Pandemic puts a pause on England and Australia’s vital talent exchange

For all the white heat of the Ashes rivalry, the relationship between England and Australia is arguably the most symbiotic in world cricket; an alternating seasonal exchange of talent that enriches both ecosystems far more than is often heralded.

Beyond the regular influx of Australians in the county game and what is now a surge of English cricketers in the men’s and women’s Big Bash Leagues, hundreds of players from the two countries typically spend their winters playing club cricket on the other side of the world. It broadens on-field experience, off-field horizons and creates friendships for life, often simply in return for a car and a place to stay.

An English presence among Australia’s 3,500 or so cricket clubs is not a new phenomenon. John Dewes, who played in one of the 1945 Victory Tests, appears to be among the earliest, turning out for Northern Districts in Sydney in the late 1950s. And in the 1970s, as the numbers grew, Geoffrey Boycott spent part of his self-imposed exile from Test cricket with Waverley (now Eastern Suburbs), compiling six centuries that, rather amusingly, led to five draws and one victory.

Over the past few decades the greater ease and affordability of air travel has practically turned it into a rite of passage, such that the most recent England Test XI included seven players – Dom Sibley, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Joe Root, Ollie Pope, Dom Bess and Stuart Broad – who have tasted Australian grade cricket. This year’s Bob Willis Trophy, to give another example, is believed to have featured around 60 players with experience in Sydney’s club cricket.

But while international and franchise cricket rumble on this winter in biosecure bubbles, the usual migration beneath the top level has been all but paused by the pandemic; for a generation of county cricketers some formative months outdoors have been replaced by the echoing sounds of the indoor school.

Alan Richardson, assistant coach at Worcestershire, is troubled by this. His own career – one that peaked late when in 2012, aged 36, he was named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year – owed much to six winters in Sydney, first with Hawkesbury and then Northern Districts. The nets, though useful, only go so far.

“There will be some county coaches who welcome spending the next few months with the bulk of their squad indoors but, personally, I’m a massive advocate of sending players away,” he says. “For myself, at the time I thought it was just a way of not spending the winter in Stoke. But as a bowler it helped so much. The flatter wickets and a Kookaburra ball that became dog-chewed after 30 overs prepared me for a greater variety of conditions and to have more answers.

“We had a number of lads at Worcestershire down to travel and as hard as you work, you can’t replicate the experience at home. It’s potentially a huge blow to the development of some of the younger ones both on and off the field.”

A more recent cricketer to feel this benefit is Hampshire’s Mason Crane, who, aged just 19, spent the 2016-17 season playing for Gordon in Sydney while training midweek with the masterful former Australia leg-spinner Stuart MacGill. This was one of the most rewarding grade cricket stints by an Englishman in recent times, Crane taking 45 wickets in just 11 games – including three seven-wicket hauls – to share the Bill O’Reilly medal as the leading player in Sydney Premier Cricket.

It led to Crane becoming New South Wales’s first overseas cricketer since Imran Khan in 1984-85, his Blues cap fittingly presented by MacGill before claiming five wickets in a star-studded Sheffield Shield win over South Australia. Just one year later Graeme Swann was doing the honours before Crane’s Test debut in the Ashes.

“I found playing grade cricket really accelerated my development,” says Crane. “It’s club cricket but it’s taken so much more seriously. Guys train their nuts off all week to get ready to play at the weekend and this is just their spare time. That drives you on as a professional, almost pushing you further without you realising.

“And there are times when you’re under pressure as the overseas pro – they’re looking to you to perform. It was amazing to work with Stuart MacGill and get the volume of overs on the weekend. I remember one of the seven-fers, against Sydney at Drummoyne Oval, I took the last wicket and was actually a bit gutted. I just didn’t want to stop bowling that day.

“And it’s not just the cricket side of things. It’s like a trial run for your career generally, when you move out of home and grow up. I arrived in Sydney not knowing anyone and it was daunting at first. You can’t really call home and the Aussies don’t mollycoddle you, they expect you to be your own man.”

This off-field development is a common theme when speaking to those who have made the trip previously. Before his Test debut in 2018 Ollie Pope said he learned to “stand on my own two feet” during a spell at Campbelltown-Camden Ghosts in Sydney and was even namechecked in state parliament for his contribution to the community. Zak Crawley is another, according to a former Australian clubmate.

“As a group we really celebrated Zak’s Test double century against Pakistan and took a bit of satisfaction in our small part,” says Nic Bills, Metropolitan Pathway Manager for New South Wales and a seasoned fast bowler at Sydney Cricket Club who was named in the league’s team of the decade.

“But as much as Zak benefited from the cricket, he’d probably also say his success came from having to fend for himself out here. He came over as a well off, typical English public schoolboy who didn’t know too much about life. But he had his eyes opened, as well as picking up a few tickets from not knowing the road rules.”

Stuart Broad’s time at Hoppers Crossing CC in Melbourne 16 years ago included similar scrapes, such as a spot of part-time gardening work that saw his lawnmower career down a hill and straight through a busy high street. It’s the type of incident that gives the Aussies fresh material with which to rib the new Pom in town, while a running joke among the English is the number of inspired, if slightly optimistic, Australian club cricketers who badger them about possible county deals.

Bills says: “Sometimes English guys come over for the wrong reasons – a bit of a holiday maybe. But in recent times at Sydney we have had Zak, Joe Denly and Nick Gubbins who have been excellent. For our players, training alongside Test cricketers-in-waiting is far bigger than the runs these guys score on the weekend.

“For example one of our players, Ben Manenti, was a large-ish off-spinner but after seeing the pros in action, he took up his own personal sessions with an ex-rugby union pro and shed around 15 kilos. He’s now one of the fittest around.

“And we’re lucky at Sydney to still have Middlesex’s Stevie Eskinazi this season. He has an Australian passport and went through a fortnight of quarantine. But speaking to other clubs across the competition, the loss of overseas pros is being felt. And it’s probably the development of our youngsters that takes the biggest hit here.”

Bills, a past player for Whitstable CC in Kent, goes on to cite the similar loss of Australians in the UK this year as a blow. The numbers are tricky to collate given the network of informal contacts between clubs and players but Steven Hirst, whose company CricX is arguably the go-to agency for such placements, saw 350 overseas club deals thwarted by the pandemic during the recent English summer.

Hirst and his team, who lost around £350,000 of business as a result, were then due to place around 150 English players of varying abilities – from backpackers to county professionals – in Australia’s grade, sub-district and country competitions this winter, as well New Zealand’s equivalents, only to once again see this ruined in the main.

“To not take a penny from what was a whole winter of work was tough,” says Hirst, a New Zealander who spotted a gap in the market during his own playing career and has been connecting clubs and players for the past 20 years.

“Legally we could have, I suppose, but morally it didn’t feel right. And it’s all about relationships. Clubs have suffered hugely during the pandemic and hopefully they will remember we didn’t charge and, in better times, come back to us.

“It’s tough for the players. It’s an opportunity to make themselves better cricketers for when they return to their own domestic summer and while the top-end players will probably be fine in the bubbles, I’m worried about those in the next tier down striving to establish themselves, especially with county contracts likely to be cut.”

Along with Eskinazi, another rare example of an Englishman having overcome this winter’s hurdles by dint of an Australian passport is the Gloucestershire all-rounder Benny Howell, who underwent a fortnight of quarantine in Brisbane before a paid spell with Buckley Ridges CC in Melbourne that CricX helped to broker.

Making the trip just a few weeks after the birth of his second child has been a wrench but for a player who spent much of the past year injured, and lost a Big Bash League deal with Melbourne Renegades last winter as a result, it is also a must.

Howell says: “The plan is just to be in Australia, get some cricket under my belt and also be around in case something comes up again with the Big Bash. After the year I’ve had with injury, I just had to get here to be honest.

“I feel quite lucky. A lot of the younger guys at Gloucestershire planned to come out but soon as Covid hit, it all got cancelled. I’ve had eight winters in Australian club cricket previously and the game time has been massive for me. You just can’t replicate that indoors. And you learn so much from being here.”

Hirst reports that the number of overseas players already lined for club cricket in England next year is increasing, while a possible Covid-19 vaccine is cause for optimism about next winter too. It is welcome news. Because as much as we all look forward to the two countries locking horns in the Ashes next year, the resumption of cricketing ties lower down the pyramid is perhaps just as important