter Hanlon.

Cricket’s hope to bounce back

Will Pucovski bats during the three-day tour match between Australia A and India A at Drummoyne Oval in Sydney this week.
Credit: Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

Part of cricket’s charm is that it infiltrates laundry baskets as well as living rooms. For those who prize the togetherness of team sport, it remains an option long after the knocks and strains of other weekend pursuits become unbearable.

Where football in Victoria in 2020 was a coronavirus casualty at all but the pyramid’s apex, cricket has been the canary in the Covid-normal coalmine. Fittingly it’s community cricket – which many fear is under the greatest threat of all the summer game’s strands – that has done the heavy lifting.

It hasn’t been easy, with tasks such as appointing a Covid-19 safety officer, drafting club-specific Covid-safe plans, installing QR code generators and policing their use added to a seemingly endless list of jobs for already stretched volunteers. There was lethargy at grassroots level even before the pandemic, not helped by the revelation that Cricket Australia had inflated 2019 participation figures by more than 400,000, painting a picture of rude health at the expense of the game’s foot soldiers. Then came the sports rorts affair, another affront to clubs that contend with crumbling facilities and an increasingly arid fundraising landscape in their efforts to provide a treasured outlet for many in their greater neighbourhood.

Against this backdrop, as Cricket Victoria shed three-quarters of its staff from grassroots programs midway through the year, Stephen Field took a redundancy after 25 years and returned to his Grampians farm. The hole he leaves in talent identification and coaching in the western half of the state is a veritable abyss. Fortunately, he won’t be lost to the game.

“I’m a glass-half-full person; I’ve seen a lot of positives,” Field says of how his beloved Grampians Cricket Club and their opponents have navigated the new environment.

Grampians CC ticks many of the boxes that connect cricket to notions of idyllic summer afternoons, not least playing in the shadows of Mount Sturgeon and Mount Abrupt on a ground that inspires bush heroics, or at least visions of them. That deeds and dreams rarely align is underscored by Field’s take that, with the exception of a few, players are drawn to the game at this level for its social benefits. “We’re not playing Test cricket,” he says.

Cricket Victoria’s regular correspondence with clubs has carried a clear Covid-19 message: playing the game is a privilege, not a right. Sanitising balls, wearing masks when not on the ground and the absence of that cricket staple, the shared afternoon tea, have tested wills. As Field notes, “Clubs are working so hard all the time just to literally stay in existence, and often things that are asked of them are impositions that can drive people away from the game.”

Yet at Grampians he sees a president doing an amazing job, an active executive who are heavily involved in everything from the protocols attached to being on Department of Education land to the 15-20 hours devoted each week to preparing the wicket and ground. And, crucially, he sees committed junior coaches. “Junior coaches are the guts of the club – if they’re doing a good job, your club has a huge opportunity to grow.”

Since the club moved permanently to the Dunkeld Consolidated School oval in 2000, he estimates close to $400,000 has been spent on the ground and facilities. A chunk came from benefactors, including renowned QC and local Allan Myers; $90,000 for new practice nets arrived via Cricket Australia’s community fund; the rest was either raised or sweated as in-kind labour by those many volunteers.

Field’s biggest concern is cuts to the junior pathway, felt most keenly at under-15 and -17 levels for boys and girls. “Up until now the pathway has been the most successful thing Cricket Victoria has done for regional kids – it’s allowed boys and girls the opportunity to progress their careers that wasn’t there in the previous model [prior to 2000], where you had to travel down to Melbourne to do everything. Hopefully that returns quickly.”

He knew the pathway’s value long before his own children, 20-year-old Lachie and Jess, 17, followed it into Victorian teams. When he’s not farming or shearing, he’ll keep his hand in coaching Grampians CC, plus a few promising youngsters for Cricket Victoria, often in his shed a block from Dunkeld’s main street, where Australian leg-spinner Georgia Wareham (who hails from nearby Mortlake) has been one of many regulars in a bespoke indoor cricket net.

Lachie Field is already giving back to the game as a young captain of Grampians’ first XI. Jess combines school in Ballarat with cricket for Essendon–Maribyrnong Park. Field notes that Premier Cricket clubs will need to do more work in the regions in future, presenting Geelong with the chance to capitalise on its geographic advantage.

“My big one is the opportunity around girls’ and women’s cricket. We’ve had huge growth in the regions with women’s cricket, but they’ve had that dilemma of the travel being huge, so the dropout factor becomes massive. This is a great opportunity for a club like Geelong to get a women’s Premier Cricket team, who can then help service that growth and make sure girls aren’t lost to the game.”

That cricket is different just now will be rammed home when a high point of the local sporting and social calendar, the Boxing Day Test, is held at a 30 per cent-full MCG. Capacity in the MCC members will be just shy of 6000, with none of the usual breakfasts and luncheons that have function rooms buzzing. Members won’t be allowed to linger in bars. It’s only in the middle that the game will look the same.

Injecting youth is a time-honoured antidote to feeling jaded, which makes Will Pucovski’s possible selection for his Australian Test debut especially tantalising. After all that 2020 has served up, a 22-year-old who stepped away when on the cusp of national selection a year ago to manage his mental health, and who knows too well the torment of multiple concussions – the most recent coming this week in a lead-up game against India A – looms as a poster boy for the resilience we’ve all needed.

“It would be a significant moment for the club – he’s homegrown, and has been identified at a really young age as a special talent,” MCC club manager Mark Anderson says. “He’s had to deal with a bit to get to where he’s got, but he’s a readymade Test player.”

Pucovski’s father, Jan, was a champion fast bowler at suburban level, while old Melbourne heads will forever remember the day a 12-year-old Will walked into the Albert Ground nets and stamped himself as a star. A decade on, it’s interesting to ponder whether a rural prodigy might be given similar opportunity to shine on a pathway so denuded.

Field remains upbeat, recalling the contention of another great grassroots servant, John Harris, that clubs only need enough players to field a team each week and some half-decent facilities and the good people in their midst will get them through. Clearly, those people are more vital than ever.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’re more grateful for volunteers,” Field says. “Everything gets stripped back bare, there’s no money and not as much direction, well you’re relying on yourself, as we all once were. Clubs that have a true base of volunteers will be the ones that flourish through this time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Slender in the grass".

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Peter Hanlon is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.