Australia must be patient with rotation
There's been a lot of talk lately, mostly criticism, of John Inverarity's stern defence of the 'informed player management' policy implemented by Cricket Australia, with critics ranging from credible to self-aggrandising.
I will try to make reasoned arguments about why Inverarity is right. Since 1999, Australian one-day and Test teams have enjoyed a sustained period of supremacy and excellence. Precisely when their reign ended in the different formats will only be clear 20 years hence; but for the sake of this discussion, let's consider periods beginning from the 1999 World Cup till December 2010 for the ODI team, and 1999 till the 2010-11 Ashes for the Test teams.
During this period, an obscene number of high-quality players came together to play at the same time. These legends managed to keep Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann, Andrew Symonds, Damien Martyn, Simon Katich, Greg Blewett, Michael Slater, Andy Bichel, Brad Hodge, Brad Haddin, Damien Fleming, Michael Kasprowicz, Stuart MacGill, Nathan Bracken, Brad Hogg and countless more out of the team, some for the better part of their careers. The bench strength was so strong that an injured player could easily be replaced by someone of equal or greater quality and the result of the match would be unaffected.
In this phase, Australian teams used only 73 players to play 345 ODIs, and 59 players to play 141 Test matches and had exceptional results. Warne's dictum - let your best team in each format play together for as long as possible, and the results will improve - might have been true, pre-2007. But two things happened very soon after Warne retired.
Many legends in the team retired in the 2007-2008 period. The Australian cricket team has been the most successful team in both Tests and ODIs in terms of its W/L ratio. Success and dominance are mandatory for its cricket teams as a culture. However, since Warne and his mates retired, Australian cricket lost the luxury of plug-and-play legends sitting on the bench waiting for a fellow legend to get injured so that they could waltz into the team and perform at a level that would make a viewer wonder whether the player was wearing the wrong jersey. The domestic structure, which produced fantastic reserves, simply does not any more. Now the squad is full of fixtures (Clarke, Wade, Starc, Warner), unpredictables (Johnson, Tait), fizzle-outers (Ferguson, North, Forrest, White, Bollinger), honest-triers (Doherty, Hilfenhaus, Bailey, Khawaja, Smith, Cowan, Lyon), awesome-but-frequently-crocked (Siddle, Watson, Harris), and exciting-but-unproven (Hughes, Maxwell, Pattinson, Cummins).
In 2007, India won the T20 World Cup, which directly led to IPL and a cluster of T20 leagues around the world. The direct consequence of IPL is that players simply started playing a lot more cricket in a lot more places around the world, and because the Australian domestic circuit was so strong, the Australian players simply became value purchases for most of the new franchises. Australian players started playing more, and Cricket Australia could do nothing about it.
The stark reality of today's international cricket scheduling is that players play one extra format at domestic and national levels that adds further strain. More matches, along with more travel, mean more injuries. The number of injuries faced by the Australian squad, especially the recent fast bowling crop, has been well documented.
Secondly, the difference in the requisite skillset and mindset from the slowest to the fastest format is wider than it has ever been before. This is why no single team seems to dominate all three formats of the game simultaneously. England, India and South Africa came close, and occupied the No. 1 spot in Test and ODI rankings. However, none of the teams came close to the Australian dominance in all three formats simultaneously.
India were brought crashing back to earth in England and Australia months after their ODI World Cup triumph, and South Africa didn't perform well during the 2011 World Cup or the 2012 World T20 soon after gaining the No.1 spot. Individual players such as Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, Dale Steyn, Kevin Pietersen and David Warner have been able to apply their skills to all three formats with more success than others, but a whole team peaking together consistently while playing one format after the next has not happened since the 2007 World T20.
Legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Inzamam ul-Haq, Glenn McGrath and others either retired before the international T20 became a staple of the international cricket calendar, or simply didn't play enough matches. Clarke hasn't played a T20I since 2009 despite being a top ODI player. Some like Hashim Amla, Virat Kohli and Saeed Ajmal have had plenty of time to get used to one format of the game before playing the others. Amla has moved from Tests to T20, while the other two have progressed from T20s to Tests.
Kallis, by his own admission, has had to work really hard to succeed at T20, simply because he's had to widen his skills greatly. The point is, even greats of the game struggle to perform at consistently excellent levels when they have to play multiple formats in short time.
Inverarity, Bichel, Clarke and Arthur recognise that they have a relatively young core of players, who are not in the league of Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Ponting, Hussey, McGrath and Brett Lee just yet. But they realise that, given enough time and patience, this group has the talent and temperament to do very well for Australia.
They also realise they have to form a strong group of reserve players ready to step in because this new group of players will be injured more frequently than the others. Since the Australian domestic circuit is no longer as strong as it once was, the only way to produce a high-quality bench is to make a large group of players play a lot of international games.
This could serve a couple of purposes. Firstly, it can help identify exceptional talent and differentiate between all-format cricketers and format specialists. Second, slowly but surely, the journeymen will elevate the quality of the reserves and be ready to step in whenever called upon. The only way to do that is to give the new pool of players opportunity and time.
Early on in his career, Warne was part of a huge paradigm shift in World Cricket: separate squads and captains for Tests and ODIs. Informed player management is the 2013 version.