JLT One-Day Cup 2017
Carey's crushed AFL hopes pave new path
A harsh end to his aspirations in one sport led to opportunity another for the Redbacks' outstanding 'keeper-batsman
23 September 2017, 12:49 PM AEST
As the Greater Western Sydney Giants eye the greatest achievement of their comparatively brief Australian Football League existence, the fledgling club's inaugural champion will watch on with riveted interest but also with deeply conflicted allegiances.
It's not that Alex Carey, the Giants' captain and best-and-fairest winner when they first appeared as an entity in the pre-eminent Australian rules under-18 competition in 2010, is consumed by envy for those who have successfully forged careers in the nation's indigenous football code.
The divided loyalty stems from his affinity for the precocious young Sydney outfit – and in particular his close friendship with a number of current Giants players, most notably their 2017 all-Australian representative Dylan Shiel – competing against his committed support for the Giants' premiership rivals, the Adelaide Crows.
Carey, touted by some shrewd judges as the keeper-batsman most likely to ascend to Australia's Test team should incumbent Matthew Wade be injured or omitted, was among the sold-out crowd at Adelaide Oval last night, cheering his Crows in their preliminary final against Geelong.
And should the day dawn when his home team face the Giants in the annual AFL grand final, the MCG event that rivals an Ashes Test on Boxing Day as Australia's biggest team sports spectacle, Carey is further torn as to whether his heart should hold sway over his history.
"That's a tough one," the 26-year-old, who has forged a new career in South Australia's first-class and limited-overs outfits over the past two summers, told cricket.com.au when asked which side would win his support should the Crows and Giants square off in a grand final.
"Hopefully Dylan (Shiel) gets Best on Ground, and the Crows get over the line – just."
While Carey's capacity to ditch football boots, and the lure of a professional life in Australia's dominant winter code, for keeping gloves and an equally rosy future as a potential Test cricketer might suggest a talent audaciously honed for either vehicle, the reality is far less prosaic.
As a schoolboy, Carey combined his wicketkeeping and top-order batting ambitions with his passion for football where, at age 15, he was playing at reserves level for Glenelg in the South Australian National Football League (a tier below the national AFL competition).
But when the AFL's expansion into high-growth regions in Queensland's Gold Coast and Sydney's western suburbs saw them grant a licence to a new GWS Giants franchise, Carey's football skills meant he was not only plucked to be part of their first year as an under-18 team but was immediately installed as captain.
A decision that was vindicated when the midfielder won the Giants' first best and fairest trophy, and further underscored the next year, when the Giants progressed to the North East Australian Football League in preparation for their entry into the AFL in 2012.
That was where Carey, who had just turned 20, saw his sporting life headed after a successful season in the NEAFL until his aspiration suddenly turned to dust in the space of a brief meeting with the Giant's initial head coach and AFL playing and coaching legend, Kevin Sheedy.
"The second year I was up there (Sydney) I had a really good season playing in the NEAFL alongside (high-profile Giants recruits) Dylan Shiel, Jonathan Giles, Stephen Clifton and Jeremy Cameron, those types of guys," he said.
"All throughout that year I was talking to Craig Lambert (football manager) and Mark Williams (coach) to see how I was going, and they were really pleased with how I was performing.
"The end-of-season review came around and I did that and it was all good news, after a good season, and then it was probably half an hour after that 'Sheeds' (Sheedy) took me down for a coffee and gave me the news that it wasn’t going to be for me.
"They had a heap of young draft picks, up-and-coming players and boys that were on contracts for three or four years and it just pushed me down the list.
"I guess I didn’t really have that X-factor as a footballer, the leg speed or the height that was needed and that was it.
"So I moved back to South Australia, played a little bit of footy at Glenelg and then got back into my cricket."
That was when former Australia coach Tim Nielsen (now High Performance Manager at the South Australian Cricket Association) and his predecessor Jamie Cox convinced Carey that the path denied him in football might potentially exist through cricket, and he opted for the summer sport.
The suddenness and brutality with which his football dream was snuffed out has instilled in Carey a resilience to counter setbacks, such as when he was delisted by the Redbacks at the end of the 2013-14 season and then earlier this year when his hopes of higher honours again evaporated in front of him.
This time, his selection in the Australia A four-day and one-day squads that were scheduled to tour South Africa in July and August – a clear indication that he was in the thinking of the National Selection Panel – was nobbled when the series fell victim to the stand-off over a new Memorandum of Understanding.
The players, through the Australian Cricketers' Association, voted to boycott that series in the absence of an agreed new pay deal.
"To get the news that I was in the squad for the one-dayers and the four-dayers, I was over the moon," Carey said prior to heading to Brisbane with the West End Redbacks squad this weekend to begin their JLT One-Day Cup campaign next week.
"It's Australia A, but to me that's playing for Australia so I was really, really excited to be part of that squad and play over there.
"Even the lead-up, the week that we went up to Brisbane (to the Bupa National Cricket Centre) and trained, it still felt like we were going away and then the news came through that the playing group – and that included me – had decided not to go.
"For that not to happen, personally, I was shattered.
"It was my first opportunity at that level, so it was disappointing but we did it (voted against touring) for all the men's and women's players at all levels of cricket in Australia.
"Hopefully I have another good season, get recognised again and have another chance at that level."
A familiar mantra. But this time in another sport.