Bird opens door to top flight for private school cricketers

HE'S a boy among men, with thick braces on his teeth and cricket pads so new they squeak as he walks to the wicket, drawing sledges from his first-grade opponents. But what makes 16-year-old Danul Dassanayake special is not so much his age as his private-school pedigree.

Strange to think the lush ovals at Trinity Grammar, in Sydney's inner-west, might put him at a relative disadvantage. But Australian cricketers tend to come from more modest surrounds.

As opening batsman and Cranbrook old boy, Ed Cowan, once wrote: ''My upbringing and education in any other walk of life would make me an insider … In Australian cricket, it leaves me an outsider.''

Private school cricketers, particularly from NSW, have long been seen as too soft for the top levels of the game, largely because they are required for schoolboy cricket on Saturdays while their peers are free to play against men in grade cricket.

''Maybe they are a bit too spoon fed,'' said ABC commentator and former Cranbrook student Jim Maxwell. ''There is that notion around that it's not the right breeding ground for players of substance because the cricket is perceived as being a little bit weak, while 'real' cricketers get out there and mix it in grade cricket.''

But this week's Test debut by St Ignatius', Riverview, old boy Jackson Bird might herald a brighter future for private school cricketers.

Clubs, particularly those in Sydney's inner suburbs, are increasingly signing up such players. Among them is off-spinner Dassanayake, who will play first-grade for Mosman during the school holidays before rejoining his Trinity peers next term. It's a juggle, he said, but worth it for the opportunity to face batsmen such as Test opener David Warner.

''Frankly in the past they were told 'If you can't commit don't come', and unfortunately as a result some talented players were lost to the game,'' the Mosman Cricket Club secretary Bernie Smith said. ''But we're prepared to work with them on a different basis than in the past.

''Because a lot more than half of our juniors go to private schools we weren't retaining them through to adult games so we needed a better way of engaging with these younger guys.''

In Dassanayake's case, the club, together with his father Upul and Trinity cricket director Ian Moran, who plays for the Sydney Sixers, drew up a playing and training program around his school commitments.

Mosman fields about six private school boys on similar programs. At Riverview, about half of the first XI are playing grade cricket for Sydney clubs.

In rare cases students have been excused from school cricket in their final year to play grade. A more equitable solution would be to switch private school matches to Sundays to free up players for club games, Maxwell said.

''The more exposure the boys are getting to grade cricket I think the better their development will be. But logistically that would be quite difficult,'' Moran said.

The story Bird opens door to top flight for private school cricketers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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