Michael Jeh October 31, 2010

Australia must take T20 cricket seriously

Can experiments go wrong or does the very notion of an experiment essentially mean that there is no right or wrong, merely the testing of a theory or method

Can experiments go wrong or does the very notion of an experiment essentially mean that there is no right or wrong, merely the testing of a theory or method? Is it just a matter of learning from the experiment with no blame or recriminations attached? Australia’s T20 team tonight was deemed “an experiment”; on that basis, what have we learned from it and will it result in any lessons learned? More importantly, will the lessons learned actually be put into practice?

Some would argue that one lesson which probably did not even need to be tested was whether Michael Clarke has a future as an opener in T20 cricket. When I saw him walk out to bat with Dave Warner, I knew then that this was not a game that Australia was necessarily desperate to win. It was more about trying to justify his selection, in a media atmosphere that has been questioning his credentials all week. For a game that relies so heavily on power hitting in the first six overs, to open with Clarke is just plain stupid. He has never been that sort of player, much more adept at using his feet to the spinners and using quick wrists to manipulate the ball into gaps and running cleverly.

And so it proved....his inability to hit the faster bowlers over the top put pressure on young Warner too, and created the domino effect that led to a comprehensive thrashing. It’s not necessarily about being a big strong hitter – the Sri Lankan top order are hardly big men but they know how to hit through the field, if not over it. To bat Clarke at the top seemed like a pointless experiment (or a desperate effort to justify his selection) because it was never likely to succeed, nor is it likely that it will be an experiment that will Australia would ever persist with if they were dead serious about winning T20 games.

Look at it this way; even if Clarke scored a few runs today, would we seriously see him opening the batting at the next T20 World Cup? If he retains his place in the team, it will be because he is captain, not because of his powerplay hitting. He might be more than useful in the middle of the innings against the slower bowlers, but even that is not assured in a style of game that simply doesn’t suit his repertoire. So why bother with the experiment at all? It made no sense. It’s almost as if they’re conceding that he doesn’t have the power game to muscle the ball over the fielders when the fielders are in the deep, so they’ll flirt with a slow start, wasting the powerplay, to compensate for that weakness. Surely a few net sessions with Clarke trying to smash the quick bowlers over the top would have sufficed to put this theory to bed?

Experiment # 2: if Australia is going to challenge in T20 cricket, they either need to stick with the quicks or play a different spinner. Steve Smith, admirable batsman and fielder that he is, cannot do what a genuine spinner must do to be worth four overs. Comparing Smith to say Suraj Randiv was like ....well .... well, no comparison really. Play him as a batsman if necessary, but Australia need either another genuine slow-bowling option, or five quicks. Picking a spinner for the sake of it makes no sense. Not when you’ve got David Hussey, Cameron White or Clarke himself who can fill in with a few overs of pretty much the same stuff that Smith is capable of serving up. Against good players of spin like the Sri Lankans, a token spinner gets treated pretty much like Smith was tonight – with disdain. Can we safely say we're done with that experiment now?

Usually, playing in Perth against an Asian side is a huge advantage to the home team. Except of course that this team contained no one with any real ‘home’ advantage factor! Picking a team full of Victorian and New South Wales players essentially evened up the odds against the Sri Lankans. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Sri Lankans were the team more accustomed to these conditions. In all disciplines, they looked so much more assured in these conditions. Who would’ve dared predict that some years ago at Fortress WACA?

Overall, as a spectator, I didn’t find too much to surprise me. Australia is a middling side in world cricket, going through a rebuilding phase, and without a genuine world class player in this format. Sri Lanka is an emerging force, playing intelligent cricket and led by a few canny and classy players who can execute plans. Fast, bouncy pitches are no longer a huge advantage to Australia in shortened games. And when Channel Nine hypes up something like this and cannot even bother showing it live to a Brisbane audience, it just goes to prove that T20 cricket is no more than another form of canned Sunday night TV entertainment, despite promotions and hyperbole to the contrary. If Australian cricket authorities and broadcasters continue to treat fair dinkum ‘internationals’ as experiments, they may well discover that some viewers may just switch channels. For a nation that is totally unaccustomed to playing sport with anything but a “must win” attitude, such experimentation will soon wear thin.

T20 cricket may well be the hottest new kid on the block but if you disrespect it too much, even this golden goose may stop laying eggs. It would be interesting to know whether viewer numbers in the major Eastern seaboard cities dropped off when it became apparent that the Sri Lankans were cruising towards an embarrassingly easy victory. At a time when the cricketing authorities are claiming that the future T20 franchises could be worth much more than some popular football teams in Australia, they won’t need to test this experiment again.

Notwithstanding Sri Lanka’s fine performance, there was little else worth remembering. Is that really the golden future of T20 cricket that is apparently this multi-million dollar investment? T20 cricket is not much more than packaged entertainment, here today, forgotten tomorrow, but what other ‘entertainment’ experiments with paying consumers?

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane