February 19, 2013

Cricket threatened by second XIs

To those unfamiliar with the Australian sporting landscape, these last few weeks have been full of controversy on many levels

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 Trevor Chappell must indeed be pleased that the underarm incident is no longer blacker than black, superseded instead by some desperate hand-wringing about how the integrity of sport has been oh so compromised by the drugs issue and its impact on betting.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