How brotherly love brought inclusive cricket mainstream

For 23-year-old Josh Niederer, a family journey that started with his autistic brother's desire to join him in playing cricket has turned into a lifelong passion that has seen inclusive cricket programs mix in with the mainstream at their South Australian club

There was one particular Saturday afternoon last season when Josh Niederer paused to take in what he and his family had accomplished.

More than a decade's work was crystallised in a moment, as amid Adelaide's fading summer light he watched a heart-warming scene unfold at Reynella Cricket Club's home ground.

"The way the season had worked out, there was a five-week break for our all-abilities team, which was a long time," says Niederer, who is this year's HCLTech Young Leader of the Year at Cricket Australia's 2024 National Community Cricket Awards.

HCLTech Young Leader of the Year: Josh Niederer

"So we decided to have a centre-wicket training after our A-grade game at Reynella. I said to our A-graders, 'Look, if we can have five or six guys come up for 20 minutes and just help out, do some coaching or some fielding stuff, that'd be awesome.

"And we'd had a horrible day – all four of our grades had lost, so it was gearing up to be a pretty awful night at the club. But it was probably an hour-and-a-half after the session started, I looked around and there were 45 of our mainstream men's cricketers out on the oval, having a laugh, and it was probably the best night at the club all year.

"Then everyone went back in, we all bought a meal together, and I thought there might've been a table for the Inclusive team, but no, they were just spread out amongst the club, chatting to everyone. It was a really special night."

Josh's brother, Callum, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. A decade or so later, in 2013, it proved a catalyst for change for their parents, Jenni and James. Together with then 12-year-old Josh, they established an all-abilities cricket program at Reynella CC in the south of Adelaide.

"Callum would've been about 14 or 15 and he wanted to play cricket," recalls Josh. "I was at Reynella and he came out to my training, and he basically went, 'This is way too fast, too hard for me'.

"And then he said to Mum and Dad, 'Why can't there be a cricket program for people like me?' Mum and Dad said, 'I'm sure there will be – we'll have a look'. And basically, they had a look and there wasn't one. So they went, 'Well, let's make one'."

And so they set to work. The program was makeshift at first, with half a dozen plastic bats, a handful of balls and a few homespun drills. James was head coach, Jenni sorted the admin, and according to Josh, "me and a few of my mates, and a few other people from around the club, just came together to get it done – it was all very loose".

With time though, it has evolved into something else entirely.

"The skills-based program is still running, and now this year we've really tried to make a pathway," says Josh, who is now Inclusive Programs Director at Reynella. "We now have an open-age team, which began (in 2022-23) and they really stepped it up this season to play fortnightly.

"I've stepped in to (coordinate) the younger kids' programs, which are the ones that we started with. This year the first program starts at five and goes up to 12. Then there's 13-16-year-olds as a middle program, so there's that pathway all the way from five to our oldest player in the open-age team, who is 65."

Reynella registered around 25 all-ability players for the 2023-24 season, with the open-age side playing eight rounds in a five-team competition.

With club spirit and a sense of inclusion at the forefront of his thinking, Niederer hasn't failed to miss a detail in everything from a season-opening cap presentation (delivered by the A-grade team skipper) to weekly team announcements on Facebook falling in line with the rest of the club's, to sponsorship drives that have helped provide uniforms and lessened costs for those who often find it a significant barrier to sport. 

"This year, I came onto the committee at the club for the first time and I said, 'I want to oversee all of these (all-abilities) programs," he says. "My goal was to have it feel (inclusive), with the wording around the club to be that we have eight senior teams: our five men's teams, our two women's teams, and our inclusive team.

"We probably had six or seven players from our inclusive team come to our senior presentation, we had some come to our club bowls night, and most of the men's players would be able to name quite a few of the players on the inclusive team, which is awesome.

"The more we can get our inclusive players involved with the club, and do those little things like the cap presentations, or having their names up there with everyone else, that just seems right to me as being part of the club, and those small things can make someone's day.

"So there's always more I'd like to be doing, but I think we're definitely tracking in the right direction."