Belinda Clark calms grassroots unrest ahead of key Australian Cricket Council meeting

Belinda Clark is confident the states and governing body can work together Getty Images

Belinda Clark, Cricket Australia's chief of community cricket, was given reassurance that Queensland Cricket and its chair Chris Simpson were not seeking to tear up the national system of support for the game's grassroots after he questioned the "centralised model" of the governing body earlier this year.

Ahead of a vital meeting of the Australian Cricket Council, comprising the chairs of CA, the state associations and the Australian Cricketers Association on Thursday, Clark stated that the hot rhetoric from Simpson, delivered to an ordinary general meeting of QC in late June, had reflected a desire for states to be heard and empowered but not to dismantle the growth of a national network to encourage the game's junior and community tiers.

"I've had those conversations and have followed up with the CEO there, Terry Svenson, and the message coming out is that both Chris Simpson and our ambition around supporting the community is absolutely aligned," Clark said. "I think what's important to recognise is that the state associations play a really important role in nurturing their affiliates and their club system and providing support to those people that are playing inside their state.

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"What we've been able to do from a national perspective is work very closely with each of the states and territories. So, we run national programs. We design them with the states. The states implement them and all the clubs implement them and the benefits of those flow through the entire system. I'm comfortable that we're all aligned in terms of what we're trying to do.

"There may be some differences in opinion in how we go about doing that, but it's a very connected system and we are meeting with our counterparts weekly to ensure that that's the case."

Simpson's words had been delivered in the midst of a dispute between CA and the states over the matter of annual grants, one of the key issues for the ACC to unpick this week as the CA chair Earl Eddings seeks to find common ground with the governing body's owners. Cricket New South Wales, chaired by John Knox, has also blocked CA's proposed reductions in annual grants, while wider questions of the game's governance model - a nine-member independent board - have run parallel to the annual nominations committee process for new directors.

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"The centralised model or the behemoth that CA has morphed into has consumed all aspects of cricket, assumed the role of the master of all matters cricket," Simpson had said. "The states take offence to this - as we live and breathe grassroots and the day to day running of cricket. The states are resourcing and supporting the volunteers, the lifeblood of the game and cricket's most valuable asset. In my view, the states have lost control of cricket. We are told from Jolimont Street how to run cricket and we do not believe in many of these 'systems and processes'.

"If CA is a master of all, then the board must comprise of some masters of volunteerism and grassroots cricket as it is our primary function at state level to provide services, support and resources to volunteers far and wide who deliver cricket so is nonsensical to think that centralisation is good for grassroots cricket. Cricket administration of yesteryear gave regional communities a voice; cricket administration of today is not a collaborative model, rather a top down 'we know best' beast."

CA's push for cost savings in the time of Covid-19, initially through staff cuts at the organisation, reduced distributions to states and also a shrink in player payments, raised a host of discontents in terms of relationships between CA, the states and the ACA. This led ultimately to the exit of the CA chief executive Kevin Roberts and senior executives including his chief operating officer Scott Grant. At the same time, all states other than NSW made their own piecemeal cuts, amounting to more than 150 staff being shown the door including a huge swathe cut through community cricket roles in Victoria.

"If you just think about the number of people we still have in the field, it'll be the envy of many sports to still have that," Clark said. "What's difficult is if there's something there and if it's taken away, and people react to that. Look, there's no doubt that we are getting great results from having more people involved, more support going to the clubs. But we have to adapt and we can't walk away from that.

"The clubs are adapting to what's in front of them with Covid-19. We need to adapt with less field staff in some areas, it's not in all areas but in some. And the community is adapting as well. At the end of the day, our job is to make sure that those people feel supported and there's opportunities for people to play the game."

Clark, who stepped away from community cricket temporarily in 2018-19 to run elite performance areas before the appointments of Ben Oliver and Drew Ginn to oversee the game's top end, said that the difficulties of Covid-19 meant that communication and co-operation across the game were more vital than ever before.

"It's obviously been difficult for every sport to deal with the situation that Covid's played in our lives at the moment," Clark said. "There's the health and safety, the economic impact as well and sports are all dealing with that and cricket associations are all dealing with that as they see fit. What I can say is that as community teams across all of the states and territories and Cricket Australia, we're absolutely committed to providing that support to volunteers. And what we've had to do in some areas, in some instances, is just be creative about how we do that."