Is spin Australia's future?
Wednesday's not-so-surprising decision that the WACA ground in Perth will not host a Test against India in the 2014-15 season comes at a time when some uninformed commentators have been bemoaning pitches that have apparently been tailor-made to suit home teams playing against Australia. Losing 4-0 in India and 3-0 in England (which didn't really do justice to Australia's combativeness) were accompanied by howls of protest from some Aussie fans, led by lazy tabloid writers who wrote darkly of sinister plots to prepare pitches that would nullify Australia's traditional strengths.
In that context, those in the conspiracy camp will be cursing Cricket Australia's decision to abandon Perth as a venue against the might of the Indian batting line-up. The 2008 match notwithstanding, India have generally struggled on that fast, bouncy pitch, although I can't see any reference to that pitch being described as sub-standard or "doctored", especially in the most recent Test between the two countries, which finished inside three days. Nor should it be. Australia comprehensively beat India throughout that summer on excellent cricket pitches, relying on their skills being superior to India's in Australian conditions. David Warner showed that the Perth pitch was superb to bat on if you had those skills, in much the same way that Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara showed similar skills on turning pitches on which the Australians struggled on this year, despite winning all four tosses.
The Perth decision needs to be viewed in a purely financial context, hopefully for just one season, because of the tight World Cup schedule in 2015. Cricket Australia had a tough choice to make and it predictably went for the choice with the best dollar returns. In that context, it was a no-brainer and the board should be commended for making a decision that was fiscally responsible instead of one that may have enhanced Australia's chances of winning a Test match. As predictable as the WACA's disappointment was, had Adelaide or Brisbane missed out, those administrators and fans would have been equally vocal in their protests. For Cricket Australia, it was one of those "damned if you do and damned if you don't" decisions. No doubt it anticipated a backlash from the WACA and was prepared for the inevitable yelps from the west.
I heard the news while I was at an Under-11 regional cricket trial in suburban Brisbane, watching my son try to defy his heritage and prove that some obstacles can be overcome despite being born at the shallow end of the gene pool. I was chatting at the time to a few other fathers, some of whom were vastly experienced former international cricketers/coaches, whose observations were aired candidly and eloquently. One of these gentlemen is heavily involved with coaching elite U-19 squads and he surprised me with his unequivocal commitment to picking teams chock-full of spin bowlers. He reckons that despite the pitch in Brisbane generally being more conducive to quicks, a team with three, maybe even four, spin bowlers is more likely to win trophies in the current climate.
Whilst initially I was sceptical, we then made a point of counting how many spin bowlers were trialling at this young age (having already made it through one representative zone filter), and his theory suddenly became a whole lot more credible. Not only were there more legspinners than any other type of bowler, they were also clearly the bowlers causing the most trouble to young batsmen who were generally unwilling (or unaccustomed) to using their feet. Most of the young batsmen had stances resembling an early-model Graham Gooch, and whilst they were strong, their footwork against spin was one-dimensional. When they did use their feet coming forward, it was often a suicidal dash before the ball had been delivered, though they were saved sometimes by the fact that the young bowlers did not have the skills to alter their lengths when they spotted the buffalo at full charge. The more we watched this phenomenon, the more apparent it became that Australian cricket may well come to be dominated by spinners in the next decade or so.
One young boy of South Asian heritage, with an impossibly high, Dravidesque left elbow, was one of the few lads who not only used his feet coming forward but was also quick to use the depth of the crease, rocking back to cut or pull with steely wrists. He then confounded us all by running in to bowl some tidy left-arm seam! I spoke to his parents, who told me that their son had been born and bred in Australia but still had subcontinental batting instincts. They couldn't explain it, citing his favourite role models as Shane Watson and James Hopes.
In terms of Perth's future as a winning venue for Australia, it's hard to know whether this apparent push towards teams dominated by spinners is a portent of things to come. Are young spinners succeeding because they are more talented or because the batsmen just don't know how to play them?
If you subscribe to the argument that we should embrace the "spin to win" mantra, then pitches like the WACA become less important to our future. On the other hand, there is an equally valid argument that suggests that if our young batsmen play spin poorly, then surely it is in our national interest to play on pitches that do not provide much incentive to the spinners. One thing that was obvious was that most batsmen at the trial were clearly more comfortable against the quicker bowlers. Whenever one young lad was brave enough to toss it above the batsman's eyes, the panicked shot that followed was almost comical to watch. Whether that will change when batsmen get stronger and can even mishit the slog sweep for six remains to be seen.
The other thing I observed was the complete dearth of offspin bowlers. Not one young bowler I saw today (from a coterie of perhaps 60) was plying this trade. There were about 15 leggies of varying abilities, and my son who bowled left-arm orthodox, but no offspinners whatsoever. Can this be down to the fact that these boys haven't had any recent Australian cricketing stars who have made offspin glamorous to identify with? Certainly with the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan, Ravi Ashwin and Saeed Ajmal (and a host of other luminaries including Graeme Swann and Sunil Narine), I would be surprised if an U-11 regional cricket trial in an Asian capital city would be bereft of a single offspinner. The talk at the trial was all about loopy leggies and wrong'uns. Is that the Shane Warne legacy still coming through?
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane