Australia's deaf squad has one eye on the horizon for mainstream acceptance as they prepare for a major tournament in the UAE this week
Aussies eye ultimate goal ahead of Champions Trophy
Australia's men's team flew out for the Deaf International Cricket Council T20 Champions Trophy in the United Arab Emirates this week carrying high hopes, but also realistic expectations about bringing home some silverware.
Almost four years have passed and a worldwide pandemic has emerged since the previous global T20 tournament for deaf cricketers was held in India, and Australia coach Jason Mathers is hopeful his squad can challenge for the title even though they find themselves effectively playing 'out of season'.
But an even greater prize is motivating Mathers and his men, with the coach harbouring a dream that strong performances on the international T20 stage could provide the necessary springboard for a deaf player to earn a place on the list with a KFC BBL club.
In the same way Cricket Australia's Indigenous program has helped provide players the calibre of D'Arcy Short with a pathway to representative cricket, Mathers believes exposure at global tournaments and in the National Inclusion Series will eventually see deaf players make the transition.
"These events are a great way to promote just how good sportspeople these players are," Mathers told cricket.com.au prior to the squad departing for Ajman in the UAE where they play their opening game on Tuesday evening.
"They are fantastic players, and their disability isn't a factor at all.
"They find a way around it, they work really hard and they are terrific cricketers.
"The end goal, which COVID-19 has admittedly put a bit of dent in over the past couple of years, is to try and get someone through this program eventually playing for a BBL club.
"That's our ambition; that's what we aspire to.
"It may take some time, but if we keep providing these opportunities, give the players adequate coaching then hopefully we can get someone through our program on to bigger and better things."Image Id: AEBDF5B6CDA144998639186BF1DD4678 Image Caption: Australia's deaf squad gather for a team talk in the UAE // cricket.com.au
To help realise that objective, members of the Australia deaf squad have been encouraged to become involved with Premier Cricket clubs in their home states to not only supplement the training they undertake, but also gain insight into how aspiring first-class players prepare.
Mathers points to the progress of fast bowler Austin Philip – unavailable for the upcoming Champions Trophy – who played most of last summer with Parramatta's second grade outfit in Sydney's Premier Cricket competition, claiming 10 wickets at 23.90 from his eight matches.
While several members of the 15-man Champions Trophy squad hail from regional towns where they play with local clubs, some have grasped the opportunity to work with Premier Cricket teams during the past winter ahead of the first full summer of national deaf cricket since the pandemic.
"We've already seen, without even a domestic season being played, an improvement being made because they've been in and around those grade cricket clubs getting ready for the Australian summer coming up," Mathers said.
"That's the first step – get them involved in some good Premier Cricket and then also some specialised coaching with us and our satellite programs, with interpreters and the like.
"Then hopefully we can get someone in the BBL."
The push to have players involved with Premier Cricket Clubs had picked up pace after the 2018 Deaf World Cup in India, in which Australia failed to reach the final where Sri Lanka defeated the host nation.
However, the onset of COVID-19 not only reduced those opportunities but brought a two-year halt to international and national competitions for deaf players in Australia.
As a result, the team Mathers has coached since 2017 was understandably rusty when pitted against Ashes rival England in this year's International Cricket Inclusion Series held for deaf, blind and intellectual disability squads in Brisbane last June.
The deaf team lost the five-game T20 series against England 3-2 and was swept 0-3 in the 50-over matches that followed, but the scoreline reflected the reality it was the first time the squad had assembled since the 2018 World Cup while their opponents had come straight from a full summer of competition at home.
"During COVID a lot of the guys dropped off for a number of reasons – they either had to work or they were trapped at home, depending on which state they were in," Mathers said.
"So it was very, very difficult.
'We were coming from a long way back when we played England earlier this year.
"But having these two series (Inclusion and Champions Trophy) close together, when they get back to Australia they'll have some international experience and then another home season under their belts, so we'll start to look to challenge then."
Consequently, the squad chosen for the Champions Trophy in Ajman features some promising new talent as Mathers builds a squad he hopes will be capable of challenging for the next Deaf World Cup.
The squad that departed from Australia last Thursday includes experienced performers the likes of skipper Andrew Park and veteran Luke Trudgett who has been a regular in the team for almost two decades, as well as batting all-rounder David Melling who Mathers believes "would make any World Deaf XI if there was one".
Read more: 2018 World Cup flashback
Those "old hands" are complemented by a raft of fresh talent, among them Harry Bell from New South Wales whose improvement over the past six months saw him rewarded with selection in the recent England series, and left-arm wrist spinner Shrey Patel from Adelaide who is tipped to revel in the hot, dry UAE conditions.
"Shrey's bowling is very, very hard to pick and given he's still a teenager, I think he's a future star and we're looking to get some experience and game time into him so he can get better and better each tour," Mathers said.
Australia also have three uncapped players in their squad – Liam Prineas and Nicholas Mahoney (both Queensland), and Thomas Robertson who is a dairy farmer from Hallora in Victoria's Gippsland.
Having been identified for his pace bowling and aggressive middle-order batting, Robertson – who goes by the social media handle 'Lone Wolf' – was unable to take part in the recent Ashes series due to his work commitments.
"I went to have a meeting with him at the farm, and he made me a cup of tea as we sat down and had a chat, and he worked out with his family that his dad will help run the farm while he's off in the UAE," Mathers said.Image Id: 1E5DCBDFBC6941BAAC0AD1BB7A9B85B6 Image Caption: The Aussies beat India by 35 runs in a warm-up match // cricket.com.au
"He's one of the guys we've found through the connections that have come from the great stories Cricket Australia have been doing about all-abilities cricket, with people reading about it.
"Thomas is a big strong lad in his early 20s who plays centre half-back for Poowong Football Club, and played in a flag for Ellinbank in last year's A-grade cricket competition."
Mahoney is another strongly built young player who his coach describes as "a raw-boned Queenslander" and is the squad's youngest member, but has already earned a reputation for wielding the willow with menace as well as bowling a "heavy ball" as a seamer.
The 16-year-old was on Australia's emergency list for this year's England series in Brisbane, as was Prineas who is studying physiotherapy at university in Brisbane and was at every game of the Ashes campaign to lend support even though he had missed selection in the final squad.
"Liam's gone away and worked really hard on his game, got some extra coaching and become much more consistent," Mathers said of the strapping fast bowler.
"One other thing about Liam is you always know where he is, because he's always talking and having a laugh.
"He's a really vibrant character and a fantastic member of the team."
Since the Ashes series earlier this year, the men's deaf squad convened for a two-day training camp at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane where they engaged in a couple of practice games as well as training and bonding sessions ahead of their campaign in the UAE.
Players have also been involved with their local clubs, while additional satellite training programs have been rolled out across the states through the ongoing support of Commonwealth Bank.
And some individual members of the squad have taken it upon themselves to contact Test spinner Nathan Lyon, a long-time supporter and ambassador for Australia's inclusion teams, to glean insights into what sort of playing surfaces and conditions they might encounter in Ajman.
"He's an integral part of the squad," Mathers said of Australia's most successful Test off-spinner, who recently revealed he's learning Auslan sign language to enable better communication with deaf players.
"Nathan's been a fantastic mentor.
"He came to our camp before the World Cup in 2018, did some training sessions, came out to dinner with the group, and has been fantastic in passing on his knowledge and entertaining us with stories about tours as well.
"Whenever we have a camp, he'll come and visit and now we're teaching him a little bit of sign.
"He's invested in the program, and when he can he trains at our satellite sessions and does a bit of work with the NSW squad as well.
"He's been absolutely phenomenal, that's the only words I can use to describe it."
National Deaf squad for 2022 Deaf International Cricket Council T20 Champions Trophy: Andrew Park (NSW – capt), Callum Asbury (Vic), Lewis Beard (NSW), Harry Bell (NSW), Justin Morgan (Vic), Tyson Hay (Vic), Shrey Patel (SA), David Melling (WA), Luke Trudgett (Qld), Nick Budden (Qld), Sean Walsh (Qld), Cameron Wilson (NT), Liam Prineas (Qld), Nicholas Mahoney (Qld), Thomas Robertson (Vic).