A quick lap of Hurstville Oval’s hedge-square perfect gardens is all it takes to lift the lid on the prestigious St George District Cricket Club. Now a regular host of state and WBBL matches, the boutique ground is flush with tributes to over a century of club success.
Double gates woven in iron to commemorate Arthur Morris mark the entrance. At the southern end, 1948 Invincible teammate Ray Lindwall’s name tops the sightscreen, while legendary leg spinner Bill O’Reilly headlines the north. Overlooking the lush playing surface inside the Booth Saunders Pavilion, honour boards pay homage to Sir Donald Bradman and the club’s 14 other Australian stars and 49 state players.
And with four Test stars currently on the books and at least one first grade premiership in each decade since the 1930s, from the outside at least, one of Sydney’s most esteemed clubs appears on solid ground.
But under the carpet, it’s clear the foundations are crumbling.
Affable club president Kevin Greene pauses at the thought of cricket’s demise in Sydney’s south.
“The greatest challenge at a junior association level is getting people who are prepared to work at club level to encourage young people to play the game,” says Greene.
“Cricket is a good social opportunity for players and also for parents, but people don’t always see that.”
On the morning after Josh Hazlewood broke down in the Test series opener against the Kiwis in Perth, Greene is at Hurstville Oval, more concerned on the whereabouts of the canteen bread rolls than the health of the club’s international quick – albeit asking whether he’s okay.
With a sense of community extending well beyond cricket’s boundaries, when it comes to volunteering, Greene sets the bar high.
An enviable hands-on attitude is now accompanied by the title Mayor of Georges River Council. The passion to empower matured from a love of cricket that began over 50 years ago in the shadows of local Test stars Brian Booth and Kerry O’Keeffe.
As a teenager in 1976, a commitment to grassroots club administration progressed to grade cricket and eventually onto the Board of Cricket NSW.
“We’re certainly very lucky to have a club with an outstanding tradition. It also provides pressure for want of a better term. There’s certainly been in the last ten years some issues at a junior association level, because there’s not the quantum of players required for a good standard of competition – plain and simple.”
Community teams feeding the St George District Cricket Club play competitions organised by the St George District Cricket Association, but a decline in junior and senior numbers has led to an affiliation alongside struggling neighbours South Sydney and Canterbury-Western Suburbs.
Truth is, cricket participation across Australia has been on the nose for some time, long before Walkley Award winners Malcolm Knox and Nigel Gladstone exposed Cricket Australia for reporting inflated numbers. The correct statistics don’t lie, nor is Australia alone; English participation is down 20 per cent since 2016.
For those at park level desperate for extra hands to lay out the boundary cones, the shortfalls are real. Club tally sheets list the truth, where in the five seasons since 2013-14, the number of registered clubs in Australia has slumped from 3995 to 3500 (Cricket Australia, 2019).
The rise in popularity of women’s sport extends to cricket and while male participants still dominate, the numbers are on the slide.
Greene doesn’t make excuses, but migration from non-traditional cricket playing countries has complicated the quest for players and like-minded volunteers. Hurstville alone counts 36.9 per cent of its population as born in China while 49.4 per cent have Chinese ancestry.
Gerard Walz lives the St George association demise. The father of two boys and treasurer of cricket for the Illawarra Catholic Club (ICC) is cut from the Greene cloth. With 12 team kits, the family car no longer fits in the garage and when he’s not coaching juniors, he’s laying out boundary markers or swinging a retro Gray-Nicolls Powerspot hand signed by Greg ‘Fat Cat’ Ritchie.
Bung shoulders and crook knees scream, but not loud enough for Walz to leave his teammates short. And no matter the clubbing power at the wicket, silly mid-on has become the nuggety diehard’s second home.
Off the pitch, the pain intensifies. In the 15 years since his boys joined ICC, and despite the recent addition of an all-girls side, the total number of junior teams has halved. Seniors aren’t much better, heavily reliant on juniors who back up and drifters scrambling between grounds to plug gaps.
With junior participants drying up fast, the future looks grim. For the first time in the club’s history, senior teams have outnumbered the juniors.
The shortfall extends right across the St George district. The heady days of 1995, when the association fielded 72 senior teams and 96 juniors, are long gone. Now in the seniors there are 30 teams while juniors have slumped to 64.
The 14-17 age group is the most difficult to retain across the country. The statistics stack up at St George, where the association currently fields 12 teams, well down on the 27 back in 2010.
For the ICC, it’s old news. Current third-grade player Chris Mullen defied the odds, but now aged 27, he said the majority of his junior teammates no longer play the game.
“It was down to wanting more free time on the weekend or to spend more time with the family. A lot of the guys who gave it up did so around the time they started full time work.”
Walz cast the net wider.
“I think the big driver in dwindling junior participation in the Hurstville area is changing demographics. And the Chinese are not particularly sport-loving in a participation sense, scholastic education is more important,” he says.
“I think cricket is going to need to promote itself more effectively.”
Cricket NSW manager of community cricket Ivan Spyrdz knows the issues. His team cover everything other than high performance throughout the state, from the growth of associations and clubs to participation in schools.
Engaging and candid, Spyrdz was quick to alleviate perceptions of cricket’s demise and noted a bright future under a modified Cricket NSW. Over a coffee at his Moore Park office, Spyrdz questioned the autonomy gifted to district cricket associations and criticised stale administration inflexible to modern societal trends.
“You’ve got a very rigid structure with associations and club structures, who in fairness are actually quite slow to move and change with the times, if they want to change. Behind that is obviously a very large philosophical debate as to what, cricket is,” Spyrdz says.
In Sydney’s west, Stuart McKinder leads the charge in an evolving landscape the polar opposite to media reports. Smack bang in an expanding Indian migration corridor stretching from Parramatta to Blacktown, the president of the Blacktown City and District Cricket Association is hands-on to the needs of a cricket hungry community.
Unlike St George, junior growth has exploded beyond ground availability. And for the first time, this season hosted an all-girls junior association competition on Sunday mornings.
Despite steady Blacktown senior participation for over a decade, McKinder senses opportunity. In tandem with leaders of unaffiliated Sunday competitions and the local council, the Blacktown frontman hopes to capture future competitions under the association banner.
It’s a bright spot among a negative constant, a win for the growth of open minds.
Indian migration topped Australia’s intake for the first time in 2017-18, with 19 per cent of NSW’s 96,590 migrants originating from the cricket-loving nation.
For Ankur Newasker, cricket helped ease his family into the Blacktown area two years ago. Originally from Vadodara, 400 kilometres north of Mumbai, Newasker immediately signed his son to the Blacktown City juniors and jumped aboard as assistant coach.
Respectful and reserved, the practising scientist is grateful for access to cricket facilities superior to those in India and heartened by the encouragement of local administrators.
On a Saturday morning at Angus Park in the outer suburb of Rooty Hill, the proud father traced Indian cricket’s surge in popularity back to 1983, when the legendary Kapil Dev hoisted the country’s first World Cup.
Then as if scripted, that unbridled Indian passion exploded with a clap and fist pump when his son broke through with his first wicket of the season.
“Cricket is always the first option for parents because it comes to them in a natural way, youngsters don’t have to learn it from schools or read the books,” he says, reflecting on the innate bond many Indians share with the game.
“I would say cricket is genetically inherited.”
Over the past 20 years, McKinder has witnessed the conversion of empty paddocks to bustling housing estates with enchanting temples. That working-class lustre, so long synonymous with Blacktown, now tarnishes with every multi-story mansion.
“It’s funny, Blacktown was once the bastard child of cricket. For years they were either in the Penrith comp or the Parramatta comp, and then we went, ‘No, we can start our own’ and now we are bigger,” McKinder says.
“I reckon somewhere between 75-85 per cent of our juniors have Indian-born parents. And in the seniors, I reckon players of Indian heritage account for 70-80 per cent.”
Migration is only a fraction of the grassroots complexity.
With eight million people, NSW has a population 25 per cent bigger than Victoria, yet for club participants 15 years and older, the southern state is a whopping 19 per cent in front.
Spyrdz doesn’t shy away from the shortfall or the enormity of the task at hand.
“Community Cricket NSW was historically very under-resourced against all other states,” Spyrdz says.
“We only had 36 staff servicing the whole state, South Australia had something like 50. But just over 12 months ago we got an uplift, we went from 36 to 86 staff in NSW.”
That said, the upsize hasn’t satisfied everyone. Newcastle region club administrators Aaron Gray and Chris Oliver feel competition cricket has been sold short. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the spat last year where the duo blamed authorities for diminishing club numbers as they chased participants for external competitions.
For many aspiring stars, cricket’s perception is still one of long days in your whites in the heat. It’s the death knell grassroots leaders fear most.
Spyrdz still bristles at the accusations and uses Newcastle as an example of social cricket’s massive emergence across NSW.
Three years ago, following a poor response to an association proposed woman’s T20 competition, Community Cricket interjected with a social cricket alternative.
“The association got quite upset about that. They thought that they run the cricket, well no one owns cricket including us,” says Spyrdz.
“We opened the Sixers Social Woman’s Cricket competition in Newcastle. We charged $60 and the only time available was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. We had 20 teams sign up in ten days, within another ten days we had another 20 teams ready to go for a six-week comp, soft ball, eight-a-side, no pads.”
Now with over 50 teams and a unique family atmosphere, the competition is box office.
“All because it’s non-competitive, not frightening. They just want to play and have fun,” he says before turning the screws. “So, my question is, do you think those girls playing social cricket are playing cricket?”
Since the 1970s when Kerry Packer rocked traditionalists with World Series Cricket, the game at the elite level has continued to evolve. Now England’s 100-ball format is set to challenge T20, while rumblings persist of four-day Tests.
Spectators have flocked with each format change and for the majority of the modern generation, the short form is all they know.
Yet for many aspiring stars, cricket’s perception at the community level is still one of long days in your whites in the heat. It’s the death knell grassroots leaders fear most.
Antiquated management models do little to alleviate the tension. For over 100 years Cricket NSW has not run district cricket associations, they are affiliated. That’s more than 150 associations each capped with their own agendas, free to operate largely as independents.
It’s a barrier Spyrdz and his team negotiate every day.
“So, if you ask the question, ‘What is proper cricket?’, you get over 150 different answers. It was like an overgrown garden that kept growing and growing. It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve been able to assist them with their policies and procedures and in some cases looking at standardisation,” he says.
“The challenge is, if the associations don’t want to adopt the policy, they don’t adopt it.”
McKinder likens cricket development in Blacktown to a slow-growing Moreton Bay fig but now sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Stuff I proposed 20 years ago was met with ‘No, no, cricket is only played on Saturday mornings and afternoons as it always has been,’” he says.
“But now we are seeing the next generation of administrators come through and they are flexible to change.”
By comparison, administration at St George appears more stagnant.
“The attendance at the monthly committee meeting is mostly the same people. They have been there for a while now; most more than seven years and we are getting greyer,” says Walz.
Both associations offer traditional one and two-day senior formats on Saturday afternoons, while new starter numbers have risen in response to Cricket Australia’s short-pitch initiative.
McKinder is cognisant of the difficulties faced by new migrants. And backed by a resourceful committee, the Blacktown president is now targeting those outside the box unaligned to current offerings.
On Sundays, players of mostly Indian heritage play unaffiliated games on council grounds independent of the Mosaic Cricket Association – a Cricket Australia initiative set up in 2015 to support multicultural cricket organisations.
McKinder estimates a registered competition with more than 400 players is realistic and eventually hopes to run it under the banner of the Blacktown City and District Cricket Association.
“If you ask the question, ‘What is proper cricket?’, you get over 150 different answers. It was like an overgrown garden that kept growing and growing.”
“Blacktown houses are expensive now. These guys work six or seven days a week, they don’t want to play the long form and they generally want to play on a Sunday. At the moment the association doesn’t have Sunday access to the grounds,” said McKinder.
Eligibility requires players to register using the MyCricket database and teams must cover ground insurance. To date, eight teams have nominated and an independent organiser has outlined team fees and a winner’s prize.
It’s a sizeable step against long-held beliefs. Beliefs that also make winters for Indians living in Australia long and quiet.
Newasker acknowledged the priority of winter sports. But said if he was granted one wish, grounds would be made available on Sundays to satisfy the year-round demand for cricket in Sydney’s west.
McKinder hears the beat of the drums as many locals already participate in the inner-city Moore Park competition. His goal is to save locals the trip and said negotiations with the council are currently progressing to accommodate an estimated four grades and 24 teams.
On a state scale, Spyrdz considers winter cricket growth to over 180 teams as a shining light but is just as quick to kick associations for missing the opportunity.
“The Sydney winter comp is growing because more people wanted to play cricket all the time.
“Clubs and associations didn’t want to offer it, so someone else did and it’s going gangbusters.”
For the likes of Greene at St George, the imbalance presents a real threat. Participation numbers in non-association formats like ‘last man stands’ and rogue winter competitions look great on paper. But there’s little satisfaction for high-performance clubs reliant on pathways to unearth the next generation of income-producing stars.
The concern isn’t lost on Spyrdz, who is desperate to improve relationships with associations and grow the game across the board.
“Those associations who we work very closely with are seeing great results in growth and expansion,” he says.
“Those that continue to say, ‘Go away we don’t need your help,’ are now finding themselves more isolated and in many regards continue to contract.”
One group to reap the benefits after raising the white flag is the South Eastern Junior Cricket Association. Just over six months ago, the heads of the Inner West Harbour and South East Juniors handed over the management keys to Cricket NSW who rebranded the association as the Sixers Cricket League.
The user-pay model managed by Community Cricket is one of eight across the state. It’s a professional competition management system and for a levee of $20 per player, it’s a great way to alleviate the burden on time-poor volunteers at the association level.
Community Cricket’s full-time staff are able to offer different features and accept the risk. Just this year alone, competitions have been run in different time slots and already there are 26 more teams than the previous year.
It’s that simple impartiality that can open association doors to modern society trends, like in Sydney’s south, where Greene laments poor teenage retention rates.
“Many of them are under more pressure at school and as much as anything else I think there are more options for parents,” Greene says.
“It’s what I call the SUV weekend environment, in other words, you’re not likely to interrupt winter sport with a weekend away but in summer the opportunity presents itself with nice weather, so that puts pressure on maintaining participation in competition formats because people don’t want to be committed.”
Spyrdz sees better commitment in the 14-17 age group where cricket is packaged in shorter offerings like an eight-week T20 competition on a Thursday night where there is less interference on part-time work or study.
And if traditionalists don’t find comfort in that message, they’ll need to duck the next.
“It’s interesting, not everyone wants to be part of the association model. In many cases the structure doesn’t provide what these players want. And it’s not just players from overseas, it’s Australian-born participants too.”
And as the morning traffic built along Moore Park Road, so did the tension in Spyrdz’s voice.
“So, I’d say to St George, if you only play two-day cricket or only offer full afternoons on a Saturday over summer, then most blokes can’t do that or they’re not interested in doing that. So what other offerings are there for these people?”
Models addressing the game’s perception are starting to bear fruit.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he says.
“But the future is starting to move more into those social offerings. In a sense that, what can people play that isn’t a 16- or 20-week competition that takes six hours on a Saturday afternoon.”
Cricket at the elite level has always adapted in times of change. And beyond the doom and gloom at the grassroots are tinges of green. In Sydney alone, pockets under pressure should seek inspiration from those on the up.
While the manager of community cricket believes Sydney will evolve into a very different market including greater choices for women, he believes the old structures of clubs and associations will continue because they are an important pathway for those players that need it.
Tough love aside, all Spyrdz and his team want to do is help those in need.
“We all love cricket and we all want to see cricket grow.”
Written by Jason Hosken
Jason Hosken is mad for live cricket and rugby league, and since 2014 the void beyond the stand has been filled with regular contributions to The Roar. When he’s not bowling seam-up at his local park, talk about Manly’s 40-0 premiership victory is never far away.
Editing and design by Daniel Jeffrey
All images are by Jason Hosken unless otherwise stated.
Lead image is by Adam Pretty/Getty Images.
Final image is by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images.