After Australia’s massive losses to South Africa in Hobart and Perth, all eyes turned to the competition which was to provide the saviours for Australia’s struggling team. The Sheffield Shield, which has run for well over a century, has for a long time been a hotbed of talented players looking to force their way into the Test team. It is nowhere near that level anymore.
In fact, the effects of trialling different balls, formats and rules in the Sheffield Shield could be seen earlier this year, when the Australian ODI side turned to some new blood to replenish their bowling stocks in South Africa. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were rested (although Starc later cut his leg on a training stump) and in their place came the best domestic cricket had to offer: Joe Mennie, Chris Tremain, Scott Boland and Daniel Worrall. It was a disaster. Mennie conceded the worst figures by an Australian bowler on ODI debut, and Tremain, making his first start in the same game, was not far behind. South Africa monstered the Australian attack, in one game chasing a mammoth target of 372 with relative ease. This, more than anything else that has happened over the last month, showed just how unready the best players in the Shield are for international cricket.
Development: The Sheffield Shield is no longer up to scratch.
The problems are present in more ways than one. Firstly, there is a dearth of international quality players playing in the Shield, making the jump to Test level a massive one. This is coupled by the culture which has developed of the Shield as a factory line for new innovations, such as pink-ball cricket, the use of the Duke ball to replicate English conditions, and more. Furthermore, the Futures League has further stunted the ability of players to transition into Shield cricket easily, and a move away from results-based pitches has created further problems. These issues have combined to create a competition which does not allow for the depth of international cricketers needed for a healthy Test team, and has left the Shield struggling for relevance.
For a start, the level of competition at Shield level simply isn’t good enough. Test players play one, maybe two games per season, and the injury fears (and actual injuries) surrounding Australia’s best pacemen means that the bowling attacks served up in the Shield are not overly dangerous and nothing like what a prospective international would face at the highest level. From a bowling perspective, the batting quality is not particularly high due to a number of factors, not least the fact that Australia’s batting depth isn’t particularly strong. The fact that imports are not allowed in the Shield also hurts, and while many may argue that young Australian players should be taking precedence the introduction of overseas players would trump up competition on two levels. Firstly, by making it harder for local players to find a spot in the team, it would mean that those who get into the side are performing well. Furthermore, such a policy would provide high-class players, giving young players a chance to face international-level opponents. The quality of the Shield needs to be increased, or else Australian cricket will struggle to find the depth it needs.
Another key problem is the experimental nature of the Shield. While well-intentioned, trials of different coloured balls, among other things, have detracted from the main purpose of the Shield as a feeder for the Test team. This, combined with the Futures League (which was designed to promote youth and prepare them for the Shield but did neither) has hurt not only the reputation of the Shield but its ability to produce good players. In the end, however, telling groundsmen to prepare flat tracks for all matches, as Cricket Australia did, proved the ultimate mistake. This is what has led to Australia’s struggles overseas, and it has made it hard for bowlers, however good they may be, to take the wickets needed to break into the side.
A healthy feeder competition is the key to a strong team, something which Australia do not have. If they are to recover from their current woes, they need to bolster the Shield, providing good-quality opposition and making it harder for both batsmen and bowlers to perform at their best. The Shield has fallen from any kind of relevance in recent years, and this trend needs to be reversed.
Next time: With all the problems clearly on the table, I take a look at the path Australian cricket needs to take to rectify its current issues.