ACT Comets – Time to bring them back?

In a recent lecture [to a bunch of cricket aficionados, and the world in general], Gideon Haigh said he believed we are witnessing the fourth major epoch in cricket as we know it.

Each previous period instigated significant change to cricket. The first was when English cricket ‘died’ in 1882 and the Ashes cremated. The second was Bodyline in 1932/33. And the third was instigated by Kerry Packer after he had ‘the pyjama dream’ and founded World Series Cricket in the 70′s.

The zeitgeist now, like WSC, is again a change in the length of the game (T20 cricket), characterised by its speed and excitement: shorter games, loud music, scantly clad cheerleaders, fireworks (among other pyrotechnics) and money. Lots and lots of money.

Similar trends are occurring this time around; administrators are excited, purists frustrated and kids are blissfully ignorant of the greater, darker forces at play. Increasingly, up-and-coming cricketers are finding themselves pawns in what is becoming more a businessman’s and less the gentleman’s game. We have already seen change but the big question is; what more is to come?

Could there perhaps be positive change in the future of Australian cricket? Cricket Australia seem to be steering the ship, so why don’t we ask them?

Eleven years ago the Australian Cricket Board (ACB, now known as Cricket Australia) made the decision to remove the Canberra Comets from the Mercantile-Mutual Cup (now the Ryobi cup).

The contentious move was made three seasons after the Comet’s inclusion in the Cup in which Canberra struggled: In a desperate, 12th Man –esque situation, they contracted 38-year-old, ex-international Merv Hughes.

At the time, CA said the ACT was regarded as a development region for the game and that “does not necessarily warrant inclusion in an elite competition.”

So the Comets were gone and the ACB kindly asked for them to continue to produce quality cricketers. What has become custom in the years since is more of a willingness among the states to trade players in the interest of a competitive edge.

As a consequence of these relative occurrences, the ACT has become a breeding ground for high quality cricketers only to have them ‘fly the coop’ when their ability surpasses the state’s competitive threshold.

In the past 24 months six 20-23 year old Canberran cricketers have done just that. Each player currently holds a state contract (rookie or full) among five different states. ACT Cricket is like horny parents; producing offspring so fast they’re left with no option but to send their kids off to boarding school once they grow out of their harrow sized bat.

Perhaps it’s time for those parents to build a bigger house. With sufficient schooling (a healthy club competition and wealth of talented coaches) already in place, it seems an ideal time for the Comets to make a comeback to first class cricket.

So could Canberra handle a state cricket team?

They have the facilities. Anyone who’s been to Manuka Oval would agree that it’s a special ground. And they certainly have the numbers. The first class listed players – Jason Floros  (20, QLD), Jason Behrendorff (20, WA), Nathan Lyon (23, SA), Ashton May (21, Tas), Ryan Carters (20, VIC) and Will Sheridan (23, VIC) – are building resumes worthy of an appreciative nod from some big name ex-players.

Greg Chappell for instance lauded Floros as a serious contender for an Australian batting post in the next few years. He has since made his shield debut. As has Carters, Lyon (who took an impressive 4/81 on debut against WA in February) and Sheridan.

Aside from these stand-outs there is the whole Futures League Comets team who won the Cup for the first time this season.

The travellers would have a lot to offer their home clubs and city if they had the support to be able to remain there. Instead they must move interstate and out of home to follow their desired career path.

Andrew Dawson, director for high performance in the ACT admits this is a double edged sword. “It is hard moving out of home and learning how to cook and clean for yourself. But then again if you ask some of the lads they’ll probably say it’s the best thing that’s happened to them.” Behrendorff concurred; “It’s been an amazing experience. Training in a state squad, you can’t compare it. It’s so professional and you get a lot out of it.”

However the losses sustained by Canberra as their prize talent walks away is arguably the bigger issue here. For instance, when a state player gets a chance to play grade cricket – when they’re out of form or there’s a break in the calendar – the juniors at their home club don’t get a chance to be amongst the players who learned their craft in the same arena. What a benefit that would be – playing your 1st grade debut with Brad Haddin who’s back in town with his beloved Canberra Comets and wanted some grassroots time to work on his footwork. It’s a farfetched example but you get the point. Home loyalty breeds the best kind of passion that no Big Bash tournament is likely to generate.

Is it not worth investing in a region responsible for so much talent just to increase the connection with its loyal stars? Sustainability is perhaps at stake here. What is required is a large financial input from a key stakeholder. The ACT government just spent $4M on the Greater Western Sydney AFL project so it’s unlikely it’ll come from there. And will Cricket Australia ever come to the party? Currently their position on the ACT is the same as it was eleven years ago. Perhaps it’s time to review that.

Meanwhile, will Canberra continue to be willing to invest so much into its cricketers only to see them leave when they’re legal? Of course they will. Isn’t that something worth rewarding? Well that’s something Cricket Australia has to answer.

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