Growing cricket’s diversity takes more than money

In the last week of October in Hamilton, deep in the heart of Western Victoria, mums, dads and grandparents gathered on a Wednesday evening for the launch of the new local Renegades Girls Cricket League. More than 40 girls aged between 12 and 15 played two short matches, putting on a great show for the supportive crowd, displaying a higher skill level than anticipated, and enjoying themselves in the process.

Watching from the sidelines, Lloyd Illet, President of the Hamilton District Cricket Association and one of the drivers behind the new competition, said the night had exceeded their expectations. Given it has been such a long time coming, its success must have been a relief.

‘This has been talked about for ten years,’ said Illet. Funding to support the competition’s establishment was secured recently via Cricket Australia’s new Growing Cricket for Girls fund, making this year the ideal launching point. But there’d been years of planning and experimenting long before the fund was announced, and long before increasing female participation was such a high priority for the national body. That kind of longstanding passion, commitment and hard work is something money can’t buy.

This new league will plug a gap in the local cricket development pathway for girls. The District has run a women’s competition for the past 19 seasons – a league Illet describes as ‘socially competitive, or maybe competitively social’. Attracting players from Warrnambool, Portland and Casterton, it includes professional players among its alumni, like Melbourne Stars and VicSpirit medium-pace bowler Emma Kearney.

The Association has also enjoyed good participation by girls in their In2Cricket programs and under 12s competitions. However only the most confident and committed have continued past this point to play with a local women’s team, or to enter the talent development program under the Western Waves banner.

The new league will provide opportunity for the vital under 15s age group, encouraging more girls to stay in the game for longer. Five teams are committed, and around 50 girls are expected to take part in total. The competition will run for seven weeks from early November. It hasn’t been decided yet whether there will be a final; Illet confirmed ‘that will be up to the girls’, because participation, building skills levels and growing a love for the game are the priorities. If the first night was anything to go by, they are well on the way.

One of the keys to getting the competition to this point, according to Ilett, was the support of Cricket Victoria’s local representative, Stephen Field.

‘Stephen has been the driving force behind cricket in the region,’ said Illet. ‘He’s been outstanding for all girls cricket, not just in Hamilton, but across Victoria.’

The longest serving Regional Cricket Manager in the state, Field has been developing and promoting cricket in the vast Western District for twenty-one years. He coordinates the Western Waves pathway development programs and competitions, and was the foundation coach for Cricket Without Borders, a Melbourne-based charitable organisation that creates opportunities for young women through sport.

Field says there’s one thing the associations and clubs in his region that have accessed the Growing Cricket for Girls fund all have in common.

‘The clubs that have a history of doing the right thing with juniors are the ones making the best of it,’ said Field. Even so, he says the workload involved can be a challenge. This might include setting up MyCricket accounts, arranging “come and try” sessions, coordinating registrations and fee payments, and ordering all new uniforms and equipment.

‘In the first instance there’s going to be a lot of work, and that’s why the money is there,’ says Field, explaining that most of the grant recipients would use some grant funds to pay a coordinator. Inevitably though, it takes more than the efforts of one person, so in the early days it’s the existing volunteers who need to pick up the slack. And indeed, the volunteers did the work to access the funds in the first place. Field says that working out a way to do all of this, and yet still ‘set it up so it doesn’t look stressful’ is a key to success. The expertise and support of Field and his assistant officer has been vital in helping to achieve that.

Aimee White, Cricket Victoria’s Female Participation Specialist, says there are plenty of grants going out across the state. Eleven new or expanded all-girls competitions will run across Victoria this season, and more than a hundred clubs have accessed funding to start up a girls team.

Even after securing a grant, however, some clubs have faced challenges in meeting the funding conditions, such as the requirement for an accredited coach, or for a child protection policy and officer. Some clubs have also experienced difficulty in recruiting players, a problem she feels is indicative of a broader need to think outside the box.

‘I don’t think clubs have seen the value of a female promoting girls cricket,’ said White. For all the genuine, well-meaning enthusiasm that older men in clubs may have for growing the game, she says it doesn’t easily translate into helping young girls to see that the game can be for them.

Another key challenge White sees for the growth of girls cricket is a perception of it being a ‘butch’ game – an image she says is more likely to rest with the parents than the girls themselves. She says it’s a situation that isn’t helped when Mum might head along to a sports store with her daughter to buy cricket whites to play in, and is confronted only with signposted racks of men’s and boys’ clothing.

For White though, the biggest need for support and development within most clubs is how they recruit and manage volunteers to increase their capacity. She recounted a recent conversation with a club representative struggling to find a coach for the new girls team.

‘He told me he was already coaching four teams, and he’d asked the other dads and none had come forward. And I said well why hadn’t he asked the mums,’ said White. ‘Unless you ask, they’re not going to come forward.’ Crucially though, she stressed it will be important for the clubs to provide the right training, support and recognition along the way, as they should for all of their volunteers. She sees it as an area ripe for development.

Illet agrees that bringing new volunteers on board is crucial for the future success of their new league and the clubs participating in it. He said finding people who were ‘prepared to coach the kids, prepared to run around’ was the biggest challenge they’ve faced so far. Since that first night’s action in Hamilton, however, he is hopeful this will change in time.

‘By bringing the kids along, it gets the mums along,’ he said, adding that even some of the grandparents at the league’s launch were asking ‘How can we get involved’. The signs are promising, then, that the small band of passionate volunteers who’ve carried the weight so far will soon have reinforcements. It remains to be seen how that will play out over the season ahead.

This feature article was written for an assessment at university, and was first published on my blog Rookie at 43.

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