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February 19, 2013

Cricket threatened by second XIs

Michael Jeh
Josh Hazlewood delivers, Australia v West Indies, only T20I, Brisbane, February 13, 2012
Josh Hazlewood is the latest of several debutants Australia have had in the last year  © Getty Images
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To those unfamiliar with the Australian sporting landscape, these last few weeks have been full of controversy on many levels. Cricket was initially in the headlines when the much-denied "rotation" policy was debunked by Mickey Arthur and John Inverarity. They preferred instead to refer to it as "informed player management" or some such rubbish. The problem was that not everybody was informed of the rationale behind it, sometimes not even the players, often not the media who are much maligned but still expected to write about the sport, and definitely not the general public who merely turn up to watch whichever team Australia decides to put out on that particular day.

More recently, we have seen what was alleged to have been the "blackest day in Australian sport". To the uninformed, it relates to an ongoing drama about performance-enhancing drugs and its connection to the criminal underworld. Trevor Chappell must indeed be pleased that the underarm incident is no longer blacker than black, superseded instead by some desperate hand-wringing about how the integrity of sport has been oh so compromised by the drugs issue and its impact on betting. Whilst cricket has emerged relatively unscathed from this mess (thus far), there were nonetheless some uncomfortable questions posed by writers of the calibre of Gideon Haigh, about cricket's unholy alliances with betting agencies, whilst professing deep concerns about integrity.

Just today, the Australian Football League (AFL), so called because it is played exclusively in this country but at least has the humility to not have a World Series Competition for what is essentially a domestic competition, has released a seven-month report following an investigation into tanking, the practice of deliberately losing games near the end of the season in order to get preferential draft picks for the next season. To our great relief, the AFL have reassured us that there was no tanking involved and despite a $500,000 fine for the club involved, there were actually no tankers apparent, even though clubs selected players to play out of position, and may have "rested" some players. I wonder if that too was "informed player management," or is that jargon patented exclusively to Cricket Australia? "Tankers" they may not be but Cockney rhyming slang has a strange way of corrupting words in a manner that cuts to the bone.

Which brings me to my cricket-related question; if the AFL opens up a can of worms with this investigation into resting key players, what are the ramifications for the ICC in terms of ensuring that its members don't push those boundaries to ridiculous levels? It is the ICC who have sanctioned the crazy scheduling that has led to most countries now being forced into resting their best players from one format or another. One cannot blame Cricket Australia for sending half their squad to India to prepare for the forthcoming Border-Gavaskar Trophy, but if that was such a priority (and rightly so), which fool was responsible for scheduling another meaningless T20 International against the West Indies at the same time? The Australian team that took the field was certainly not their first picks, if they had everyone available, so is there a case for the ICC to be held responsible for pressuring nations into playing so much cricket where the paying public are no longer guaranteed of seeing even the best 15 players on the park? Do they discount the tickets by a commensurate amount for a game involving what is essentially a second XI?

My big beef with the current system is that I think it devalues the sanctity of the baggy green cap. I grew up in an era where representing Australia was a massive achievement. Some truly wonderful cricketers who just happened to be born at the wrong time barely got a game for Australia when they could easily have been legends of the game, if not for an accident of birth and opportunity. Jamie Siddons, Stuart Law, Wade Seccombe, Joey Dawes, Martin Love and Jimmy Maher are some names that easily spring to mind. I'm sure there are others who will feel aggrieved that my poor memory failed to add their names to this list.

All countries face the same issues but as I can access Australian statistics more easily, with the help of an assiduous friend, we came up with a list that might surprise (see below). It is a list of all the current first-class cricketers who are in Sheffield Shield squads and have represented Australia in some format. This list does not include those plying their wares in the Big Bash, and who no longer belong to a state squad (Brad Hodge, Shaun Tait, Brad Young).

New South Wales - Watson, Warner, Clarke, Smith, Henriques, Rohrer, Haddin, Starc, Hazlewood, Bollinger, Copeland, Jaques

Victoria - Finch, Quiney, Rogers, White, David Hussey, Maxwell, McDonald, Wade, Siddle, Pattinson, McKay, Hastings

Tasmania - Cowan, Paine, Ponting, Bailey, Birt, Faulkner, Bird, Doherty, Krejza, Hilfenhaus, Laughlin, Cosgrove

Western Australia - Mitchell Marsh, Voges, Katich, North, Michael Hussey, Shaun Marsh, Johnson, Coulter-Nile, Beer

South Australia - Hughes, Ferguson, Christian, Richardson, Lyon, Tait

Queensland - Pomersbach, Khawaja, Forrest, Hopes, Hauritz, Cutting, Harris

Even allowing for the inevitability of a wider pool of selections with all three formats, and allowing for an injury management regime that sees players being rested as a preventative measure (but still getting injured anyway!), this list is staggering in terms of the sheer number of players who can now claim to have represented their country. Yes, yes, yes, I get the bit about having to accept this is now part of the modern game and all that, but to have close to 60 players who have played for Australia and still "in the system" is just amazing. There was a time when we used to scoff at the English scene, which went through a phase of churning through players at international level at an alarming rate, but have we now got to the point where our Shield squads are full of ex-Australian players?

What does it say about our selectorial acumen if we're getting it this badly wrong, picking players that get discarded after a few games? Can we be confident that we're still getting it right at the selection table, despite Inverarity's indignation about the questions being asked of him and his predecessor, Andrew Hilditch? If, as they claim, each selection is a carefully thought-through process, how come we've got so much turnover?

Perhaps they can blame it on injury, but that then brings into sharp focus the question about the role of the army of physios, doctors and exercise scientists who are allegedly preparing our athletes for peak performance? That tired argument however has been run into the ground to the point where it needs to be rested (umm, informed writer management). I am fatigued with belabouring this point and have apparently pulled a tanking muscle!

If this is what the ICC have in mind for the future of cricket, sanctioning an international schedule that has become so crowded that teams are being forced to play their virtual second XI's, how can this be good for the game? How can this surfeit of cricket, some of it meaningless and forgettable, not inevitably lead to an environment where corruption and temptation can so easily flourish? Too much of a good thing will one day become a cancer that riddles the game and compromises the reputations of the vast majority of cricketers who play at 100% intensity every time they take the field for their country. I was lucky enough to play with and against many of those unlucky players listed above (Law, Dawes, Seccombe, Love, Maher) and I look back fondly now on just how bloody good they were. Their lack of international caps almost adds to their aura and credibility in a curious way because we got to see just how high the benchmark was if they couldn't get a game for Australia. These days, you're almost the odd one out if you're in a Shield squad and haven't played for Australia. Bunch of tankers obviously!

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

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Keywords: Rotation

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Posted by WheresTheEmpire on (February 22, 2013, 18:56 GMT)

I agree that too much cricket is devaluing the game and the baggy green and that the ICC is partly to blame. But player wage expectations and the insatiable public appetite for cricket internationally and throughout Aus also drive more cricket. If you are willing to take on all of these 'stakeholders' regarding this I will support you, Michael.

Just don't blame the selectors and the physios who have to deal with the consequences across all 3 formats at a time when a lot of the old champions have retired and the search is on for 3 collateral winning combinations.

I enjoy and will continue to enjoy this forum for its promotion and exchange of intelligent views on cricket issues but......

@vasily has described your attempt to connect the intentional losing of AFL games with genuine attempts to prevent injury and premature retirement of our cricket talent as "disingenuous". I prefer to view it as misguided, although a bit grotesque.

Posted by Meety on (February 22, 2013, 2:12 GMT)

I agree that the Baggy Green gets devalued under the process of Informed Player Management, however I do believe that the lists here are not really applicable. If you had Shield players with TEST experience it is 32 (not including retired players), (also note you have Katich, Tait & Jacques who are NOT playing Shield or List A's). Of the 32, the spread is over 8 or 9 years. In the mid 80s, (post Chappell/Lillee/Marsh), Oz had something like 45 (I think), players in the Shield that had played TESTS for Oz. This was due to the Rebel tours & the big 3 retiring, so the game was in flux, I feel it is no different now. We have had a lot of continuous culling of established greats from Warne to Hayden to Punter & Hussey. Genuine injuries have taken toll too. IMO - Oz could of fielded a 09 Ashes side of Jacques, Katich, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, Symonds, Haddin, Lee, Clark, Johnson, MacGill. This sped up development of Hilfy,Siddle,Hughes etc.

Posted by vasily on (February 21, 2013, 12:33 GMT)

I don't feel strongly about informed player management, but I think comparing it to the occurrences of tanking in the AFL is pretty disingenuous. Resting players in the AFL for the purposes of tanking is an insidious practice, done with the explicit intent of losing matches to gain a reward. Resting players in cricket, on the other hand, is not targeted towards intentionally losing matches (although it may occasionally lead to an increased chance of a loss), and it certainly doesn't reward teams for losing. So whether you're a fan of it or not (and from the tone of your article I think its safe to say 'not'), to equate informed player management with tanking is pretty misleading.

Posted by Peter Harrison on (February 21, 2013, 4:15 GMT)

I think the most alarming thing about that list is the number of really good cricketers mentioned - the number being not many. And yes, I think we need more topline players in the Sheffield Shield. NSW have 12 players listed above (although Jaques is a bit ropey - hasn't he retired?), and only three are available for the current Shield game in Adelaide. All of them, Haddin, Bollinger and Copeland have done well, which makes you wonder how strong the Shield could be if the States actually had their best players available.

Posted by samedwards on (February 20, 2013, 6:22 GMT)

Its all because of the greed for money by the ICC and the member boards. I really wish the ICC stop acting like a toothless tiger, take control of the scheduling and arrange games properly with proper rest periods. Regular exposure to many games between two countries will slowly but surely also desensitize us to the wonder and excitement which we feel when a country plays another after a period of time. The ICC has much to learn from FIFA in this regard.

Posted by ygkd on (February 20, 2013, 4:21 GMT)

I think it is all a bit inevitable given the over-filled schedules these days. Remember when you could see Test players in the Sheffield Shield? That is, established players rather than dozens of fringe fill-ins either from the over-sized national pool or from the back benches of state squads? No wonder national selectors can't take Shield form as a guide. Resultingly, the picks come from anywhere and everywhere (Mitch Marsh made a hundred in ODD, so it's a wonder he hasn't been sent to India for the Tests). It all looks ad hoc. I'm not a disgruntled Australian supporter. I'd rather have watched Pakistan in South Africa than the Ryobi Cup and if India win I won't be bothered at all. What I want to see, however, is quality cricket. But there was Tasmania without Tim Paine. South Australia was missing Callum Ferguson. One wonders why we bother having state competitions, if not to fill the evening tv programming so that the overseas broadcasts don't come on till you've gone to bed.

Posted by Kunal Talgeri on (February 19, 2013, 23:10 GMT)

@Michael Jeh: Except perhaps the monetary benefits of playing international and domestic T20s, there is no other reason for young viewers to aspire playing the modern sport. Injuries, "informed player management," 300-days televised cricket and (some, not all) players' greed have robbed the game of its romance. I never believed there was anything romantic about the game ever, but its portayal was when we had to wait and long to watch a Kapil or Imran or the Windies play each other. The modern-day realism will help bring perspective among aspirants, make them more measured, and possibly infer that playing cricket isn't such a big deal after all. Over a 10-year period, the decline in following may become more evident. Already, there is evidence against the craze that cricket generated, say, in the 1996-2001 period.

Posted by Sifter on (February 19, 2013, 20:10 GMT)

"What does it say about our selectorial acumen if we’re getting it this badly wrong, picking players that get discarded after a few games?"

Are we getting it wrong? The Test team is #3 in the rankings (and trending upward), the ODI team is 2nd, and while the oft-scoffed rating of 7th in T20Is is poor, I would argue that those ratings mean next to nothing (witness West Indies being ranked 7th before last year's world T20). Australia made the semis of the World T20, playing well. All this despite having only 1 truly good player: Michael Clarke, and losing a ton of good ones in the past few years.

In many ways, having 60 players who have played for Australia is a GOOD thing for Aussie cricket. If you can get that many guys experience at the top level, without compromising the Aussie team's performance, then isn't that good too? You will then have a stronger domestic competition for it, and you'll have a wider pool of players who 'know what it takes' to play at the top level.

Posted by Sarath Chandra on (February 19, 2013, 19:09 GMT)

Australia lost their way a little after Steve Waugh's test retirement, more precisely upon Trevor Hohn's stepping down from the selection panel, though their good work kept the momentum going for a while. At their peak, it was famously said, "it was harder to get out of the Australian team than to get into it". Stuart Law made an unbeaten 50+ score in his only test innings, and never got another test as the injured guy he replaced returned. Contrast this with Brett Lee being made to sit out 2 of his best years after returning from injury. Australians stopped treating their players as champions, and they stopped being champions. Simple as that. Why did they ever fix what was never broken?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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