ABOVE: Alan Wise steams in for Monash Tigers - where he is Captain-Coach with the help of the Premier Cricket Program.
A million-dollar-a-year program to reverse an alarming fall in standards at club level nationwide - funded out of the pockets of Australian cricket’s biggest names - has proven its value in just its second year of operation.
Northern District and Sydney Cricket Club achieved their best Club Championship results in nearly two decades. Northern District enter finals campaigns this weekend in all four lower grades after a clean sweep in the last regular season round helped the club claim its first Sydney Smith Cup Club Championship title since 1998-99. The Rangers finished ahead of equal second-placed Sydney University and Sydney Cricket Club - another to benefit heavily from the program implemented in June 2015 by Australia’s contracted players.
The performances by the clubs known as ND’s and the Tigers are significant, as they back up the argument that a major factor in the recent demise of local playing standards has been the ever-diminishing connection between successful elite players and youngsters learning the craft. Whereas national-level cricketers used to play at least a handful of games for their club each season, and state players would play often, busy schedules and increasing obligations have robbed up and coming cricketers of the opportunity to source the knowledge of accomplished older players.
In response, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, on behalf of the players, established the Premier Cricket Program, the basis of which is an annual $10,000 grant to every club in the land to spend on keeping seasoned exponents involved as players, coaches and in other capacities. The money comes from a $29 million fund committed by state and national players, nearly half of which was donated by the victorious 2015 World Cup team. This season, the PCP directly engaged 113 ACA members at 84 clubs. Last year, 88 per cent of the 83 participating clubs reported the program as having a positive impact. The PCP is only in its infancy. But success stories such as ND’s and the Tigers suggest the players’ initiative could reap genuine dividends for Australian cricket.
At Northern District, the PCP grant was used to keep former club stalwart and ex-NSW captain Dominic Thornely involved in a hybrid coaching-marketing role.
“When I was younger I played against the likes of Wayne Holdsworth, David Freedman and other state players. But in the last seven or eight years, that went missing a bit,” Thornely says.“The cramped schedule at elite level means that club cricket misses out.
“In my case, I could have gone on and played another three or four years of club cricket. But the standards weren’t what they used to be and I lost interest. Now, with this program, it’s enabled some past players to come back in.”
Thornely - now an assistant Blues coach - attended ND’s training whenever possible to work with players at all levels. On weekends he couldn’t get to games, he would stay in contact via group messaging system Whatsapp.
“It’s just about giving them bits and pieces, advice for the weekend, things the players can consider,” he says.
Thornely also offered the club his corporate knowledge, organising fundraisers to inject desperately needed cash.
He says the involvement of former players on the field, as coaches, in marketing roles or on committees is what the Premier Cricket scene has been lacking.
“The No.1 priority of grade cricket is to supply state cricketers. Quite often people lose that focus and don’t understand how vital it is that the competition stays healthy and competitive.
“A young talented athlete, gifted in a few sports, comes to club practice. If he’s there learning from past first class cricketers it can give him greater interest, greater experience and might be more likely to keep him in the game rather than losing him to AFL or tennis or whatever.
“There are a lot of good coaches out there, but there are certain experiences, tips and ideas you can only learn from someone who’s played first class level.
“I take my hat off to the ACA and the players for funding this program. They know it’s critical to have the right people facilitating important information being passed on.”
Sydney CC, which will contest finals in three of the five grades, including first grade, has benefitted from the experience of ex-Blues wicketkeeper-batsman and BBL star Daniel Smith, who pursued private coaching but returned to the club to mentor and captain firsts.
“What the program has done practically is give me that extra time away from work to get to cricket training and be available for young guys at our club to access me,” Smith says.
“It’s great to play a part in trying to help that next generation of NSW and Australian players.”
Smith says Sydney’s Club Championship standing had improved dramatically since the PCP’s introduction. And he believes standards across the competition are already moving in the right direction.
“I’ve noticed a few more older guys around lately. Having that knowledge and experience back in the grassroots game is so important,” he says.
“Credit’s got to go the Australian cricket team and the state players who agreed to put so much money into it. It’s a great way for them to make sure the grassroots level continues to grow and improve, that there’s the right guys involved. I think the impact will be felt across Australian cricket.”
Jason Krejza returned to the club scene through the PCP. Long before the off-spinner took 12 wickets on Test debut against India in 2008, he would soak up information at club training sessions from the likes of state representatives Neil Maxwell, Greg Hayne and Anthony Clark.
“They’d show you new things, offer their experience,” says Krejza, who was appointed North Sydney Cricket Club’s Director of Coaching this season.
“This PCP has provided an incentive to keep those sorts of players involved at grassroots level. There are now plenty of guys who wouldn’t otherwise be involved staying on, which is a great thing.
“I probably wouldn’t have been involved but I jumped at it because it’s a massive opportunity for me to work in a high performance environment and develop my coaching.”
At St George CC, Steve Cazzulino’s experience has been tapped in much the same way he learnt from the club’s state players Graeme Rummans and Nathan Pilon when he was developing. Cazzulino played 13 first-class matches for Tasmania up till 2014. He returned to St George determined to break into the NSW side, but reality set in.
“When you throw a full time job into the mix, or uni or whatever, to keep a roof over your head, it can be quite tricky to be at your best on the weekend,” the 30-year-old says.
“I was 28 or 29, wondering how realistic it was to get into the NSW squad. The program helped get an extra year out of me on the field, but that was probably going to be about it.”
Cazzulino was running his own business and studying but, through the PCP, found it possible to stay connected beyond playing. This season he trained the club’s batsmen.
“This program fitted in nicely with where I was at in life. It tipped the scales for me to stay involved in cricket,” he says.
Cazzulino - who knows well the challenges of chasing a cricket career - commends those who fund the scheme.
“It’s a couple of grand out of every player’s salary per year, money coming straight from their pocket. For fringe state players that can be quite substantial. It’s a real statement of intent, a program specifically aimed at bettering Australian cricket.”