Australia news August 17, 2011

Ashes autopsy report close at hand

Australian cricket's reckoning for a disastrous Ashes series, and the decline from greatness to mediocrity that preceded it, is belatedly at hand. The findings of the Australian team performance review will, as ESPNcricinfo reported in July, be tabled and discussed by the directors at the Cricket Australia board meeting to take place in Melbourne on Thursday and Friday, nearly eight months after the Ashes were lost in an innings defeat at the MCG.

Upon the conclusion of the meeting CA's chairman Jack Clarke will face the cameras and microphones to run over whatever findings the board chooses to make public. Based on the submissions of a litany of players, coaches, administrators and other well-placed observers, they are expected to be blunt and wide-ranging.

The review panel, chaired by Don Argus and including the former captains Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh plus the former CA chief executive Malcolm Speed, is likely to direct its harshest critiques towards the selection policies of the out of contract chairman, Andrew Hilditch, whose term lapsed at the end of the World Cup.

Hilditch's tenure began in 2006, and after enjoying a 5-0 Ashes sweep on England in the following summer he was fated to negotiate the retirements of a succession of great players, including Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn.

He and his panel have been heavily criticised for numerous decisions across that time, most pointedly the revolving door for spin bowlers since the selectors' planning was thrown out of balance by the sudden retirement of Stuart MacGill in 2008.

More recently the removal of Simon Katich from the list of CA contracted players provided a window into the players' discontent about the ways of the panel, something also highlighted by a formal submission to the review regarding selection by the Australian Cricketers Association.

Rod Marsh, the former Australian wicketkeeper and highly-respected academy coach, has expressed his interest in becoming chairman of selectors, discussing the possibility with CA's head of cricket operations, Michael Brown.

Other matters at issue for the review panel include the shape of the Australian team's support staff, with the place of the head coach Tim Nielsen in some question. Since the World Cup Nielsen's support staff has been bolstered by the additions of Craig McDermott (bowling coach) and Steve Rixon (fielding coach), as the players desired greater guidance from mentors with international experience.

Rixon's arrival in particular has been met with great enthusiasm, and as the former coach of New Zealand and NSW his credentials far outweigh those of Nielsen, who was a distinguished assistant for South Australia and Australia but had never been a head coach until he replaced John Buchanan in 2007, like Hilditch at the outset of a difficult period of transition.

Australia's players and support staff currently on tour in Sri Lanka are expected to be briefed about the review findings on Friday morning in Colombo, before Clarke presents a summary of the findings to the public.

The Australian team's contract system, scheduling and preparation have also been matters for discussion, with the former chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns noting that a sleeker and more flexible contract system should be devised.

It has also been pointed out that Test cricket in Australia would benefit from being the clear financial pinnacle of the game, with sufficient incentives for young players to devote themselves to its pursuit.

The evolving role of the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane is considered a sore point in the development of players, as CA has sought to make it more of a finishing school for internationals rather than a bridge between junior cricket and the first-class arena.

Further down the pathway, the standard of domestic cricket has been openly questioned by the likes of Ricky Ponting, who fervently believes that young cricketers need to be held to the same rigorous standards he had to reach before he was selected to play for Australia.

Twenty20's onset, and its attendant impact on the techniques and priorities of domestic players, is another factor, but CA are torn on this matter by competing desires to have the Test team successful while also growing the game's revenue.

There is little the review panel can do about the onset of the T20 Big Bash League and its heavy impact on the domestic schedule, meaning there will be plenty of hurdles ahead for the Australian team, whatever Argus and company recommend at the board meeting.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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