Australian cricket's grassroots participation numbers are both growing and shrinking at the same time. If that sounds nonsensical at first, on further inspection it is a reflection of the fact that, year by year, Cricket Australia is trying to be more honest with itself about the amount of people actually playing the game in this country.
There have been questions around CA's self-reporting of participation figures for some time, and a less than glowing picture was always able to be found a few centimetres beneath the surface of annual census reports trumpeting participation levels of more than one million and growing every year since 2014. The focus grew more intense last year, however, via an award-winning report on how CA's numbers were exceedingly rubbery.
That episode, on the eve of the Ashes in England, perhaps oversold CA's desire to obscure the governing body's true place in the Australian sporting landscape, for under the leadership of the community cricket chief, Belinda Clark, it had been seeking ever more ardently to know better what was "under the hood" of the grassroots engine. Undoubtedly, the contrast between ever larger census figures and grim anecdotes from the heartland was far too divergent for comfort.
Hard data over multipliers
So it is that the numbers presented by CA for 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and plenty of squabbling between the governing body and its state association owners, reflect a much more sobering portrait of the game's size. A far greater emphasis is placed on harder participation data, that gives less weight to more than one million children given tangential exposure to the game through their enrolment in school sport programs that feature cricket.
That hard data is, for the most part, more solid than the traditional standard endorsed by CA's census overseers at Street Ryan Consulting, who have for almost two decades accepted a system whereby numbers of teams are tallied, then player numbers established by multiplying accordingly. Instead, a concerted effort to ensure as many players register for MyCricket as possible, giving them a unique ID number to ensure there is minimal duplication, is squared against the number reached by team tallies and multiplication.
As MyCricket is progressively "cleaned up" by adding participants not previously registered or removing any duplicates, other figures, such as indoor cricket and formal school competitions, are only able to be tallied through the former "add up teams and multiply" method.
This means that while CA can get a good idea of their number, the same standard cannot be applied to absolutely everything. Ultimately, the most reliable numbers will be those for club registrations provided through MyCricket, and they have improved from 2019 to this year - 282,965 for 2018-19 rising to 295,240 for 2019-20.
That final figure is a little more than 27,000 short of the tally pumped out by the teams multiplied method (322,933), which in itself is lower than the teams multiplied method applied last year (365,076). That, then, is how it came to be that Australian cricket's grassroots numbers are both growing and shrinking at the same time.
Squaring the total with the Sport Australia standard
Once other groups are thrown in - about 8000 manual submissions from club cricket, 60,000 in social competitions, 96,000 in school competitions, 165,000 in indoor cricket and just shy of 60,000 for the Cricket Blast junior program - the overall registered participant figure lands on 709,957 for last summer, as opposed to 684,356 for 2018-19.
The relative accuracy of this figure stands up when lined up against the extrapolated survey data regularly pumped out by Sport Australia. Its most recent suite of results, which covered the back half of 2019, clocks 224,300 junior participants and 489,900 seniors for a total of around 714,200, so a little more than CA's own reporting. According to CA's head of participation, Stuart Whiley, the increase in rigour has been done to ensure the numbers are not just useful as a piece of marketing spin.
"As we continue to invest in the technology, more and more of the cricket that's played is in My Cricket," he said. "And as people embrace things like online registration, which we made compulsory for juniors last year, that usage lifts up, the quality of the data underneath the numbers is improving substantially. We're seeing that in how we count and also the quality of information we're seeing underneath.
"We track the Ausplay data as a lot of people do and we do find it interesting. I think what's important here is the difference in approach. Ausplay take a sample and extrapolate that over the population where from a cricket perspective we're very much understanding the complete picture. So we're tracking and counting all the organised cricket that's played in Australia."
What of coronavirus?
It was widely acknowledged in 2019 that one reason for a substantial drop-off in club participation over the previous years had been the Newlands scandal and its many aftershocks. Equally, the bump for 2019-20 was a logical extension of a year in which cricket watchers had enjoyed a vibrant World Cup and an engrossing Ashes campaign running right up into September, when clubs were casting around for new and renewed registrations: an ideal example of how the shopfront windows draw willing participants deeper into the game.
However, this time around there is a whole new set of obstacles provided by Covid-19, including uncertainty about when the game's Victorian participants can even begin to train again for the season. Clark, based in Melbourne, has been trying to chart a path forward while confined to the home, even as others in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania enjoy far more latitude.
"It's obviously complex and very different, depending on what part of the country you're in," Clark said. "And I don't think anyone's under any misconception about the fact that this thing can spring up anywhere. So, we have put in place some guidelines in trying to help community clubs deal with the restrictions and the guidelines that are in play. Cricket is fortunately quite a socially distant sport by nature and therefore we don't have some of the challenges that some of the other codes are having.
"However, it is a requirement for our cricket clubs to make sure that they're applying health and safety appropriately. A good indicator is that some competitions that are already running as winter comps are experiencing an increase in the number of teams. So that tells us that if we can get the restrictions in play, and we can be clear with the guidelines, people are wanting to get outside their homes and reconnect with each other and cricket's a great way to do that."
'Will we get full seasons in like last year?'
As for whether or not there will be a full season to play, Clark said the best anyone could do was be flexible, including different draws and formats for competitions that need to compete with the work and life demands of community cricketers even at the best of times.
"They're playing cricket in Brisbane in the winter comps at the moment," Clark said. "They're gearing up for a full season in Perth and Adelaide and the states that aren't as impacted. I think if you look at the Victorian situation, I just think we're going to need to help clubs and associations adapt as the season goes on.
"That might be you've got a number of draws ready to go, that you're playing shorter formats and you're not having to hold people over two weekends, a whole range of things we can do adapt. But will we get full seasons in like last year? I don't think that'll be the case across the country but it will be the case in some areas."
Whatever transpires this season, CA, the states and their partners will at least have an ever more truthful set of numbers on which to base their priorities.