Running out the poor

There's been a quiet rise of elitism in Australian Cricket.

Artwork by Momoko Metham Artwork by Momoko Metham

While Australia’s cricket-loving public was caught up with sandpaper gate, a decision from the Cricket Australia headquarters seems more worthy of public outrage.  For the first time in history, some international cricket matches (One Day International games) played in Australia will be broadcast behind Fox Sports’ paywall. It’s a sure sign that the public have fallen out of love with 50-over cricket, lacking neither the prestige of Test Matches nor the glamour of T20 matches. However it represents a more insidious threat. The sport that was once a national pastime is losing touch with the working class families of Australia.

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Historically, the educational background of most of New South Wales’ cricketers was something of a paradox. It was actually a disadvantage to attend an elite  privates school. Famous names like McGrath, Gilchrist, Clarke and Lee were products of government-funded schools, and for good reason: they could nurture their talent by playing senior cricket for their clubs at a young age, as opposed to being forced to play for their own schools on weekends against students  their own age. Other factors, including the opportunity to focus on singular extracurriculars help. Ed Cowan, a former alumni of the Cranbrook School, Sydney University, and St Paul’s, has spoken about the troubles he had fitting in with his teammates, having to fight a perception that he was ‘soft as butter’ due to his background. But while it’s true that smaller states like Western Australia and Queensland have historically had a more mixed balance of cricketers from public and private school backgrounds, that New South Wales is the largest feeder to the Australian Cricket Team (having almost a third of the country’s population), means the sport could nonetheless boast that parental wealth had no impact on an individual’s chances of success.

This has, however, changed in recent years. Whereas Ed Cowan was the only notable CAS old boy from the 2008/09 NSW Cricket squad, the 2018/19 squad has players from Knox, Scots, Kings, and Shore, reflecting the changing demographic of Cricket in Australia’s most populous state. And this doesn’t consider private alumni that have moved to other states and countries, while the most notable women’s cricketers from NSW have generally been from the elite schools, for instance Ellyse Perry (PLC) and Alyssa Healy (Barker), though that may be because women only had access to quality coaching and facilities in elite schools.

The continuation of this trend could spell a worrying sign for the sport, where an increasing amount of players come from only the most advantaged schools.

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The 2005 Cricket Series between Australia and England is considered one of the greatest of all time. England had finally beaten Australia for the first time in sixteen years. The TV ratings in England were through the roof, and the games were broadcast on free-to-air TV. Cricket had replaced Football on the front pages of the newspapers. The English Cricket Board had a wonderful opportunity to grow the game in England, and increase participation within their state schools, with morale surrounding the English Cricket Team at an all-time high. However, the funding provided by Rupert Murdoch-backed Sky Sports was too much to ignore, and no international or domestic cricket has been broadcasted live on free-to-air tv since 2005. The game has never been the same in the UK. Cricket television ratings declined from an average of 2.4 million in 2005 to 577,000 people in the 2015 series, while club participation rates reduced by 32 per cent  in the same period.

If a majority of school-age children are prevented from seeing their sporting heroes on free-to-air television because their families are unwilling or unable to pay, their enthusiasm for the game will fade. While Fox Sports does not yet have exclusive rights to Test matches nor the KFC Big Bash tournament, its possible they will follow the path set by the UK’s Sky Sports, gradually expanding until they claim exclusive rights to every game broadcast in the country.

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Gary Whitaker is one of the most successful coaches of the Sydney University Cricket Club,  part of four first-grade premierships during his eight years at the club. He explains that over the last 10 years there has been an increase in the investment of  facilities and coaching from the private schools, and thus the quality of the players coming out of the system has improved. For example, the schools now have the funds to hire former state-level cricketers to run programs, in place of teachers. Whitaker suggests that students having regular exposure to these facilities and coaches, has enhanced their rate of ‘skill acquisition’ compared to state-school educated cricketers who rely on volunteers in club cricket training to improve their skills.

However, he suggests that the expense of the sport (Cricket is the 4th most expensive sport in Australia) has further decreased the ability of less well-off parents to register their children in the sport.

Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that reduced free-to-air television exposure will mean that those parents in particular face less complaints from their children about such inaccessibility. This is not just a worry for Australia’s cricket loving public, doomed to worse results as depth thins and result narrow: it is a worry for all Australians concerned with the ‘fair go’ cricket was once taken to epitomise.

Whitaker is right about this trend having a significant impact on the worsening inequality in the game. Enrolments in Club Cricket have declined in the past year even as Cricket Australia is trying to cover it up by counting a participant as “anyone participating in school programmes or competitions at least four times over a summer” to claim that participation levels are increasing.

A step in the right direction would be for Cricket Australia to recognise this creeping problem, continue investing more into grassroots cricket, and keep a tab so that the games’ finances are not dependent on broadcasting dollars from Fox Sports. Otherwise, Cricket will go in the direction of Rugby and Tennis in Australia, which have been in freefall for a long time now.

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It’s not all doom and gloom. The increased exposure of the women’s cricket team leading to more women playing the game along with the higher amount of individuals with Indian sub-continental heritage in elite representative squads demonstrate that the game has become more inclusive in other key demographics. Two players with indigenous heritage are a part of Australian cricket squads—D’Arcy Short and Brendan Doggett.

In that journey though, it looks like Cricket Australia has forgotten about their initial strength. Even for an expensive game, a state-school educated kid like Belinda Clarke or Ricky Ponting could aspire to the highest playing honour in wearing the Baggy Green and captain the team. Stories like this might not exist if, to watch cricket matches telecasted in Australia, every family is forced to pay.