As Smith, Warner return, CA strives to start growing again

7:17 PM ET

Steven Smith and David Warner‘s formal return to the ranks of the Australian team, for a pre-World Cup training camp in Brisbane this week, drew a line of sorts under the Newlands scandal that engulfed Cricket Australia a little more than a year ago.

The reintegration of two high profile individuals such as Smith and Warner can make a quantifiable difference not only to the fortunes of the national team, but also to the wider struggle to ensure that cricket continues to grow as a sport followed an played in a society increasingly beset by pastimes and interests that compete with the relatively old fashioned concept of organised team sport played in school and clubs.

A couple days before the former captain and deputy arrived in Brisbane, the most comprehensive independent study of Australian cricket’s overall participation strength dropped as part of Sport Australia’s rolling AusPlay survey of the sport and recreation habits of the nation. Within its results, collected via the sample study of some 20,000 respondents across Australia that began in 2015 and now adds results taking in the summer of 2017-18, were several standout learnings, both for cricket and where it stands relative to other sports and recreation activities.

Cricket remains an overwhelmingly male dominated game, with only 10% of junior participants and 12% of seniors being women. Its peak age of participation is the tender age of 11, whereupon participation rates gradually decline. And in terms of converting casual participants into fully registered club players and volunteers, cricket’s success rate of 59% among those aged 15 or above lags significantly behind that of Australian Rules football (66%) in particular.

For CA’s game development wing, headquartered alongside the local organising committee for the women’s and men’s T20 World Cups in 2020, in office space nearby the crowded governing body headquarters in Jolimont, Melbourne, few of these conclusions were a surprise. But they helped flesh out a picture that, given the ructions of the past 12 months, has looked at times to be a little on the murky side.

Direct relationships between public interest in cricket and the Newlands fallout are complex, but as the head of participation Stuart Whiley told ESPNcricinfo, a happier World Cup and Ashes tour in England this year will make a difference to how many people choose to take up cricket next summer.

“What we tend to find is how present cricket is in the broader community mind at a point in time makes a difference in terms of the swing deciders,” Whiley said. “There are people who are going to play cricket regardless, people who aren’t going to play regardless and then those who may or may not play in the middle, and that’s a reasonably big chunk.

“How cricket is being seen in the broader community at a point in time will make a difference and has made a difference. If you think about cricket in August/September/October last year, which is when most people in most of the country would make a decision on singing up for cricket of some description, cricket was quiet, and if we weren’t quiet it wasn’t particularly great news. So it’s a little too early to tell, but in terms of sign-ups and registrations, at that point of the year as opposed to the full year where we’ll make up ground, we were a little bit off at that time.

“I couldn’t tell you whether that was because of anything that happened in Cape Town or just cricket being quiet. One of our big opportunities is that I’m not expecting cricket to be particularly quiet in August and September when we’ve got our men’s and women’s teams in England for the Ashes, before that we’ve got the World Cup, and I think that’s a big opportunity for us, and the following year we’ll be off the back of hosting one Twenty20 World Cup and going into another one. The opportunity we’ve got there is that cricket will be really present and loud, hopefully.”

As far back as the mid 2000s, CA began to grow more urgent about ensuring that trends towards a “pale, male and stale” following for cricket were addressed. Innovations like the development of the profile of the women’s national team, plus the founding and growth of the Big Bash League and WBBL have helped push cricket towards a wider and more diverse audience.

However, more recent efforts to ensure that junior formats in particular are more inclusive have been geared at ensuring that more of those attendees and television watchers develop deeper connections with the game. CA’s own annual cricket census, which has shown club-level participation declining over each of its past two editions, has added to the sense of urgency within game development.

“No doubt when you and I grew up and played cricket, there were plenty of days where I would bat, get out early, field and not do much else,” Whiley said. “While that was sufficient for me to fall in love with the game, that’s not for everyone, and if we’re going to be a sport for everyone, we need to have experiences that fit with that. Any time people are having fun or satisfied with the experience they’re more likely to come back, and we’re starting to see that retention pick up.”

One of the more contentious elements of the AusPlay data, particularly in terms of its sport-by-sport breakdown, is a calculation of how great an opportunity there is for growth, taken by subtracting the number of participants intending to get out of cricket from the number who are interested in becoming involved. It is no secret that at CA, the chief executive Kevin Roberts has made a great deal of lifting the level of female interest in the sport, and Whiley said that this area does not necessarily get enough attention through AusPlay.

“We track retention through the census, so we’re very conscious of those we’re losing from the game and increasing retention is a really key focus for us,” he said. “We also track movements through age groups and are conscious that at a general level we’ve got key drop off points in terms of where retention tends to drop, and that fits with where Sport Australia are telling us.

“I’ve got personal experience running a community club and it fits with the experience we live and breathe on the ground as well. What I’d differ on is where they’ve perceived our opportunities and we think we’ve got a much bigger opportunity particularly in the female space. Unapologetically we’re striving to be the leading sport for women and girls in Australia and we’ve got work to do if we want to truly be that across the board.”

Where Smith and Warner’s return will heighten interest in the game, the recent relationship breakdown with the BCCI, preventing Ellyse Perry, Alyssa Healy and Meg Lanning from playing in the women’s IPL exhibition in India this month, has underlined the need for cricket’s elite women’s successes to be given maximum exposure. A standalone WBBL from this October will help, as will the T20 World Cup.

“We’ve got some wonderful elite cricketers who are incredibly successful and incredibly great athletes and sportspeople and doing some great things,” Whiley said, “and the WBBL is taking off, but while we’ve made great inroads in participation we’ve got a lot further to go. It’s a really strong focus for us across Australian cricket.”

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