Aaron Dragwidge - Diversity and Inclusions Specialist - Cricket Australia

"I grew up in a family who loved cricket, I must have spent well over a thousand hours playing backyard cricket predominantly with my Dad, brother and nephews as a kid. My Mum signed me up to play at the club across the road from my house when I was eight years of age, so I’ve always been very passionate about the game. I went on to play ten years of Premier Cricket at two clubs whilst working in various roles at RACV, an insurance company in Melbourne for over 10 years. I was enjoying life, but something wasn’t quite right. After a while I realized that I needed to do something more meaningful and work in a field I was more passionate about.   


At the time I was completing my level 2 coaching accreditation at the MCG and during one of the breaks I saw a few people walking around in Cricket Victoria tracksuits and wondered what their role at Cricket Victoria actually involved. Turned out they were regional cricket managers who managed everything to do with cricket in their allocated region throughout Victoria. I never realised there were opportunities to work full time in cricket unless you were a player or a coach, but through talking to some Cricket Victoria staff members, I found out there were a wide variety of roles that I could potentially apply for throughout the country. I thought to myself, “Geez, that would be a great job.” I was never good enough to be a professional cricketer but I thought working full-time in cricket would be the next best thing. I applied for a few roles at Cricket Victoria over the next couple of years but unfortunately kept missing out. After a lot of volunteer work at my club and with Cricket Victoria, three years and four or five applications later – I finally landed a job with Cricket Australia. It was an absolute dream come true, I was over the moon and have loved every moment since.

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My first role was predominantly conducting cricket clinics in schools and trying to get as many children from schools to register for the MILO in2CRICKET program at local clubs. After two years in that role, our national Diversity Manager went on maternity leave and after some encouragement from colleagues, I hesitantly applied for her role, putting my resume in an hour before applications closed thinking there was no chance I’d even get an interview. To my great surprise, I got the job, which I’ve been doing for six years now. It’s literally changed my life by exposing me to so many things that have educated me, provided me with unbelievable opportunities to travel the world and helped me find my purpose. I wanted to work in cricket because I loved the game, but I’ve stayed in cricket predominantly because it has given me an opportunity to help others and that’s the part I love now. 


Working in cricket showed me a very different side of the game. It was no longer about winning and having individual success. I was previously only focused on trying to make as many runs as I could and help my club win as many games as possible, but being able to give children the opportunity to sample the game and then to see some of those children joining local clubs and enjoying all the benefits that go along with that, really gave me a buzz and changed the way I saw the game. It gave me an opportunity to use the game as a vehicle to help others. Especially in my role as Diversity Manager and working with cricketers with a disability, where cricket has improved so many people’s lives. 

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One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was when I attended the Casey All Abilities Carnival in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne. There were over 200 participants with disabilities from all over the state playing multiple games over the course of the day. I went out there not knowing what to expect as I hadn’t seen many people with disabilities play cricket before. I watched the first ball which was blocked back to the bowler for no run and quickly noticed the players from the batting team who were waiting to bat, applauding and yelling encouragement with great enthusiasm which they did each ball after that. I thought, “Wow how good is that!” these guys really loved their cricket. The enthusiasm of the players reminded me of my enthusiasm when I first started playing the game which I had unfortunately lost a lot of over the journey. Too caught up in the pursuit making runs and winning games and forgetting about why I played the game in the first place. These players reminded me how the game should be played, give it your all on the field, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself as at the end of the day, it’s just a game to be played for fun.  

 

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Along with this, there was another occasion not long after where I was asked to supervise a Victorian blind cricket team training session at the MCG indoor nets. I had never heard of blind cricket before and was blown away to see the skill level of these cricketers and their love of the game. It was incredible talking to the players, learning about their experiences of cricket, seeing their competitiveness and observing their skills which blew me away. Having exposure to these cricketers and the cricketers out at the Casey All Abilities Carnival really reignited my passion for the game in a completely different way. It made me realise that the real power of the sport was the positive social impact it could have on peoples lives.


Personally, the biggest reward in my role at Cricket Australia has been playing a small part in introducing people with a disability to the game and connecting them to a club, as you get to see the difference it makes to their lives, watching their confidence grow and the passion it ignites in them. When I was growing up, we had a child with an intellectual disability (Chris) who was part of the MILO in2CRICKET program at my local club. Chris was very shy and quiet at first, but once he became comfortable with you, his personality was infectious and he loved having a joke with everyone at the club. He progressed into our junior teams and eventually started to play senior cricket at the club too and you could see his confidence growing every week. Cricket training twice a week and his game on Saturday were the absolute highlights of his week and gave him lots to look forward to. Though he got a lot from cricket and our club, the club benefitted just as much from having Chris around the place. His presence brought a smile to everyone he came into contact with and he really brightened the place up. There was barely a dry eye around the club, when he hit the last ball of the day for four to win a Grand Final for our club a few years ago! What a moment that was! 

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Another great benefit for me in my role has been the opportunity to meet some of our absolutely amazing volunteers. Unlike myself who gets paid to work in cricket, our volunteers usually have full time jobs, partners, kids and then take the time to plan, administer and run these incredible cricket programs for kids with a disability in the little spare time they have with no financial reward. I often feel so inadequate standing next to them when I think of the brilliant work they do. We are so lucky to have them in cricket and I feel really fortunate to know many of them personally.  

Cricket for people with a disability has come a long way in Australia. When I first started there weren’t many opportunities and what was happening, got very little exposure. Thanks to a strong vision to be a sport for all Australians, with the support of our state and territory cricket associations and key sponsors, we’ve been able to grow these opportunities over the last six years in particular and provide greater support to clubs and volunteers as well as offer more opportunities for cricketers with a disability to represent their state and country. The development of the A Sport For All Resource and Training Program, the establishment of the annual National Cricket Inclusion Championships and fully funding our National Squads (Blind, Deaf and Intellectual Disability) are some key examples of that. To this day we are the only Australian sport to fully fund our National Blind Squad, National Deaf Squad and National Squad for Cricketers with an Intellectual Disability to play one international series per year.  

 Unfortunately, there are still some barriers for people with a disability in life, but the majority are not caused by their actual disability but by an environment that has been created without their input or without them in mind. The good news is, that’s changing rapidly and through events like the Paralympics and people with high profiles like Kurt Fernley and Dylan Alcott among others speaking out and raising awareness, people’s attitudes and mindsets are changing and realising people with a disability are just as capable as anyone else (if not more capable!) A positive attitude, inclusive mindset and a focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t do, changes everything. After a bit of practice it’s easy to include cricketers with a disability. In any cricket team you have a spectrum of abilities and any decent coach knows you have to be flexible and adjust your coaching activities/drills to cater for the varying levels of skill and ability of each individual within a team. It’s no different when dealing with cricketers with a disability. Everyone has different strengths and we all have our limitations, so focusing on what people can do rather than what they can’t, is a great starting point.

 

The key message is that everyone who wants to play our great game deserves the opportunity to play and it’s up to all of us as a cricket community to ensure that happens. Despite people’s initial fears, inclusion is easy and there’s always support we can provide if clubs need it – just get in contact.

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Shakti Gounden