What ails the Clarke generation?
It's difficult to deny that Australian cricket has reached its lowest ebb since the 1980s, and possibly in living memory. Every cricket follower will have his or her own prescription, and in this essay I present my own, as but one of thousands of the Michael Clarke generation of cricketers who failed to make it, and who continues to observe the game keenly.
What is to be done? The problem is obvious: the Australian cricket team doesn't make enough runs. There is nobody in the current top seven - with the exception of Clarke - who has demonstrated an ability to grind out a hundred, or bat through two or three sessions, in difficult circumstances. Does this problem have immediate or structural causes?
Immediate causes are simpler, but uglier, to address, because they often involve sackings. That of Mickey Arthur is a prime example. Fairly or unfairly, Arthur had developed something of a reputation for pettiness and for being unable to forge constructive relationships. As coach of South Africa, during one tour of Australia he complained of umpiring standards. In Australia he notoriously required "homework" of the players. His terms at the helm of South African and Australian cricket ended in much the same way: on the eve of an important Test series.
Likewise, the long-running debate about Shane Watson must end - with his exit. This recommendation is not so much based on his on-field performances - although as anything other than a bowling all-rounder who bats at seven or eight his position is unwarranted - as on his incapacity to contribute to team unity and spirit. There is no cricketer over the past decade who has been more consistently over-rated by Australian selectors. Despite constant injuries, a propensity to throw away his wicket at scores between 25 and 60, and an underwhelming batting average, Watson has benefited from a walk-up start when fit. Yet his enduring reputation is as an over-rated poster-boy who whinges when things don't go his way. His public response to being rested for failing to complete Arthur's homework tasks in India last year was befitting of an immature 15-year-old, rather than a Test vice-captain double that age. The much-analysed rift between Watson and Clarke seems grounded in a petty jealousy. Arthur's recent claim in court documents that Clarke once described Watson as a "cancer" on the culture of the team may record an analysis that is true, if too harsh to say publicly. When Malcolm Blight arrived at the Adelaide Football Club at the beginning of the 1997 AFL season he immediately sacked three of its stars (Andrew Jarman, Chris McDermott and Tony McGuinness) largely because of the deleterious effects they had on a team culture Blight wanted to change. History records that Adelaide then won Premierships in both 1997 and 1998. In the same way, Watson's continued presence in and around the Test team may be preventing any structural and cultural change. Scapegoating is always a fraught exercise, and is often unfair - as when Damien Martyn was effectively blamed for Australia's collapse in a Sydney Test in 1994 and kept out of the team until 2001. But for Watson to behave like he does, he needs to be averaging well over 50 with the bat.
There is also a case for terminating the contract of James Sutherland, since 2001 the Chief Executive Officer of what is now known, in these spin-heavy times, as Cricket Australia. Until about 2006-07, Australian cricket looked extremely healthy. Then the wheels fell off. Whatever succession planning took place during the golden years has demonstrably failed in its objectives. Some observers did sound warnings as early as 2000: when Australian cricket could no longer rely on the services of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Steve Waugh and Ponting, what then? As the dust settled on the new millennium, the cupboard looked increasingly bare. The response of the Australian cricket hierarchy, led by Sutherland, was to rely on the formula which had produced the best team since The Invincibles: intensive elite training through the under-age squads and the Australian Institute of Sport's Cricket Academy. But this response was inadequate. My argument is that this inadequacy was always foreseeable, and Sutherland failed to foresee it. On his watch, the Australian cricket team has fallen from world-beaters to more than occasionally embarrassing.
Under Sutherland the Australian Cricket Board changed its name, in 2003, to Cricket Australia. This seemingly insignificant "re-branding" was symbolic of a much broader social trend in organisations everywhere toward corporatisation, managerialism and public relations spin over substance. As captain in this new era of corporate spin, a media-managed Michael Clarke sounds like a PR exec from a publicly-listed company: the sole aim of his public comments is to be as boring as possible. Blaming Sutherland for these trends would be like blaming Paul Keating for neoliberal economic policy, but my argument is that Australian cricket cannot recover under the language and organisational constraints imposed when marketing trumps rational and creative thought, and so marketisation's bearer must go. It may be that Darren Lehmann's appointment as national coach becomes Sutherland's most positive legacy: Lehmann is a world away from the spun-out verbiage that passes for modern communication.
At 2-0 down in what is effectively a ten-Test series, emergency action is required. Australia simply must play tougher cricket - immediately. Surely the most effective way of doing this is to get people in and around the team who can help the current players do this. Every solution, from an effective sports psychologist to the participation of former players, should be considered. I would be particularly interested in any contributions from Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh and Allan Border. These are cricketers - batsmen - who made themselves tough. How did they change their games and their mindsets? As mentors their advice may prove invaluable.
However, the decline of Australian cricket since the mid-2000s points to deeper, more structural factors, which will take time and effort to address. Perhaps the most central question is this: what happened to the Michael Clarke generation? Clarke is the only batsman born after 1980 who has succeeded as a Test cricketer. His contemporaries - Watson, Ed Cowan, George Bailey, Ben Rohrer, Adam Voges and countless others who have compiled respectable, but not "excellent", "superb" or "great" first-class careers - are missing in action. Blaming bowler-friendly Sheffield Shield pitches is nonsense: learning to bat effectively on them would stand any batsman in good stead. It may be, rather, that they are the victims of the Hayden-Langer-Ponting generation which jealously guarded its patch against the new kids on the block, not affording them the early opportunities they themselves got in their early twenties to taste the standard of Test cricket and know the kind of work they needed to do to improve. If this is the case, then the generation is and was always lost. As for the next generation - Phil Hughes, Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell, David Warner, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja - it may be simply that they are not yet old or experienced enough to shoulder the burden they've been lumped with. It is worth remembering that Hayden, Langer and Martyn were in their late twenties when they blossomed into reliable Test performers.
But the gap in the Clarke generation is worrying. This is a generation which benefited from the same elite coaching and player development infrastructure that produced almost the entire team of superstars which dominated the world for a decade from the mid-1990s. Michael Bevan, Greg Blewett, Adam Gilchrist, Michael Hussey, Simon Katich, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Ricky Ponting, Michael Slater - all attended the AIS Cricket Academy in its first iteration, in the coastal Adelaide suburb of Henley Beach, under the tutelage of Rod Marsh. It is tempting to draw simplistic conclusions from the fact that the waning of the Academy's influence coincided with the end of Marsh's tenure (in 2001) and its move to Brisbane (in 2004). Indeed, Marsh moved on to England's equivalent academy, and his presence there coincided with that national team's resuscitation to the point that it won the Ashes in 2005 for the first time since 1987. This would suggest that Marsh can be a key part of the Australian revival, but at the age of 65 he may be hoping to slow down rather than commit to another half-decade or more rebuilding yet another national development structure.
Perhaps there's something even deeper at play here. The greatest single transformation in cricket in the last 30 years has been the narrowing of the available talent pool - a consequence of a sharp reduction in the number of children, teenagers and twenty-somethings playing serious, competitive cricket. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Australian cricket benefited from a pyramid structure: a very large base of active participants, tapering to an apex of highly talented elite, being pushed ever upwards by pressure from below. A series of social, cultural, economic and bureaucratic changes since the 1980s led to a dramatic narrowing of the base, as less and less children were afforded the opportunity of playing competitive cricket. The most visible disappearance has been that of government secondary school cricket.
At the same time, deploying a severely rationalist theory, talent scouts (helped by wealthy parents who could afford one-on-one coaching for their primary school-aged progeny) "selected" elite twelve-year-olds who were raised in under-age representative squads. Most under-30 members of Australia's current squad in England passed through the under-age squads. I was on the fringes of the South Australian under-19 squad in the late 1990s, as part of a nationwide search for Shane Warne's replacement which has thus far amounted to nought. As a chance outsider who had taken some lucky wickets, I observed the core of the squad which had played together for years against their interstate counterparts. They were rich in talent and skill, even richer in self-belief, but they weren't tough. They'd never had to fight their way into a team and keep their place against hordes of challengers. The batsmen were coached in flawless technique to play the seam-up, front-on medium-pace that was in fashion in coaching circles at the time, on hard, flat wickets.
And none of the batsmen made it. There were incredibly talented batsmen in that squad, as there were in the other states. What happened to them all? I doubt it's a coincidence that this was the first generation of super-coached cricketers which benefited from resources thrown at elite development squads by economically rationalist governments, while the old pyramid structure applying democratic pressure narrowed into something resembling a bean-pole. The same has happened in other iconic sports like tennis and swimming. As grass-roots participation has made way for an elite-oriented corporate structure, the talent pool has shallowed, and elite performances have suffered. If my analysis is correct, then a long-term solution involves redirecting resources away from elite player development and into a revival of grass-roots participation.
Has their experience in elite under-age squads taught Australia's batsmen that they are great before they have succeeded? One of the least likeable things about the national team for a while now has been its excessive focus on image. The buffed-up, blonde-tipped, tattooed figures in umpteen marketing campaigns haven't translated that image into on-field performances. Watson typifies the image-substance gap, but Clarke himself was hardly immune to such criticism, at least until his Bradmanesque 2012 calendar year convinced the cricketing world that he was much more than met the eye.
A curious question has emerged in recent days, one which recalls the last time Australian cricket faced a crisis: what would Border do? The question focuses the mind. It's not difficult to imagine how he would have confronted issues of discipline and disunity attaching to Watson and others. And he would have demanded toughness in the centre: if wickets are to fall, England must earn them. Toughness, surely, is what Australian cricket fans must see for the remainder of the Ashes. Beyond the Ashes, fans must see a genuine revival of the structures of Australian cricket.
If you have a submission for Inbox, send it to us here, with "Inbox" in the subject line