Two cricket stalwarts are determined to have a T20 team in Geelong, writes Peter Hanlon.
There's more than a touch of "the little engine that could" about the 14 committed folk who've spent more than three years agitating to put a Twenty20 cricket team in Geelong. For all that they've been rebuffed, it is to their great credit that they not only still think they can, they're more determined to get over the mountain than ever.
When news of the birth of the Big Bash League broke in the Sunday papers in 2010, David Kelly put down his cuppa, picked up the phone and rang Michael King, who'd just had the same lightbulb moment on a flight back from Tasmania. The two Geelong Cricket Club stalwarts met the following morning, and resolved to ensure their city and region would be part of the party.
"Michael chose six, I chose six, and away we went," Kelly says of the formation of the steering committee that has driven the push to have a regional Victorian team competing on cricket's national stage.
The qualities Kelly and King sought - highly respected business people with a love of the game and a willingness to give something back to cricket - underpin their case. Their model is designed to benefit the game from top to bottom; right now, they can't see how anyone is benefiting from the model Cricket Australia continues to prefer.
"This is like my Aunty Belle's pastry - the recipe is no-fail, it's no-risk," Kelly says of a plan to uproot the Melbourne Renegades, and their estimated $700,000 a year losses, from Etihad Stadium, roll them out at Simonds Stadium as the Geelong Renegades, and create a genuine cricket club with a supporter base stretching west to Portland and back through Horsham, Ballarat, Melton and every postcode in between and south to the sea.
"If we look at the haemorrhaging that's happened as a result of two years of this competition, it's getting to unmanageable proportions," Kelly says of the Renegades, whose commercial situation has become so worrisome that The Age this week revealed Cricket Victoria is no longer prepared to foot the bill.
"It's having an impact at Cricket Victoria, and back through grassroots cricket," Kelly adds. "A seven-figure loss for being headstrong in pursuing a vision, to the man in the street, is not good business."
That vision belongs to Cricket Australia's commercial chief Mike McKenna, who the Geelong group report has given them his time and ear throughout their campaign, but who remains committed to having two teams in Melbourne (and Sydney). His Big Bash dream is to generate passion built on cross-town rivalry.
McKenna is the mountain that stands before the "little engine" of T20 Regional Victoria.
A fortnight ago, King and Kelly drove to Melbourne for another meeting, and received the same response they'd got to their original submission two years ago - thanks, but no thanks.
A lack of lights was initially key to the 2011 knockback, but with Simonds Stadium about to host its first night football and capacity expanding to 35,000, that excuse no longer holds.
Kelly says they were eventually told it was a marketing issue, that a competition that originally aspired to a tribal, inter-city rivalry is now committed to building cross-town antagonism.
Rejected again, gutted, King and Kelly "kicked the rubbish bin" all the way home two weeks ago. They then took a deep breath, went away for a day, reconvened and resolved to go harder still.
Kelly says the fact that not a single member of the group has even contemplated walking away from the table speaks to its strength and drive. Combined, the 14 are a well-connected team; Kelly reckons anyone they need - from the three levels of government through to business, sport and entertainment elite - can be on the phone within minutes.
The seed for what has become an obsession was planted in January 2009, when Geelong hosted a Twenty20 clash between Victoria and Queensland. For three days in the lead-up, Kelly did a whistle-stop tour of Western Victoria, driving from town to town, hitting local papers, speaking on radio, putting tickets under the front door of the Lake Bolac pub because they weren't open yet. The result was a crowd of 12,400, among the highest in the competition that summer.
The Geelong mayor took him aside that night and said, "Kell, what can we do to make sure it happens again?" No stone has been left unturned.
The City of Greater Geelong has provided financial support, but fact-finding missions - to interstate Big Bash games to quiz authorities on corporate packages, ticketing, marketing; to Sydney to meet broadcaster Fox Sports - have come out of their own pockets.
They've spoken to start-up teams in national competitions like Greater Western Sydney and Townsville, picked Racing Victoria's brain about hosting big events, and commissioned a membership study.
King says there is "a sports-starved community right through south-western Victoria" who will get behind a team that not only wants them on board, but will repay their loyalty. The "Aunty Belle's pastry" recipe for Geelong Renegades vows to be profitable, putting to Cricket Victoria a proposal to take $30,000 from every game and channel it into regional mini-academies in Portland, Horsham, Ballarat and beyond. "We have the interests of cricket at heart," King says.
Former Cricket Australia chairman Bob Merriman, who Kelly says "has been a machine", is typically forthright in assessing the stumbling block of McKenna's cross-town rivalry versus their avowed city-versus-city concept.
"To us, it's a nonsense argument, and why people would want to keep spending money trying to develop it is beyond us," Merriman says.
"What we say to Mike McKenna and Cricket Australia is, don't take us back to the last century. It might work for soccer but it won't work for cricket."
Despite the latest setback, Kelly can still smell victory, can picture a not-too-distant day when fans who've driven east along the Princes Highway congregate at the Lord Of The Isles Hotel, others spill off the Hamilton Highway into the Sawyers Arms, Wyndham locals meet at the Carrington, and all walk through Kardinia Park to cheer their region's team led out by local Aaron Finch.
And throughout south-western Victoria, kids who are currently isolated from a game that's losing relevance will again be watching and playing cricket.
"We feel as though we're batting in the nervous '90s," Kelly says. "But we're gunna make a hundred, and it's gunna be a big one."