The sharp eye Steve Waugh casts over cricket might these days come via a camera viewfinder rather than the perspective of one of the game’s most celebrated skippers, but his skill for spotting talent and passion remains unerring.
Waugh spent several days last week on a maiden visit to Alice Springs in Australia’s red heart and, not only did he witness the welcome return of the nation’s premier Indigenous competitions, he gleaned a keener understanding of cricket’s vital place in remote communities.
The National Indigenous Cricket Championships, which culminate today are an important element of Cricket Australia’s elite development pathway program and are being staged for the sixth time as a standalone tournament, but the first since the global pandemic brought them to a halt in 2021.
Players taking part have an opportunity to emulate Ashleigh Gardner, named player of the ICC T20 Women’s World Cup after Australia’s successful title defence, and utilise the event as a springboard for national selection with Australia men’s and women’s Indigenous teams to play Vanuatu in May.
The NICC T20 championships have been staged alongside the 30th iteration of the Imparja Cup, the Northern Territory’s Indigenous community cricket tournament which was also forced into recess by COVID-19 but bounced back with three divisions of senior competition last week.
Waugh, whose only previous experience of cricket in the Territory came in 2003 when he scored an unbeaten century in leading Australia to a hefty Test win over Bangladesh at Darwin, travelled to Alice Springs in search of photographic images that capture the nation’s ‘Spirit of Cricket’.
Having completed a project of the same name in India during 2020 where his journey through seething cities and far-flung fields yielded a pictorial book and television documentary, Australia’s equal-most capped Test player has spent the past 18 months roaming across his home turf.
And while his focus extends beyond games of cricket to include unique locations (such as Queenstown’s famous gravel oval) and behind-the-scenes characters (including scorers and curators) his introduction to Indigenous competitions left an immediate impression.
“There are some similarities to when you’re in India and you’re away from the cities and up in the country areas where you just see games of cricket being played, and see the passion, enthusiasm and togetherness,” Waugh told cricket.com.au from Alice Springs.
“It’s a bit like that up here.
“It doesn’t always seem too structured and the field settings are not what you see when you’re watching international or first-class cricket – they’re a bit all over the place.
“But the other basics are pretty much the same.
“The bowling and the batting and the catching are good, and you’re attracted to watching the game.
“There’s something about the pure form of the cricket where you just want to watch it to see what happens, and it might reveal some hidden gem of a player you haven’t seen before.
“It’s always good to see some talent, and there’s a cross-section of talent and players up here.
“But the one thing that stands out is they love playing cricket.”
Waugh set aside his camera for a few hours last Friday to provide mentoring advice and coaching tips to the NT women’s team which – along with New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia – is fighting for the NICC female title.
The men’s competition features teams from all six Australia states plus an NT outfit, while the Imparja Cup comprises three divisions from within the Territory – men’s major centres, men’s community and women’s community as well as a schools cup competition.
The initial impression Waugh gained from the NT women’s team, and from others involved in the concurrent competitions in Alice Springs, was they were “jumping out of their skins” for the resumption of the Indigenous tournaments after a two-year hiatus.
He noted they approached the matches at Traeger Park, Albrecht Oval and Jim McConville Oval with as much enthusiasm as he had seen in former teammates and rivals heading into international fixtures.
However, he also admitted he spent much of his time with the NT women listening rather than advising and believes he gained more from the overall experience than he was able to impart.
“Talking to them for a couple of hours and coaching them, I really enjoyed just providing a few tips and chatting about the game but just as much I enjoyed talking about their life stories,” he said.
“A lot of the players say cricket kinda saved them from going down the wrong path in life, so they’ve got a really good message that’s powerful and positive.
“It’s given them purpose, direction and a bit of clarity.
“Cricket needs good stories and a lot of the girls we talked to have fantastic stories that should be heard.
“I learned more off them than I was able to pass on, in a lot of ways.
“To them, it’s about togetherness, inclusivity, looking after each other and having something they really enjoy, as well as having a purpose.
“Cricket gives them that and it brings people together.
“There’s a lot of great life lessons you can learn from cricket, plus you’ve got to learn to work together with people – it’s not all about yourself.
“While it’s an individual game in a lot of ways, it’s more about the team and you gain more from the team success and working together as a group than doing it by yourself.”
South Australia and Tasmania did not field a women’s team in the NICC competition, but Adelaide-based players Febi Mansell and Jacinta Chandler (Glenelg), Amy Vansroomalen (Roopena) and Stella Garlett (Port Adelaide) represented NT along with Claremont (WA) pair Anita Silva and Natalie Smedley.
It represents a reversal of history whereby emerging Darwin talents such as Kane Richardson, Jake Weatherald and Tom Andrews sought opportunities across the border in SA.
Waugh said that while he gathered material for his India ‘Spirit of Cricket’ project across 20 days spent on the subcontinent, he expected the Australia version to take at least a couple of years to reach fruition as he explores the breadth of the continent.
He’s also keen to hear from people involved in the game in any capacity and at any level who believe they have a story that merits capturing for the book, in his bid to distil the true essence of what the game means to Australia and its people.
During his visit to Alice Springs he noted the basic elements of cricket – whether it be in formal competitions such as the NICC or Imparja Cups, or in impromptu games among children – remain largely the same as those played in more urban settings.
“But it’s also a bit different because it’s a slower pace,” he said.
“There’s no warm-ups because it’s so hot up here, so you’re straight into the match.
“Everyone’s pretty casual and relaxed, but at the same time they’re keen to do well and it’s played in the right spirit.
“Everyone’s friendly with each other and respectful.
“They play it hard, but they play it fair.”
There’s one other striking difference he found to contemporary cricket played in Australia cities and even in the teeming back streets of India, where the T20 format has become the most widely recognised and emulated among aspiring youngsters.
Waugh claimed that during his four-day stay in the Northern Territory he didn’t notice many attempts at reverse sweeps or ramp shots by batters in matches and training, although he doesn’t doubt the latest innovations will inevitably find their way to the red centre.
“It’s more traditional, they’re not playing all the array of shots,” he said.
“I think a lot of them are probably wanting to try them, but haven’t played enough or practiced enough yet.
“So it hasn’t seeped right through to this level … but I imagine it’s coming.”