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Australian cricket enters grassroots recession

Young fans imitate Dennis Lillee's bowling action under his statue at the MCG Getty Images

In the world of finance, "recession" has a simple definition: two consecutive quarters of negative growth. Cricket in Australia now faces an equivalent recession, according to the latest edition of CA's annual census conducted each year since 2000.

While the census has always been accompanied by glowing "participation" numbers, growing every year and once again in 2018 reporting a jump to more than 1.5 million, this figure has long been known to be particularly rubbery, given that according to CA and its census taker Street Ryan it is defined by anyone participating in school programmes or competitions at least four times over a summer. Within that figure, the number of paid-up, registered club cricketers is a far more reliable indicator of the game's grassroots reach, and herein lies the trouble.

In 2018, the number of "club and community" players in Australia has shrunk for the second year in a row, slipping from a peak of 454,657 in 2016 to 444,570 in 2017 and now 432,609. Given the inbuilt tendency of any self-assessed survey to look for gains, this trend may actually be more pronounced than it appears, even as losses from the traditional ranks of male and adult players are offset by growth among female players and juniors. Also notable is the fact that not even these numbers seem truly reliable anymore, as a result of ever widening criteria.

Over the most recent seven surveys, club numbers tell something of a swinging tale. In 2012, the figure was 313,536; in 2013 it rose to 318,830, then jumping in 2014 to an even 337,000. Here is where things become more interesting still, as that was the year CA started to recut the numbers by including less formal "community cricket" numbers also - bumping up the 2014 figure to 400,000.

For 2015, club figures rose again to 344,053, with the amalgamated figure coming in at a more bountiful 415,104. As if by process of evolution, the distinction had disappeared in figures for 2016, when CA trumpeted a seemingly mighty 454,657 "club and community" players. Therefore, the drop-off in that number in 2017 and this year may actually hide a more marked shrinkage of the number of players actually playing the sort of club cricket that could readily be defined as serious participation.

This is not to say that CA is ignoring the aforementioned recession. On the contrary, their version of Keynesian stimulus was announced last week in the form of some A$35 million in directed and strategic funding for community cricket levels. Population growth areas in New South Wales/ACT, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia are to be served by no fewer than 58 new community cricket staffers, nearly A$13 million will be pushed directly towards infrastructure projects, registration fees for junior programmes will be redirected towards funding clubs, further funding will be pushed towards growing competitions for women and girls, and free level one coaching courses have been made available to help volunteers.

At the helm of the relevant CA department is the game development chief Belinda Clark, who has long noted the critical importance of the club participation number in assessing the game's overall health in Australia. When asked about how CA was addressing the gap between rosy overall participation and the rather less promising club numbers, Clark pointed to three methods being tried.

"The rollout of new junior formats has been taken up really well in the community," Clark told ESPNcricinfo recently. "So last year there were 65% of associations that had started to implement those formats and this year we anticipate getting as high as 90% of associations, so step one is to make sure that the game is fun and fast and attractive to kids, so that's that.

"But in terms of making sure the environment's great, that's where the free level one community coaching courses come into play, making sure the kids - once they arrive at the club - have got good coaches and great experiences. The third bit is providing additional resources - by sharing the revenue from Cricket Blast registration it provides clubs with a revenue stream that previously wasn't there in order to make sure there's opportunities to continue to play."

Clark's efforts are being given further urgency by the fact that more independently gleaned numbers are also slipping downwards. In 2016 the then Australian Sports Commission - now Sports Australia - released AusPlay, a national survey of sporting participation that immediately installed cricket as a mid-table dweller, with 562,669 registered participants. That ranked the game sixth among the top 10, well behind soccer, golf, AFL, netball and tennis.

In the most recent AusPlay survey, conducted last year and released in April 2018, cricket had slid to 545,704 participants, and found itself seventh in the top 10, now also behind basketball. Of course there is a difference between registered club players, participants and followers, an area in which CA can still point to plenty of success. The figure denoting the game's estimated following more loudly than any other is the A$1.18 billion paid by News Corporation and Seven for broadcast rights, more than any sport other than the winter staples of AFL and NRL could dream about.

To that end, the triumphal note struck by the chief executive James Sutherland in his final census before departing the job was not entirely off the mark. "We are thrilled to see the number of Australians playing cricket continue to grow year-on-year. To have more than 1.5 million Australians participating in cricket last season is a fantastic result, highlighting the passion Australians have for cricket," Sutherland said. "We are pleased with the uptake of young children experiencing cricket through programmes specifically designed for schools.

"More than 850,000 young Australians participated in these programmes in 2017-18 - these entry level numbers are outstanding, and we hope the programmes help instill a love of the game that will see them continue to play and enjoy their cricket. We are working hard with the community to ensure this interest and enthusiasm is transferred to regular playing opportunities.

"We have more women and girls playing cricket than ever before, and The Growing Cricket for Girls Fund has been an overwhelming success and a programme we will continue to invest heavily in. We are particularly pleased with 619 new junior girl's teams creating opportunities for the next Meg Lanning or Ellyse Perry to learn the game."

All that said, the participation recession in club land will have more serious consequences if allowed to continue. Just ask the ECB.