“Who’s winning?” The cardinal sin of cricket spectating — asking who’s ahead. Ask the same question to 10 different punters and you’ll generally get 10 different answers. The same could apply to the question of which is better — English club cricket or Australian? National bias aside, it’s a difficult comparison, in both the men’s and women’s game.
The easy answer, regrettably perhaps, is Australia, through sheer force of statistics — and geography. With fewer states there are fewer Grade cricket leagues than their UK Premier league equivalents — which are spread over numerous counties. At times, competition for places in state squads is almost the equivalent of that for the national one, the quality is so high.
Look at Brendon Julian. Resigned to 12th man duties for Western Australia at the beginning of 1995, a few months later he was spearheading an Australian pace attack which registered the first Test series win by a touring side on West Indian soil for 15 years. More recently Pat Cummins made his Test debut after just three first-class games for New South Wales.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the quality of Australian club cricket is shown by the frequency that their international stars return to play for their clubs. Michael Clarke, in need of ‘time in the middle’ following yet another hamstring injury in the lead up to this year’s World Cup, returned to his Sydney Grade side, Western Suburbs, for just that. Only last week Mitchell Johnson turned out for his hometown club of Wannerroo under similar circumstances. However Ian Bell returning to Coventry and North Warwickshire Sports Club to get a few runs under his belt is not something we are likely to see.
In the women’s game, international superstars appear in Australian Grade cricket even more frequently owing to a far less demanding state and international schedule than for their male counterparts. While Meg Lanning may at times wonder why she bothers (she is yet to be dismissed in Victorian Premier Cricket this season with two centuries in two matches), she continues to turn out for her club, Box Hill, whenever her other duties allow. By contrast, the England women’s captain Charlotte Edwards, leaves us unsure as to which club she currently represents.
The commitment of Australia’s female internationals to club cricket is commendable, but they are in fact obliged, under their contracts, to commit to club cricket when not on international or state duty. No such obligation rests on their English counterparts. Instead it is actively discouraged, in favour of ‘rest’, recuperation and the odd charity shindig here and there.
The presence of top class internationals in club cricket not only develops an individual’s own game — match-practice doesn’t come much better than in a match — but also inspires and teaches the next generation coming through. Last week in a Premier cricket match for Prahran, Annabel Sutherland, recently turned 14 and a star for the future, batted 30 overs with arguably Australia’s most dynamic T20 batsman, Jess Cameron. She then saw the game off in the next 15 overs with Emma Inglis, the hard-hitting wicketkeeper for Vic Spirit and the Melbourne Stars. A better learning experience would be hard to find.
In both its standard and its administration, Victorian Premier Cricket puts on a mighty fine show. Coverage of the men’s and women’s competitions in the local media; centralised and up-to-date scorecards online and in-app; white-ball limited overs matches; a Big Bush cameo to showcase the game further afield — these are all assets to the Victorian amateur game. Even quirky traditions such as the unfurling of a previous season’s Premiership flag by the reigning champions show a pride in the competition. The introduction of junior female competitions such as the Inglis-Strano Cup, named after two state stars and designed to mirror the two BBL franchises within Melbourne is yet another valuable club initiative. All are ideas the club structure in England would do well to learn from.
Victorian Premier Cricket, on both the men’s and women’s side, has also proved a reliable pathway to higher honours. Ian Holland, winner of last year’s Jack Ryder medal, earned a Bushrangers contract through it. Both Fawad Ahmed and recent batting superstar Travis Dean rose through the ranks in similar fashion. Anna Lanning and Cassie Brock are in the mix at state level after their club progress last season. Performances at club are hard fought, respected, and rewarded. It’s a logical progression.
There are areas where England does trump its Antipodean counterparts — the standard of match teas might be a good place to start. England’s club competition also culminates in a national knock-out, or finals for the women — Australia has no such thing. The strength of overseas players in the English domestic game has also long since been superior. Many more women’s clubs are also successfully integrated into large men’s facilities. Then there are the rain covers — England have a little more experience in that department, so perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. In England most Premier clubs also have their own thriving junior sections too, meaning retention and recruitment of players into senior ranks is far easier than for the predominantly senior-only clubs in Australia.
Nevertheless with its team songs, unfurling flags and fierce rivalries, Australian club cricket has an extra edge. There is a confidence too in its domestic competition that it provides the perfect breeding ground for higher honours. Perhaps it’s a rose-tinted view, but Australian club cricket, with its intensity and its demand for respect — maybe that’s what is winning.
Isabelle Westbury is a freelance journalist who writes for numerous English newspapers as well as commentating for the BBC. You can follow her on Twitter HERE