Howard warns against complacency
A sense of urgency - even emergency - coursed through Australian cricket's veins in the lead-up to this summer's Ashes series. The team performance manager Pat Howard has now warned that such energy must not be lost in the afterglow of victory over England if the team's success is to be lasting.
Howard's role, outlined by the Argus review and bestowed by the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland in 2011, made him ultimately accountable for the national team's performance. He was thus in danger of losing his job had the Ashes stayed with England, and admitted as much at the start of the summer.
A sweeping victory over Alastair Cook's tourists brought relief to Howard and many others at CA, allowing him the privilege of a dressing-room invitation at the end of the Sydney Test to share a celebratory drink with the team - players and administrators have not always mixed so fondly. He could look back on numerous decisions, from the appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach and the return of Brad Haddin as vice-captain to the call-ups of Craig McDermott, Damian Mednis and John Davison to on-tour support staff roles, as key moments along the way.
"We did collectively have a lot of faith coming out of England; the one-dayers confirmed that faith post the Test matches as well that we had the capability, and obviously it's holding your nerve through what was an interesting period," Howard told ESPNcricinfo. "I think a lot of people held their nerve and the players performed admirably.
"There's been a lot of things going on for an even longer period than that [England] but the things we see are what we call the shop window and the Test team and how that goes. There were 11 guys who performed brilliantly during that period of five Tests and a lot of backroom staff who kept them on the ground for that period and obviously the coaches that got the best out of them during that period."
There were structural adjustments too. The domestic season is now divided into four distinct blocks of matches, starting with the domestic limited-overs tournament, the Sheffield Shield, Big Bash League and then the closing rounds of Shield games. Pitches have been massaged to better advance batsmen and spin bowlers, while the age restrictions on the Futures League have been removed altogether. The fruits of many of these gambits will not be known for some years, but Howard is adamant that the changes ushered in during times of poor results must not be followed up by contented dithering. He is on guard against complacency.
"Sometimes success can bring complacency and that's why you've got to have a strategy and a document that drives you, either the CA strategy or the team performance review, the Argus review as it's commonly known, and to keep trying to push processes forward and to innovate," Howard said. "Some things work, some things don't, but the continuing ability to keep pushing, keep assessing, and keep improving is important.
"We've looked at longer-term projects like stuff coming out of our domestic changes or the pitches and things which we've been pretty vocal on this year, and you're not going to see the benefits of those for a while. But we've seen a significant increase in the number of overs that spinners are bowling, as a consequence the number of overs the batsmen are facing of spin, and we're going to continue to try to work with all the officials around Australian cricket to try to support the Australian Test, ODI and T20 teams.
"But I've been really happy with progress. We've seen a significant rise in centuries, a significant rise in half-centuries, but there's also areas like 50s to 100s [conversion rates] that haven't improved as much as we'd want. So there's all those changes that probably take more than half a season to wash through, and we're going to have to be patient to try to get some batsmen really putting their hand up and giving the selectors even more choice."
It should not be forgotten that the Australian Cricketers Association is tabling a state-of-the-game report to CA that will offer plenty of frank commentary on the problems the players themselves still see in the system. The placement of the BBL in the centre of the summer is chief among them, an issue highlighted by Shane Watson before the Ashes began in Brisbane. Howard himself is not satisfied with the current marginalisation of the Shield around the BBL, and is discussing with CA how the balance can be improved further in 2014-15.
"Change is always hard, and sometimes you've got to put your head down and get that change through," he said. "We've had some positive and some negative feedback, and the negative feedback has been really constructive. So we're looking to tinker, but none of that's gone through yet. I think in terms of the blocks of season that'll continue, where Ryobi will be played in a block again and we'll see if we can get the balance right with the number of Shield games either side of the BBL and see if we can get that through.
"It's a really complex time of the year, absolutely no doubt about that. But we try to keep our thinking clear. For those the selectors identify we make sure we work from the first Test backwards and work in with the states and the BBL teams, make sure we can incorporate any training or workloads into competitive cricket as well as training. Those plans are in place, you get injuries along the way, you get pressure on performances and suddenly teams wanting to make BBL semi-finals etc. So there are lots of competing interests and it is complex, but it's a great challenge."
The repealing of earlier regulations restricting the second XI competition to three, then six, players aged over 23 was the lowest-profile but arguably most significant change to the Australian cricket landscape. They had been put in place at the behest of Greg Chappell, who remains CA's national talent manager, due to his fears about a lack of youth coming through. A subsequent exodus of senior players from club, state and national levels had consequences for the national team, and Howard said the need for greater balance was now appreciated.
"I think the state talent managers who play chairmen of selectors for each state have done a really good job with that," Howard said. "In some states there's a significant amount of youth playing at the state level, and as a consequence we look at the balance of not just the Futures League team for the second XI game but also how much youth is being represented at the top level. I think they're doing a very good job generally at getting that balance right and getting the best growth out of those players.
"We're also trying to send a message to grade cricketers with aspirations that you can play in the next level, we want to be able to say if you though that's closed off that's not closed off. The presence of those players in premier grade cricket is important, so we're trying to have that system which is deep and fosters talent all the way down. The importance of a young player playing with an older player in premier grade cricket I don't think is lost on anybody."
Howard was reluctant to speak about the Ashes victory, preferring to let the players bask in their success. But he admitted to enjoying that moment in the dressing room, a place he has avoided crowding in the past. "I believe the dressing room is a sanctuary for players and those that are close, so it was very nice to be invited in," he said. "I'd resisted for a while, but it was very nice to join them."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here