Registrations soar as cricket emerges from lockdown
Winter cricket leagues around Australia are being played under strict new regulations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic
2 July 2020, 12:22 PM AEST
Winter cricket leagues around the country have seen a surge in interest as the sport makes a comeback amid tight health controls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While predominantly a summer sport, annual winter cricket competitions in Darwin and Adelaide are already underway and leagues in Sydney, Brisbane and parts of Melbourne are scheduled to start later this month, with registrations increasing by up to 35 per cent in some cases.
A socially-distanced sport by its very nature, cricket has been able to return while some winter football codes, which involve physical contact and multiple players in a small space, have been delayed due to health concerns.
The absence of these traditional winter options and a strong desire for community sport to resume after months of lockdown are said to be the main contributors to the jump in interest.
Organisers of a junior competition in Sydney have even been forced to turn people away due to an annual increase from 105 teams to 130, representing some 250 extra players.
"We actually had to close off registrations because we simply didn't have enough grounds," Andrew Percy, secretary of the Sydney Winter Junior Cricket Association, told cricket.com.au.
"It's hard to judge, but I think we could have easily had another 20 teams. There were lots of disappointed people who we unfortunately couldn't take on at this late stage.
"The impact on some of the traditional winter sports has been significant, so I think that has definitely had an impact (on registration numbers).
"From a parents' point of view with any safety concerns they may have, they still want the kids to get out there and be active in a safer sport, all things considered."
However, it's not exactly cricket as we know it.
In addition to a ban on shining the ball – using saliva to maintain the ball has also been outlawed at international level – players aren't allowed to share equipment, drink bottles or dressing-rooms.
The new rules have been implemented at a national level by Cricket Australia, but there has been flexibility based on individual state regulations; for example, the Adelaide league was forced to start its season last month as a 10-a-side competition due to a South Australian government restriction that capped sports to a maximum of 20 people (that rule has now been relaxed and the competition has resumed with 11 players on each team).
Former Australia captain Belinda Clark, CA's Executive General Manager of Community Cricket who implemented the framework for games to resume amid the pandemic, said players have adapted well to the changes.
"They're very similar to the restrictions we're all facing in normal life, they've just been tailored to make sure that community sport can implement them," Clark told cricket.com.au.
"You obviously don't want to be in a small huddle for long periods of time. That means celebrations are a 'well done' and you're on your way. But we're not picking up serious concerns coming out of Darwin and Adelaide.
"The main risks are around … drink bottles and food, sharing equipment and saliva on the ball. They're the major things we need to manage.
"The high-risk elements are being managed really well.
"That's why we've been able to get these comps up without any major issues. It'd much more difficult if you're playing rugby league or rugby union or AFL because of the closeness with other people."
Adelaide's SACA Super Cricket winter competition has grown to 38 teams this year, up from 28 twelve months ago, with players predominantly from diverse backgrounds in Asia.
Before the competition began, a member of each team – a 'COVID captain' responsible for ensuring their players follow the new protocols – was required to complete a mandatary online safety course, while an online webinar was also conducted with officials.
Jordan Capel, SA cricket's Diversity and Inclusion Officer, said adjusting to the game without celebratory hugs and high fives has been the biggest challenge for players in the competition.
He expects restrictions around ball maintenance may become problematic once senior club cricket gets underway later this year, but the winter competition has so far been a success.
"I think COVID has had a positive impact in terms of numbers just because more people than ever want to get out and play sport," he said, adding restrictions on shining the ball have had little impact on the winter games given it's a 20-over competition.
"These community groups just want to be out playing. They're so passionate about cricket. One guy said to me in the first week it started that his boys were so happy, and it was the first time they had been smiling and happy for three months.
"Within these groups, it's definitely a sustainable model. Going into the higher-level competitions is where we'll really be tested with the shining the ball, when that competitive nature comes into it.
"But from what I've seen so far, cricket looks pretty normal here in South Australia. If you were just walking past and saw a game going on, it wouldn't be any different to what it would have been three or four months ago."
Community cricket has been hit hard by recent redundancies at state associations around the country, decisions Clark says have been out of her control.
Despite 40 people also being made redundant at the national body, Clark has been able to maintain head count in her department and also protect the multi-million dollar investment in advancements to the online MyCricket platform, plus greater access to remote support for clubs and associations.
She's "cautiously optimistic" that all cricket will be able to return this summer and play a role in helping Australians get back to a sense of normality.
"We will probably need a bit of a sporting fix after the winter that was," she said.
"(The success of the winter competitions is) telling me that if we can make people feel safe and run the guidelines as we should be as a sport, people believe it's a worthwhile pursuit.
"We're cautiously optimistic about how the sport will rebound.
"What is life going to look like in September? I've got no idea. But based on the current constraints, we've found a way through it."