BBL vacuum stretches Australia's Test team
On the eve of another home Test series played in a first-class cricket vacuum, Australia's team performance manager Pat Howard has admitted it will take years for international sides to find a way of coping adequately with the mounting tension between Twenty20 and long-form games.
As has become standard procedure for the Australian season, the Tests at the height of summer run concurrently against the BBL, leaving the national team and its selectors with no reliable first-class competition beneath it to groove players for five-day combat. Unless contracted to a BBL team, cricketers around the country have no option but to go back to their clubs for any kind of match play, leaving batsmen and bowlers without an adequate lead-in to possible Test match duty.
Mitchell Johnson, Australia's 12th man against Sri Lanka in Hobart, has packed his kit and prepared to fly out of Tasmania, and will now have only a series of four-over cameos for the Brisbane Heat by which to press his case for a return to the XI. Usman Khawaja and Alex Doolan, meanwhile, appear little chance of pressing Phillip Hughes for his newly regained Test batting spot via their T20 duties for the Sydney Thunder and the Melbourne Renegades. This muddled state of affairs will return again during next summer's Ashes Tests in Australia.
Howard told ESPNcricinfo that the competing technical, physical and mental demands of T20 and Test matches were causing furrowed brows around the world, leaving players, coaches and support staff from all nations at something of a loss to find the ideal preparatory path. Australia has made considerable strides in developing the lines of communication between CA, the states and the BBL teams to ensure players of interest are given some chance of staying Test-ready, but Howard conceded much still needed to be learned.
"It's not a perfect world, you want to be able to deal with all the different formats, and it's complicated. But it's complicated for everybody," Howard said. "I actually think dealing with this challenge will take a couple of years for all countries, and they're dealing with it in different ways.
"The scheduling is difficult. In saying this, you get plenty of warning - it's not like they put that schedule up against you a week in advance. So we know this same round of BBL is between Test one and Test two of the Ashes next year, we're well across that. So we're 12 months in advance in our schedule and our thinking, so we need to be making sure those guys in and around the team are getting practice with the right coloured balls at the right time, with the right coaches.
"And they know they're playing in game X, but part of their training is going to incorporate Y. That's been communicated through the national selection panel with the states as well and through the BBL teams. That process has been happening. It's never easy, but it's part of the challenge that all teams and all countries now have to go through."
Australia's captain Michael Clarke experienced the difficulty of being left to his own devices for almost a month in October during the Champions League T20, which left New South Wales without any Sheffield Shield matches due to the Sydney Sixers' qualification for the international club tournament. He said Howard and the national selectors were doing a fair job of informing players of where they stood and how much they needed to prepare.
"It's so hard to have the cake and eat it. The Australian Test team's playing 12 months a year, there's no real perfect time to not be playing first-class cricket," Clarke said. "I think what we're doing really well, and Pat Howard deserves a lot of credit for this, is making sure the next group of players are still doing a lot of work against the red ball knowing we've got Test cricket, not only through the Australian summer but then we go to India."
Medical and fitness staff around the game have for some time pushed for the more liberal use of substitutes as a way of closing the gap between the formats. Howard said he would like to push further into that territory in domestic competitions but said he had no desire to tamper with the 11 v 11 traditions of Test matches.
"I'm on the [Cricket Australia] playing conditions committee and there are very valid arguments, one for tradition, one sports science," Howard said. "By no means would I want to test the fabric of Test cricket, that's not what we're here to do. There are traditions that are wonderful for the game.
"But I think in terms of some of the statements [Victoria coach] Greg Shipperd has made around other versions or other formats, I am interested to have a look at it from a health and welfare position. But not Test cricket, that's not going to change. You'd love to bring players back in to play more Shield cricket at different times without overexposing them at other times."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here