Indoor Cricket: Australia at the forefront of sporting revolution
In a sport constrained by resources compared to its outdoor counterpart, indoor cricket has a loyal community of players, supporters and administrators. In Australia, indoor cricket is played by over 180,000 players at all age levels and abilities and is part of the corporate structure of Cricket Australia.
Slowly but surely, steps are being taken to improve the profile of what is still an amateur sport, working on the operational model of "pay to play". That is, players, managers, coaches and officials alike pay to travel in all tournaments they are a part of (whether that be provincial, state or world competitions).
Events like the Junior World Series, which was held in New Zealand last month, as well as the Indoor Cricket World Cup, Masters World Cup and National Indoor Cricket League in Australia have helped to build depth in the sport, whilst outlets such as social media and live streaming of matches online have brought indoor cricket to a wider public audience.
With a platform starting to be built, a unique scholarship venture is coming out of the works in the South-East of Queensland, Australia; a place that has produced some of the greatest indoor cricketers of this time.
Scholarship initiative brings indoor cricket into focus
The SMG Sports-Jay Otto Scholarship is another positive step forward for the sport. The initiative provides two young aspiring indoor cricketers, between the ages of 13 and 17, and based in Queensland, to be mentored for a year by one of the very best to have played the game, Australian Jay Otto.
Otto is a legend of indoor cricket, not only in Australia but abroad, and roundly considered as one of the best wicket-keepers to have ever played the sport, whilst being a solid batsman and crafty bowler. He debuted for the Australian Open Men's (Premier) side in 1999 at the age of 17, incredibly being the same year he first played for Queensland.
At the time, Otto was the youngest ever to play for Australia (before that record was broken by Benji Floros). He played five World Cups for Australia and was capped 45 times, alongside his 70 appearances at State level.
In 2002, he was awarded the Allan Wilson Medal, the supreme award for indoor cricket in Australia. After taking a break from the game for several years, he returned at last year's World Cup in Dubai, UAE where he retired after being part of Australia's tenth straight triumph at Open Men's level.
The initiative will be underlined by the two winners receiving four two-hour coaching sessions with Otto himself, whilst also having access to him via informal coaching and advice during the entire 2019 season.
Otto will be available to provide any tips, guidance or expertise at any point in time, making it a very personalised experience for the successful winners. It isn't often within many sports that you can be guided and connected directly with someone who has excelled at the highest level of that sport.
In that context, having someone of Otto's calibre and experience to impart his skills and wisdom onto the next generation is invaluable and unique within the sporting environment.
Another former Australian Open Men's player, Dion Muir, will also be involved as a mentor during the programme. Muir played for Queensland and Australia from 1996 to 2001 and won two World Cups with the Open Men's side, which he captained from 1999 until his retirement in 2001 at the age of 24. As well as being a former Allan Wilson medalist, Muir's experience as a top-level player will only add more value to the programme.
A specialised glove, known as the 'Shak Otto 62' (Otto's playing number) has been made by SMG specifically for this initiative, and which will be presented to the two successful winners. All sale proceeds of the gloves will be put towards a scholarship fund for the winners to travel to a State or National tournament, or for cricket-related gear.
To put that into context, it costs around AUD 3,000 to travel to a State tournament in Australia each year, considered the pinnacle of indoor cricket in the country, but for which is a costly exercise to compete in on a yearly basis. It's these types of personalised touches that are helping a sport which relies upon such people to give back resources to the game.
Built out of passion
One of these people is SMG Sports Owner and creator of the scholarship programme, Brett Hogan. Like many other in indoor circles, Hogan is a loyal follower and supporter of the sport and has been involved for over 35 years. He coached Queensland and North Queensland at Masters level (over-35 and over-40 age-groups) before turning his attention to making indoor cricket bats and gear.
A conversation with friend and recently departed West Indies coach and Australian cricket great Stuart Law, also a Queensland native, brought the idea into focus. "I told Stuart at the time and he was really supportive of that and helped me in the start-up stage", Hogan tells Sportskeeda. "Given indoor cricket was my passion and background, he said to start from there and move forward".
A way to teach the next generation
Hogan and Otto have known each other for many years and upon retiring, Hogan wanted to provide a way to honour Otto for all the achievements of his 20-year career whilst giving him a chance to give back to the game. "Too often, great players just fade away, without getting the proper recognition they deserve. I thought this would be a great way to honour Jay and all that he has done", said Hogan.
Otto, for his part, is completely humbled by the thought of all of this, and is excited about the prospect of teaching the next generation. "To have this scholarship initiative named after you, it's pretty special. It's brilliant to be able to pass on all the knowledge, experience and wisdom that I attained from my own playing career. To just guide others on their journey, and get them interested and immersed in playing indoor cricket", says Otto.
Otto will liaise with the players' coaches as well as attend their own team or State training sessions, and assess what they need to improve on in their skill-set.
Both are quick to point out that while Otto will guide the young players in their indoor cricketing pathway, that the role works as more of a mentor to assist in other aspects in and out of the court.
Otto insists, "I want to work on the mental side of things as well. Indoor cricket - it's a pretty simple sort of sport, so I want to break down the sport a fair way for the kids, and have them think about what decisions they should make, when they actually have the time to make them". Get them mentally prepared and get their mindset right in the way they approach any aspect of the game".
Concurring with this line of thought, Hogan adds, "At that 17 years of age and beyond level, you are starting to develop your own game a lot more, whereas at that 13 years of age level, you can really lean on more experienced players in terms of what advice and guidance they impart, and work on your technique. We want to create not only good players, but good, respectful people."
Spreading the game around the globe
Many former and current outdoor cricket players such as Michael Clarke and Mark and Steve Waugh started their cricketing journey in the sport and it is hoped initiatives such as the scholarship programme will put the focus back on what is considered a highly competitive and serious sporting pursuit in the countries that it is played in.
The sport is all-inclusive due to its fast-paced, short nature (roughly one to one and a half hours playing time per game), whilst ensuring all players must bat, bowl and field on a specialised, artificial surface within the confines of a large net. It is actively played in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia whilst the standard of performance continues to rise.
"I hope this is something that opens up Australia-wide", says Otto. "There are a lot of younger players coming up the ranks with a great amount of potential, and if this is successful, there is no reason why we cannot take this across the country".
"The message here with indoor is that you can still play cricket at a very high level (even if you are not playing outdoor cricket), and represent your country. There is nothing better than that in any sport, and the opportunity to do so is very much there".
Hogan for his part said "I'm proud to be running this initiative. It means a lot to me if we can help the children, their parents, and enable them to get to these tournaments or help them with their indoor cricketing journey, a sport that many of us love". "We just want to get children interested in the sport, whilst providing them the opportunity to be mentored by two of the best. That's really what it's about".