The Cricketer: Club scene – Clubbed together or miles apart?

Isabelle Westbury compares the English recreational game with its Australian counterpart, with the help of Daniel Bell-Drummond of Kent and The Grade Cricketer’s Sam Perry

During an ashes series, every aspect of English and Australian life becomes a fevered competition, from how imaginative the crowd chants are, to who serves the best coffee*. as predictably as Nathan Lyon taking Moeen Ali’s wicket, so every level of cricket in each country is scrutinised, often becoming the saviour of, or scapegoat for, a series win or loss. This time county cricket bore the brunt, its bloated 18-team set-up deemed inferior to the She eld Shield, which is played between just six states. inevitably club cricket, the next layer down, is also dissected – and compared. for many young english county players, grade cricket, the highest form of club cricket in each australian state, is a rite of passage. it is an opportunity to play bruising cricket in a warm climate at a standard often compared to some of the second division county teams.

Daniel Bell-Drummond, the young kent opener, spent two seasons playing grade cricket in Brisbane and then adelaide, and would readily do it again. “Definitely,” he told The Cricketer. “it’s a very good standard out there, and helps you to improve in the off season. Playing with and against some internationals was the best thing for me. Joe Burns, James Hopes, and so on. it is definitely a more ruthless system.”

Internationals playing club cricket is a largely alien concept for most English cricketers. It seems, from england at least, that the links between club, state and international cricket in australia are stronger than those between club, county and England cricket.

In recent years, when both Mitchell Johnson and Michael clarke were recovering from injuries, they returned to play grade cricket in e orts to reignite their international careers. this would be unlikely in England; gone are the days of Joe Root flicking one to leg at Sheffield Collegiate CC.

There is also a perception that the opposite is more likely in Australia – of club cricketers climbing their way up to international honours. It is well recognised that australia has the most visible pathway, its pyramidic structure a stark contrast to the regionally scattered premier leagues of english cricket.

“In england, if you’re not in the system from a young age, unless you’re a fast bowler [who normally develop later], it is harder, as counties tend to stick with academy products,” explains Bell-Drummond. “In australia, club cricket is definitely a route into state cricket and that’s where the same can’t be said of england – club cricket doesn’t lead straight to county.”

Sam Perry played Sydney grade cricket for many years, and is also one-third of the team behind the satirical Grade Cricketer twitter account. He agrees that the much vaunted “ladder to the Baggy Green” is a pathway that still exists.

“Most people will tell you that the further back you go the more defined that ladder was,” explains Perry, before debunking the myth that the australian cricket pathway is straightforward. “It has always been a rare occurrence where a professional player has made it through to the state side through the grade system exclusively.”

He acknowledges that if you weren’t in some sort of state set-up at age-group level, the chances of making it to the next level were limited. However, hope is ever present for the toiling club cricketer; as Bell-Drummond notes, performances in english club cricket can still “get you trials for county 2nd XI sides.”

In both countries therefore, the concept of the international club cricketer is in reality more a nostalgic hark back to a different era; increased professionalisation and demands on those professional cricketers’ time means that, according to Bell-Drummond, the Australian structure is “becoming more similar to us [in England], with more emphasis on youth pathways and academies.”

So, the question remains, which is best? An anti-climax, but it is di cult to compare. Just as Englishmen perceive the hard decks and ruthless sledging of Australian club cricket as a core part of a cricketer’s development, many Australians ock to England to challenge themselves on the grassy wickets, playing in inclement weather surrounded by those with a tacit dislike for their Antipodean confidence.

Playing club cricket in the two countries offers very different experiences, and both have their own challenges to contend with. In England, many clubs are struggling for funding with fewer bar tabs and central support, relying more on off-season venue hire and tailored fundraising campaigns, while its youth players are travelling further away and at an earlier age for both university and work.

In Australia, Perry explains that older players no longer play high-level club cricket as the system is so focused on grooming young talent, while many of those younger players nd it di cult to a ord to live near the bigger, better connected clubs, often located in wealthy, suburban neighbourhoods.

Just as the Ashes will survive until the end of time, the debate over club cricket in England and Australia will rage on. Better? Nah, just different.

*Crowd chants – England; coffee – Australia

• A version of this article was originally published in The Cricketer in its March 2018 issue.

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