Young guns tread fine-tuned cricket pathway

The Australian cricket pathway has a number of unique features, including the chance to offer players international competition

In the midst of winter, far removed from the glorious summer days of playing the game, the future of Australian cricket is quietly working towards taking the next step. 

For the underage players, school and life experience come before cricket, with Cricket Australia's Pathways Program providing guidance as the often myriad choices in all aspects rear up. 

Graham Manou, the former one-Test Australia wicketkeeper, knows well the importance of development on and off the field, and of preparing for life after sport. 

Now CA's Pathways Manager, Manou previously worked with the Australian Cricketers' Association.

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"The role of the Pathway program is provide these young players with experiences that they otherwise wouldn't get playing other sports," Manou said,

"We've got the ability to offer international competition, and I think we're in a really good space in terms of offering exposure to higher levels as well within the Pathway, where it challenges players from a skill perspective.

"More importantly though, we've got a really good structure in place which allows them to develop as people, which is first and foremost for me, as it's probably the most critical thing in their development phase.

"To go through Year 12, it's quite an emotionally challenging time. As a sport, we don't want to add to that pressure. 

"Should they choose cricket, that's great, but we want to make sure these guys are prepared for life after sport, whatever that may look like."

More than the game for Aussie U19s

Of the Australia Under 19 team that played a series against Sri Lanka last month, two-thirds are still in high school, and many were studying for key exams between cricket sessions.

Part of that series involved developing a balance between sport and study, including study sessions, professional development and wellbeing monitoring with Cricket Tasmania Player Development Manager Billymo Rist. 

Many of the players in this squad earned selection on the back of impressive performances at both the under-17 and under-19 championships, including the likes of Victorians Zak Evans and Will Sutherland, New South Wales quartet Iain Carlisle, Jason Sangha, Austin Waugh and Jack Edwards, and South Australia's Lloyd Pope.

The opportunities extend to include CA Rookie Camp programs, state program opportunities, and training opportunities at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, among others.

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"What we're trying to do is to prepare these guys for elite-level sport and a professional lifestyle," Manou said.

"Over the six-year journey – if players are lucky enough to be in a part of every team coming through the pathway – there is ample opportunity to understand what that looks like.

"We facilitate camps, on-tour education and personal development, and we plan for these sorts of things to ensure these young guys have some life balance."

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Similar to a university graduate stepping into the workforce, the elite that progress through the Pathways program can progress to full-time cricket.

"They exit a couple of high-pressure years in their schooling, and then moving into a professional sport, that pressure or anxiety can increase, particularly in an environment when they're around older professionals where a year of two prior to that they may have been their heroes," Manou said,

"We hope these programs benefit their performances in that environment, but then also helps them manage their time outside of the game to give them other areas to focus on outside of cricket."

Most of all, Manou said, the decision to pursue a career in sport boils down to one factor – enjoyment. 

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"It has to be about enjoyment, and that's one of the key messages that we're continually driving within our Pathway," he said.

"It still has to be fun. We have to remember that they're still teenagers, they're finding out a lot about themselves. If we can provide programs that firstly are enjoyable, but secondly help them learn, develop and grow as people, regardless of whether they choose cricket, they're better for the experience and time in the game and the system."

That sentiment is echoed by Simon O'Donnell, one of an elite few sportspeople to have played both international cricket and VFL-AFL football.

The former Australia allrounder played six Tests and 87 ODIs, plus 24 VFL matches for St Kilda, and now has a son – emerging Victorian paceman Tom – also rising through the cricketing ranks.

For multi-talented players such as Sutherland, who is still in school yet could choose between sports for a career, O'Donnell says the decision should lie in passion.

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"(Sutherland's) very talented, and I think that's testament to the rigours and processes to get through the underage footy system and the underage cricket system these days — and Will has done it with both," O'Donnell told SEN on Tuesday morning.

"It's a difficult time for him. He's spent his life playing footy in the winter and cricket in the summer and suddenly now one of those has to give way.

"The key to the decision in my mind with what you have to do going forward is all about passion. 

"It's not about money, it's not about where all this will end up … The key ingredient is where the passion lies.

 "It is imperative that the decision is made on passion, not finance. I don't think you're going to reach the top in either if the passion isn't there."

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