‘What role does it play?’ Premier cricket faces up to its challenges

When it comes to assessing Premier cricket's role in the sport's grander vision, there is much to consider.

Male players say they want as tough a competition as possible but are the best making enough of an effort to ensure that? The states want battle-hardened talent, with the best then progressing to national duties. Cricket Australia believes Premier cricket is the first step on the high-performance ladder – a point all states except for Victoria have adopted.

David Warner and Steve Smith’s presence was a bonus for Sydney premier cricket last summer.

Victoria believes Premier cricket is the pinnacle of the "grass-roots" system because of its broad nature, as it has links to council, infrastructure and women's cricket, but it still retains a sharp focus on high performance.

Regardless, the challenge is to encourage older, more experienced players – and not only those who have first-class experience – to remain available to impart their wisdom on younger teammates through training and potentially more than 30 matches a season.

Then there is the matter of finances, with clubs fighting for sponsorship to break even. Clearly, there is much to debate, and that's what CA's new head of high performance Drew Ginn is doing, heading into the new season.

"The conversation we have got to be having in Premier cricket, and the real stakeholders, and the various communities is – how does it have real relevance, what role does it play?" Ginn said.

"My thing is that it provides a really great experience for the players in it but it's also (about) retention. If we don't retain players at Premier cricket level, we don't have high membership. If we don't have high membership, we know that's an issue for many sports."

PLAYER BUY-IN

That connection is still there but time constraints for international and first-class players are an issue. The Longstaff report last year reinforced the need for Test stars to head back to their clubs, to shed a "gilded bubble" – an unfair assertion on some – and not forget what the sport is about at the grassroots level. The suspensions of Steve Smith and David Warner hurt the national team last summer but they were an inadvertent boost for NSW premier cricket, where they attracted strong crowds while playing for Sutherland and Randwick Petersham respectively.

Clubs crave having their international and first-class representatives on hand but tight domestic and international schedules make that difficult.

Former Test fast bowler Mike Whitney, who has been president of Sydney grade club Randwick Petersham for 19 years, suggested that a handful of Premier matches around the country be carved out per summer so Test and state stars could play.

Brendan Drew, the Australian Cricketers Association's general manager of cricket operations and player relations and a former coach of the Camberwell Magpies, said the Big Bash League had also had an impact on premier cricket through the Christmas period. While it gave greater incentive to "park" cricketers, the flipside was that selections weakened grade clubs.

Players and clubs are frustrated when the former are not allowed to take to the field – or are on restricted use – because they are being "managed" by state or Australian fitness staff. But as Ginn made clear last month, the new CA model is that if a player is named, he or she won't be held back.

That some Premier competitions complain first-class players are rarely seen at their clubs has to be taken in context although there is a view some are "selfish". In Tasmania, state players are more readily available as there are only nine first XI grade teams. In NSW, with 20 clubs, and Victoria, with18, the first-class talent is spread more thinly.

The ACA's $5 million Premier cricket program aims to encourage former stars to remain in the system in some capacity. This grant helped Adelaide Cricket Club secure former Test quick Shaun Tait as coach.

STANDARD OF PLAY

The one claim that is regularly raised is that the standard of Premier grade is not as strong as it once was. But is that the case? Head to Schramms Reserve in Melbourne, Coogee Oval in Sydney or Peter Burge Oval in Brisbane, and the intensity can be ferocious. This, obviously, rises when state players are back. Imagine facing Peter Siddle and James Pattinson when Dandenong have the new ball?

"We do hear that – that it's not as good as it was 15 or 20 years ago but the same was probably said 30 years ago about them," one Premier batsman said. "It's easy to remember when you faced a state quick or bowled to a state batsman but what about all those games when they weren't there?"

Complicating matters are state and national under-age and development teams, which can also dilute talent at a Premier level.

Cricket Victoria chief Andrew Ingleton.Credit:Joe Armao

WHAT'S NEXT?

All states and territories agree Premier cricket is a pivotal point for aspiring talent.

"We continue to work closely with Premier clubs to grow their connection with our talent pathways, enhance facilities, and strengthen the competition to test and develop players and coaches," says CV chief Andrew Ingleton.

But time factors are an issue, for the best players are expected to be available for two-day, one-day and T20 matches. Financial incentives help, particularly when looking to retain players with young families, although Whitney argues players should play for the love of the sport. Strong coaching is also a must.

More promotion could also help, with several clubs agreeing Premier cricket no longer had the status it once enjoyed. Queensland have lifted the profile of their Premier competition by streaming Twenty20 and one-day matches. Tasmania this week held an open media session with all clubs.

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