The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 5

As shown in the previous entries in this series, there are some serious systemic problems facing Australian cricket, and no quick fix is going to solve them. Instead, the road to recovery will take time, short-term pain and investment in youth, both through promotion and development. The Sheffield Shield needs to become a competitive breeding ground for the Test side, allowing the best young players to be ready to take opportunities at a higher level. The pathways to the Shield also need improvement, with less involvement from the states and more cricket being played by developing players. The key to fixing this current rut, however, can be found in history.

The selectors took the first logical step in picking their team for the Adelaide Test, backing young players in Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson. This must continue, although Maddinson must prove that he is a better option at six than Travis Head if he is to proceed. Full of this fresh influence, the bowlers stepped up once again in the dead rubber, and the batsmen finally fired to grant Australia their first Test match win since February. This cannot be the expected level of performance from this young side. History has shown that rebuilds can only work with patience, and the selectors, the fans and the higher levels of Cricket Australia need to recognise this and stick to their guns, regardless of short-term results.

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Victory: Matt Renshaw (front) and Peter Handscomb seal victory for Australia against South Africa in Adelaide.

Over the course of the upcoming Test matches against Pakistan, the selectors must find the side with the most potential, and find the batting line-up that best suits their need for a stable base in years to come. Then they need to back them to the hilt. Their most recent opponents, South Africa, provide a perfect example. They have turned over their side to replace legends of the game like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, identifying a young replacement early on and sticking with them. Temba Bavuma and Dean Elgar are players who were promoted by this policy, and both have turned into excellent Test cricketers, while not as good as their predecessors. In the mid-1980s, Australia did the same thing, sparking a dominance which lasted for decades. In the midst of a crisis, Allan Border built his side around youth, with players like Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Ian Healy coming through the ranks in the next few years. The parallels to this situation are striking, although Border’s Australian team had just gone through the retirements of three of Australia’s greatest ever players (in the same match) and the sudden resignation of Kim Hughes as captain after a series of consecutive losses stretching back much further than the side of today.

The lessons to be learnt from this are twofold. Firstly, it shows that it works. It also provides a word of warning. This will take time. Young players do not just become world-class cricketers from their first game, and this batch of players needs time to develop. Against Pakistan, it is highly likely that they will play well. The Pakistanis are coming off a very poor series in New Zealand, and while the conditions there bear no comparison to those in Australia it never helps to come into a series with batsmen low on confidence and fielders who can’t hold a catch. The real test of the selectors commitment will not come following the Sydney Test: it will be India, where the young side will not stand a chance. They will lose the series to a strong, set, Indian side, with the best spinner in the world and the best batsman in the world leading the charge. India can pile on runs on their spin-friendly wickets, while rolling Australia with ease. It may seem negative, but Australia do not stand a chance.

Everyone needs to understand that this will work, and that once young players are backed and allowed to develop they will become better Test cricketers. They need to trust these players to come through, and have faith that their gamble will pay off. With the Ashes coming up next summer, against a very strong English side, there will be grumbles about selection if India, as expected, romp home to a series win. But once the selectors settle on a young side, there can be no going back. They have started on the long, winding and painful road to recovery. Only time will tell whether they can stay the path.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 4

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.

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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.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 3

Yesterday, I looked at how the Australian selectors have consistently looked past long-term options, instead finding quick fixes which have only amplified the current problems. However, while it is all well and good to talk about the need for an injection of youth, we also must ask: where is this youthful support coming from? The academy system is not the same as it used to be, and Australian cricket has suffered as a result. Young players no longer receive the same exposure against top quality opposition, and a cut in government funding to the Australian Institute of Sport has dealt a massive blow to the system.

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Prodigy: South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada is an example of how a thriving youth system can operate.

The problem with the broken system, which has largely been struggling due to the increased influence of the states on academy prospects, is that it increases the time players must spend in the Sheffield Shield before they are ready for international cricket. It is increasingly rare to see a player starting out in the Shield with brilliant results, and while the introduction of the Big Bash League has given young players a chance to face up against the world’s best, this does not do much to appease the issues facing the Test team. Academy tours, which gave graduates a brilliant chance to gain an experience to play as a team and gain a taste of top-level cricket, have been discontinued for some time, a decision which has led to Australia’s drop in results at international youth tournaments and has seriously harmed the system.

If the Australians want to see an example of a thriving system, they need look no further than their opponents in their current Test series, South Africa. Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock, who are now key members of the current side, have both come through the youth system very recently, with Rabada forming part of South Africa’s victorious under-19 team in 2014. If Australia are serious about finding a long-term solution to their current woes, this is what they need to strive for. They need to reinvest in the youth system, giving their players more chances to play (something which would also reduce the injuries to young bowlers which currently plague the team) and back it to come through with results. It will, as with any part of a rebuild, take time, but it is necessary if Australian cricket is to recover.

Cricket Australia seem to have worked this out, and they have taken some good steps in the right direction. A rebuild of this magnitude will certainly take time, but it will have massive long-term effects on the health of the game in Australia and on the results of the Australian cricket team. If the disasters of the last few months are not enough to prompt this kind of change, then nothing ever will.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 2

In 2013, after a catastrophic tour of India, it seemed as if Australian cricket was at its lowest ebb. There were widespread cultural problems, and the team was coming of a tour of India in which they failed to come close to beating their opponents. From that point on, and certainly during a home Ashes whitewash of England, it looked like the team had turned a corner. A couple of months later, they won in South Africa and were recognised as the best Test team in the world. But were they?

In fact, the selectors and all involved in Australian cricket chose the wrong path after the humiliating drubbing suffered in India. Instead of trying for a long-term solution to the problems, they came up with a quick fix which has only made things worse three years down the track. A closer look at that Ashes team, which went through the series unchanged, shows an ageing group of players who came up against an awful English team and smashed them. They had a good team, as shown by their victory over South Africa months later, but most of the players in that side are now retired. Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle formed an ageing attack which soon broke apart, and five members of the top seven in that series are also gone from the Test arena.

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Crisis: Australian players congregate during South Africa’s innings in Hobart.

In this way, the serendipity of the summer of 2013-14, in which Australia came up against and promptly savaged a weak opponent and surged to number one, did more long-term harm than good. The success of the Rogers experiment (the selection of older players to provide stability) also led to issues, with the selectors choosing older players like Adam Voges over younger options. While it was noble to select players who had been overlooked for too long, like Rogers and Voges (although why Michael Klinger was not included as part of this policy is still baffling) it did nothing for the long term health of the game in Australia. The search for overnight success, which was made official to the point of being placed in contracts, has gone on for far too long, and the achievement of that success has allowed the selectors to overlook the collapses which still plagued the winning Ashes side of 2013-14 (although back then Brad Haddin was always there to save the day) and the fast rising average age of the team.

The selection of Callum Ferguson for the Hobart Test, a 31-year-old who was not necessarily kicking the door down, was yet another chapter in this prioritisation of experience over youth. Ferguson was not even the best batsman in South Australia at the time of his selection. In fact, he was chosen over a teammate who is 22, scores more runs, is the captain of the Redbacks, has played ODI cricket for Australia and can bowl part time off-spin. That man, Travis Head, would have been an ideal selection if the selectors wanted to add a young star to the side, a player with the potential to be a middle order stalwart in years to come. They didn’t, making the same mistake once again.

Efforts of 85 and 161 in Hobart have cut Australian cricket to its very core, exposing all the issues that the win-now attitude has created. There is no longer any youth in the Australian set-up, and with current stars such as David Warner edging closer and closer towards retirement, the selectors need to start working on a team which will stand the test of time. Those at the head of Australian cricket seem to have finally recognised that quick fixes are no longer the answer. The question is whether they will still think that in a few months’ time, when the curtains will be drawn on a tour of India which, based on recent history, is not likely to succeed.

Next time: Where are all the young players? How the youth system has not come through.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 1

Australian cricket is in crisis. The batting line-up has developed a disturbing tendency to fall like a house of cards when the going gets tough, and in the second Test match against South Africa, in Hobart, they lost by an innings at home for the first time since 2011 (that loss, against England at the SCG, prompted a root-and-branch review of Australian cricket). Unfortunately, that review has not helped. Forget the fact that Australia were number one in the world earlier this year: these problems have been around for a very long time. In this five-part series I will look at all the problems which currently engulf Australian cricket, before looking at what is the only sustainable solution to a systemic problem.

The first issue is at the selection table, and it dates back to the Ashes series of 2006-07. By the end of that series, a 5-0 whitewash of England at home, four legends of Australian cricket had retired, including the country’s two leading Test wicket-takers of all time. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden followed them the year after, and by 2009 that core of legends was all but gone. The result? Years of experimentation. When Shane Warne, Australia’s leading Test wicket-taker, retired it was Stuart MacGill who was meant to pick up the slack and mentor the spinner of the future. Instead, he retired prematurely, prompting a revolving door of spin bowlers which lasted for years. Names such as Beau Casson, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain, Nathan Hauritz and even Cameron White (a specialist batsman from Victoria) found themselves in the team as the selectors tried to find the next Warne.

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Pressure: David Warner survives an lbw appeal as South Africa close in.

This example shows the crux of the problem. During the era of Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Hayden, Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting (who continued until 2012), Australia had one of the best teams in the history of cricket, possibly matched only by three (the West Indies over a twenty-year period, the Australian team of 1948 and the South African team of the late 1960s). After that team broke up, the selectors have tried to replace the players with more legends, and have quickly lost patience with anyone they don’t think will reach that level, an impossible qualification. This list of players who were never really given a shot includes Alex Doolan, who was unluckily dropped after a catastrophic Test in the UAE and replaced at number three by Glenn Maxwell, Jackson Bird, a bowler who has bowled well every time he is given a chance, and, to an extent, Usman Khawaja, who has been in and out since his debut in 2011. For every Bird, however, there has always been an Ashton Agar in the wings, players who keep getting opportunities, time and time again.

Agar is a perfect example of a selection gone wrong. His stunning Test debut, in which he scored 98 batting at number 11, was misleading: his problem, given that he had been chosen as a bowler, was that his bowling was not up to scratch. His two Tests in the 2013 Ashes clearly showed this, but he has still bounced back into the team on a number of occasions, with little success. Contrast this to Bird, who has barely set a foot wrong when he has been picked but has too often been injured or just not picked in favour of other options. The most recent example came when he was not picked in Perth because his batting was ‘not good enough’. Bird is a number 11 batsman. The selectors’ inability to stick with some players and give them a proper chance has led to a situation such as this, where just four of Australia’s eleven players from Hobart are safe for the Adelaide Test. One of those four, batsman and captain Steve Smith, was found by chance, initially picked as a leg-spinning all-rounder.

Australia need to find a set team, and more importantly, a set top six, before they can continue to move forward. The selectors can begin to solve this problem with some brave forward-thinking, but I wouldn’t count on it. For years, a player who has failed in a couple of games (barring Shane Watson, of course) has been dropped from the team and disappeared. This has done Australia no good, and we can only hope that Hobart was the nadir. It certainly doesn’t seem possible for it to get any worse. There are players from Hobart who should not be in the Test team, and we can only hope their replacements get the same chances.

Next time: Why recent successes have done more harm than good.