My ears pricked up. I could not help it.
The two retired gentlemen sat in front of me discussing the world of sport had turned to one of my favourite topics: Cricket.
What followed was an intelligent discussion about a range of issues, including Shaun Marsh’s Hobart hundred, Shane Warne’s recent comments on selection, Australia’s chances in next year’s Ashes series and the poor crowds that highlighted the recent one-day international series against South Africa.
And then came the punchline.
Two men clearly interested enough in cricket to spend 20 minutes discussing it over a cup of tea at a cafe “would not cross the road” to watch Australia play at the moment.
This piece of elite honesty was blunt and brutal.
And it came because they feel no connection with the team and are frustrated and worn out following saga after saga.
What an ugly 18 months it has been for Australian cricket.
A drawn-out pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the players’ union kicked things off, with threats of non-payments and player strikes looming large. And while Australia won back the Ashes in convincing fashion, the ball-tampering disgrace in Cape Town was not far away.
The fallout since has been well documented, but in short, gone are chairman David Peever, CEO James Sutherland, coach Darren Lehmann, high performance manager Pat Howard, top media executive Ben Amarfio and board member Mark Taylor, while star players Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft remain suspended.
That is a cleanout of gargantuan proportions.
And the result
The early indications are the after-effects will be felt all summer, too, with crowd numbers for the three one-day internationals against South Africa very poor.
OK Tasmania, we're sorry … this guy just saved your catching reputation
— FOX SPORTS Cricket (@FoxCricket) November 11, 2018
The series opener at Perth Stadium drew 24,342 fans – a far cry from the 53,781 who watched a clash against England there last summer. The recent WAFL grand final, played between Subiaco and East Perth, was also more popular at the new venue, with 25,064 attending.
It was the Adelaide Oval crowd that really surprised, though.
South Australians love their sport and usually turn out in big numbers, but just 17,680 watched on Friday as Australia levelled the series in exciting circumstances.
It was a figure dwarfed by the 40,355 that watched Norwood play North Adelaide in the SANFL grand final at the same venue in September.
Then came the series decider on Sunday, the only international fixture to be played in Tasmania all summer. And the crowd? Only 5321.
Every Big Bash League game at Blundstone Arena last season saw a crowd of more than double that number. The small crowd made for a peculiar atmosphere – particularly when kids sung ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ through the evening session and it echoed around a near-empty stadium.
Granted, the matches came very early in the cricket summer and one-day international cricket in November is not exactly a formula for sell-out crowds.
But 5000 watching Australia play at home? Fans are clearly voting with their feet.
Saturday night’s Twenty20 clash against South Africa at Metricon Stadium is the first cricket match at the venue. But despite the novelty value, a sellout looks unlikely.
Results are poor in recent times, too, with Australia having lost 18 of its past 21 one-day internationals and four of its past five Tests.
The road ahead
A new-look team could easily have re-energised the fans but apathy remains high, particularly for supporters who do not have access to cable television and missed out on watching the South Africa series.
At a time when Cricket Australia need fans most, it has shut out some of the market.
It is an interesting strategy, with Fox Sports having the exclusive rights to both home one-day internationals and Twenty20 internationals now.
This summer’s crowd numbers will be boosted by the fact India plays four Test matches, three Twenty20 internationals and three one-day internationals in Australia.
Cricket Australia’s beancounters will be delighted with that, given the nation’s love for cricket – and the fact close to half a million Australian residents were born in India.
That means those matches should be well attended, but the following two Tests against Sri Lanka currently look a tough sell.
Because it is not just the retirees who are annoyed with the Australian cricket team. That mood is reflected in cricket clubs across the country and in offices, pubs and shops, too.
News and results will still drive the conversation. After all, cricket is part of Australia’s culture. Like the two gentlemen at the cafe, the public are not disinterested. They are just disappointed.