A general view of the indoor cricket facility at Crown Hills Community College in Leicester

Not out: Kids play in an indoor cricket centre in Leicester

© Getty Images


When cricket went indoors

The sport was a rage in 1980s Australia. And then it wasn't

Tristan Lavalette |

In the late 1970s, Michael Jones and Paul Hanna were starry-eyed, impressionable twenty-something dreamers. They lived in Perth, Western Australia's capital, which considers itself the world's most isolated city, and back then it certainly felt that way. Perth was eerily quiet and people lived modestly.

Hanna and Jones had no desire to remain simpletons from a big country town. They saw Perth as an emerging city where money could be made, and Western Australia was to them reminiscent of the west coast of the United States. There was an untapped pot of cash to be mined, somehow, somewhere.

Hanna and Jones had both started playing a new sport around then: indoor cricket. The origins of indoor cricket are not entirely clear. Some trace it to Germany in the 1960s and to England a little later - but indoor cricket in its current form took off from Perth in the late 1970s.

Graham Monoghan, a business associate of Dennis Lillee at the time, is viewed as indoor cricket's pioneer in Australia. The Cricket Monthly was unable to trace Monoghan - it is believed he relocated to Asia in the 1980s after enduring financial difficulties and never reconnected with the sport he helped devise.

In early 1978, Monoghan and Lillee had a cricket training facility in Perth, where they coached schoolboys during the holidays. Every Friday the boys played a game at the oval across the road. However, rare inclement weather one Friday afternoon meant the outdoor match had to be scrapped. "We decided all was not lost and pulled back the nets inside the indoor centre," Lillee says. "We invented rules for indoor cricket and it was not based on any other game we had previously seen. I never played the sport but helped promote it. It is a great game for the people, as everyone gets a bat and bowl in every game played."

"People didn't think skills were transferrable from cricket to indoor. What they failed to grasp was that fielding was a standout in indoor cricket" Bruce Reid

Indoor cricket was a fast and furious version of the outdoor sport. The playing area was enclosed by netting. Teams consisted of eight players, who would each bowl two overs and bat in a partnership for four overs, meaning an innings lasted 16 overs. Batsmen stayed on for their allotted overs, but were deducted five runs every time they were out.

Steve Matkovich, founding president of the WA Indoor Cricket Super League, was also running a cricket training indoor facility in the late 1970s, and remembers that the centres were struggling financially. "Monoghan started indoor cricket to drum up business and my centre did likewise a few months later," he says. "Indoor cricket was based on the old English primary-school drill where everyone bowled and batted and you lost runs when you were out. It was initially aimed at off-season cricketers. It was not a success in the beginning and then Paul Hanna and Mick Jones commercialised it."

Hanna and Jones sensed that indoor cricket, if tinkered with properly, could shave off the elements that made cricket unappealing to some and turn it into something sleek and exciting.

"What I liked about the concept was it was a game indoors and it ensured equal participation, something that cricket doesn't do," Jones says. "We wanted a strong emphasis on everyone having a hit, not whether they were good. Problem with cricket is that it is dominated by those who are really good at it. For those not good, they are just standing around on the boundary line, and that is no fun for them. We wanted indoor cricket to be an inclusive sport. We were keen to turn it into a business and refine the rules - like, you couldn't get out leg-before if playing a shot. You could bowl underarm. It didn't matter if you hadn't played cricket before."

In 1979, Hanna and Jones started Indoor Cricket Arenas (ICA), which grew to become a large franchise business. According to Jones, more than 100 centres were established across the country within 18 months.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"It went nuts. When it took off in Perth, we thought it would take off nationwide, and it did. About 400,000 people a week [in Australia and New Zealand] were playing at its peak in the mid-1980s. It was grass roots, everyone could be part of it and everyone wanted to play. It was very popular in that period. It became a place to socialise and romances even formed. We used to call indoor cricket a nightclub in tracksuits."

In 1984-85, West Indies toured Australia at the peak of their global dominance. Perhaps no team had ever transcended the sport like them; Jones knew that if the West Indians could be coaxed into an exhibition game, their magnetic pull would be a major fillip for indoor cricket. It was an era with easier access to players, and it was not a particularly difficult pitch to sell. The players agreed. The sizeable monetary incentive no doubt gave them a nudge too.

The game between the West Indians and a Western Australian Indoor Cricket XI was held on a Thursday night in early November, a week before the first Test at the WACA. It was staged at Garden City, a major shopping centre not far from scenic Canning River. A purpose-built net was set up in the middle of the shopping centre. Nobody could quite believe the hysteria that ensued: traffic around Garden City was backed up for miles, a startling sight for Perth of those staid times.

"Shop owners inside Garden City were complaining because people were blocking the entrances of their shops," the WA Indoor Cricket XI captain David Lewis recalls. "It was so packed that to get to the nets took 30 minutes. There were thousands of people there, it probably went 10-15 deep. They couldn't allow people in after a while. There wasn't enough security, especially for the West Indians."

Go into an indoor sports centre in Australia during a weeknight and it is still played in decent numbers. You see teams made up of people from all walks of life

Embracing the occasion, the West Indians had brought their big names: Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, Jeff Dujon, Desmond Haynes, Michael Holding, Winston Davis, Malcolm Marshall, and the rock star of the team, Viv Richards. They may have been unbeatable outdoors, but indoor cricket was an unknown quantity to the great cricketers. The WA XI were more adept but, according to Lewis, took their foot off the pedal to ensure the huge crowd was captivated. In a thrilling, low-scoring affair, the WA XI won by one run.

"The West Indies were very intrigued by the concept of indoor cricket and inquisitive," Lewis remembers. "They loved it, because the game was so quick and your reflexes had to be so sharp. Viv and Desmond Haynes in particular loved the concept. They appreciated it because they were great fielders."

Lewis was Australia's indoor-cricket wicketkeeper at the time, and he showcased his skills by stumping Richards twice - a feat he still beams about three decades later. "I remember Viv saying to Dujon, 'We have to paint this man black and take him home.'

"Viv still had the swagger, even in indoor cricket, but he wasn't very good. He kept getting caught off the net because he was hitting it too hard, which isn't what indoor cricket is about.

"Their bowling was fast and tough to face, especially Garner from his height. He was hard to handle."

After the game the sides got together. "We went out with the West Indies players after the match, and the top floor of a nightclub was reserved for us. I won't give any more detail than that. But suffice to say it was a fun night."

Inside story: (clockwise from left) the <i>Sydney Morning Herald</I> in 1986 reports the sport's turnover, and profiles Paul Hanna; the <i>Glasgow Herald</i> in 1985 on

Inside story: (clockwise from left) the Sydney Morning Herald in 1986 reports the sport's turnover, and profiles Paul Hanna; the Glasgow Herald in 1985 on "cannon-ball cricket" coming to Lord's © Sydney Morning Herald, Glasgow Herald

All those there that night sensed a watershed moment for the fledgling sport. "There was a great atmosphere and people enjoyed the spectacle," Lewis says. "Everyone in indoor cricket thought, 'Shit, we can make some money from this.'"

By the mid-1980s indoor cricket seemed to have the momentum to become a mainstream sport. It was fun to play, and aficionados were adamant it was more than hit and giggle. Many pointed to the exceptional fielding standards.

Despite several variations over the years, the ball used in indoor cricket has always been softer than a cricket ball, so the fielders were bolder. Because of the tight confines of the playing area, they simply had to watch the ball closely off the bat and needed sharp reflexes. According to several interviewees, moves like the underarm flick were first devised in indoor cricket. "The best short-leg fielding in cricket is nothing compared to indoor cricket," Lewis says.

Because of the rules, there was inventiveness in running between the wickets too. The pitch in indoor cricket is of full length, but the non-striker's crease is halfway down the pitch. [See diagram above for scoring details.] Crucially, the score must change every three balls, meaning if there are two consecutive dot balls, the batsman must score off the third delivery or it counts as a dismissal.

"I spent two weeks at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in the early 1990s and that is where the dive was first initiated," Lewis says. "We did studies in a bid to try to find ways in indoor cricket to gain an advantage. Players would dive from about halfway [of the halfway mark] and extend their bat to maximum effect. There was a real art to it and that technique has become common in cricket. Backing up was also a crucial element of running between the wickets because run-outs are such a big part of indoor cricket."

"It isn't the easiest sport to film because lots of cameras are needed and filming through the nets is difficult, but indoor cricket was never done correctly on television" Rod Chilcott, former vice-president of Indoor Sports Australia

Meanwhile with their run-ups curtailed to a few paces, bowlers were required to devise new tricks. An example is the medium-fast bowler Andrew Tye, whose craftiness in the Big Bash League earned him a place in the Australia's World T20 squad this year. Before his T20 career took off, Tye was working at the WACA as an indoor cricket officer. "I have played a lot of indoor cricket and learned a few things off that, including the back-of-the-hand slower ball," he says.

Despite its fast pace and popular appeal, indoor cricket never rose to further heights from its mid-1980s heyday, when, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, its estimated turnover was over A$120 million (approx $91 million). It was not exactly a fad; the sport has endured. Go into an indoor sports centre in Australia during a weeknight and it is still played in decent numbers. You see teams made up of people from all walks of life. For many workplace and social groups it provides a perfect outlet for playful competition and banter afterwards. Yet indoor cricket did not become more than that - a matter of regret for many involved.

Bruce Reid, the towering fast bowler who played 27 Tests between 1985 and 1992, was one of many talented cricketers who played both outdoor as well as indoor cricket during his formative years. As a teenager in the early 1980s, Reid was part of the first wave of cricketers enticed by indoor cricket. He remembers playing one tournament against the Waugh twins and being struck by their "very skilful fielding".

After his international career Reid owned an indoor cricket centre for 20 years. Like several others, he believes indoor cricket's development was stymied by the cricket establishment.

The West Indians and the Western Australia indoor cricket players in Perth in 1984

The West Indians and the Western Australia indoor cricket players in Perth in 1984 © David Lewis

"If you talk to cricket coaches 30 years ago they would knock indoor cricket," he says. "There were always outdoor cricket coaches telling talented juniors not to play indoor cricket because it would ruin their game, which was plain wrong. People judged it purely on hearsay. They didn't think skills were transferrable from cricket to indoor. What they failed to grasp was that fielding was a standout in indoor cricket, where that skill was absolutely honed. You just have to look at guys who played a lot of indoor cricket, like the Waughs and Michael Clarke, for proof of that."

The Australian board too took an antagonistic approach. Only in 2009 were indoor cricket and cricket brought under the same umbrella, after a deal between CA and Indoor Sports Australia (ISA), the national indoor cricket body that had previously relied on government funding. Rod Chilcott, a former vice-president of ISA, was one of the people behind the agreement.

"For so long Cricket Australia believed indoor cricket just wasn't cricket, and they wouldn't have a bar of it," Chilcott says. "That attitude manifested down, and I remember one coach saying, 'If any of you blokes play indoor cricket in the off season, don't come back next season.' We were basically their enemy. Cricket Australia didn't want to know us at all, and they were separate sports essentially. Eventually, belatedly, Cricket Australia realised what indoor cricket brought to the outdoor game, particularly in fielding. What they finally understood was that cricket is a fabric of Australian society and indoor cricket is an extension of that."

Squabbles between rival operators also created tension, with ICA at one point attempting to patent the rules. "Indoor cricket didn't really work because the centres were privately owned, and there wasn't really a body that actually had the sport at heart," Lewis says. "All the operators were worried about the day-to-day business and making money."

"It went nuts. We thought it would take off nationwide and it did. We used to call indoor cricket a nightclub in tracksuits" Michael Jones, Indoor Cricket Arenas founder

Another hindrance was the challenge of television coverage. Jones, the entrepreneur, found it a difficult obstacle to overcome. "Indoor cricket was too quick to be a televised sport. I wanted the indoor area to be twice the size, but people opposed that. Like squash, it was a good sport to play but not to watch."

A plan to revive indoor cricket in the late 1990s centred on a major television deal that ultimately did not come to fruition.

"We were that close to having a national franchise-type competition backed by cable television in Australia, which would have shown the matches during prime time," Chilcott says. "It isn't the easiest sport to film because lots of cameras are needed and filming through the nets is difficult, but indoor cricket was never done correctly on television. It was hoped that coverage of this championship would have been more sophisticated and looked more appealing on television. It could have been a precursor to the Big Bash League, but the deal fell through."

After a prolonged period in the wilderness, maybe, just maybe, a renaissance awaits. It was reported late last year that indoor cricket is being considered as an Olympic sport for the 2024 Games. The World Indoor Cricket Federation, the governing body of the sport, has begun discussions about entering the sport in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban. Backed by CA's burgeoning resources, indoor cricket in Australia now has a strong platform. It has about 160,000 current participants, and past greats such as Mark Waugh and Michael Clarke have been used in promotions. In April, CA announced the launch of an Indoor Cricket Hall of Fame.

Former Australia indoor wicketkeeper David Lewis remembers stumping Viv Richards, who

Former Australia indoor wicketkeeper David Lewis remembers stumping Viv Richards, who "kept getting caught off the net because he was hitting it too hard" © Robert Hobson

"I see indoor cricket as a pathway for people who don't want to play all day outside, and it is another way of getting people into cricket's vortex," Lewis says. "In the 1980s there was an opportunity for indoor cricket to really succeed but it didn't happen. Everyone was trying to make money from it, and that was the problem. No one was thinking about developing and nurturing the sport."

Jones and Hanna, the men behind indoor cricket's original boom, now run an indoor inflatable-playground business in Melbourne and work in the financial sector in Perth respectively.

"I think the element that is being missed now is the grass-roots level," Jones says. "The interest is about the elite rather than growing the grass roots. The point of the sport was that everybody could play. For young businessmen like Paul and I to have effectively started indoor cricket, which is still played today, is the highlight of my career. That brings me a lot of pleasure.

"But I didn't make any money from it."

Tristan Lavalette is a journalist based in Perth and writes on sports for the Guardian and mailerreport