October 5, 2013

Australia need to be Hussified

The Sheffield Shield needs to toughen up and national players must feature in it for at least two months before the Test season

Chris Rogers should have got a chance in Tests before all the young, inexperienced batsman that Australia have been picking in their squad © Getty Images

Yes, Michael Hussey, yes, yes, yes: The Sheffield Shield "should be hard and uncompromising, not a finishing school." And yes: "If you start playing youngsters who aren't quite good enough yet, it will lower the standards and intensity and make the jump to Test level so much bigger." Not truer words spoken since Arnie told us he was comin' back.

Hussey, in his you-beaut new autobiography, unfortunately not called Wanton: The Michael Hussey Story, says we're all formed by our experiences and that it's wrong to get rid of guys in their late twenties and early thirties in favour of Youth for Youth's sake. He says he's living proof that you can make a Test debut at 30 and still have a long and storied career.

There was a time when Hussey's experience was the norm, when a man would debut in Australian Test cricket after a "career" playing domestic cricket. Players were forged over half a dozen years or more, playing consistent first-class cricket against first-class - and often Test - cricketers. And thus were Australian Test cricketers made.

Now, not so much. Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes, David Warner and Shaun Marsh are all hyper-talented batsmen. But are they good enough to play Test cricket? Numbers would suggest they are not.

First-class cricket in Australia has been emasculated. Australia's international cricketers rarely play first-class domestic cricket, so often are they overseas playing what are effectively high-paid exhibitions. And the domestic competition has suffered for it and the Test team flowing into that. There aren't first-class cricketers (batsmen, mostly) knocking on the door. They aren't playing against strong enough opposition to wit the Test players to improve.

Look at Eddie Cowan. Just had a rough trot. Was probably stiff to be dropped after the first Ashes Test. But Cowan is an example of someone who did a Hussey, and spent several seasons playing first-class cricket learning his game, and learning about the game. When he came in aged 30 in he looked assured.

Chris Rogers is another. He should have been given a gig five years ago. Instead they went for kids: Hughes, Warner, Marsh, even my favourite Khawaja. They are playing Test cricket before they are ready. They are not ready. They'll tell you otherwise. And they are probably the best options Australia have in a fairly lean time for top-order bats. But they are not ready. They haven't been Hussified.

(Hussified? I'm goin' with it.)

I've harped on it before. I'll harp on it again. For the Australian Test team to be strong, the Sheffield Shield must be strong. And for the Shield to be strong, all the best players should be playing in it. Before this upcoming Ashes Test series, there should be four or five first-class games that everyone has to play in, from the top seed in the Cricket Australia contract list all the way down.

Everyone playing everyone, competitively, hard, fighting each other for the Test spot. This can't be just me.

Cricket Australia points to "A" games and academies and says first-class results aren't the only measure of what it takes to make the Australian Test team. They say that there will be one or two Shield games that the international guys can play in. And they can make a case. Playing the next-best South Africans on their turf isn't going to be easy. But none of this helps make the Sheffield Shield strong.

Maybe it's just how things have to be. The people making these decisions are in the game and have been for a long time. In a game of "Check Out The Big Brain On Brad", I'm deferring to James Sutherland every time. When Greg Chappell says it's all good, it's probably all good. And when guys like Rod Marsh say they have the game's best interests at heart, they aren't making it up. These aren't platitudes. They do care.

But then you see a dozen of Australia's best cricketers playing one-dayers in India when they should be playing in the Sheffield Shield in a two-month long audition for a Test spot. Good players playing against each other is what makes good players better. Shane Watson and Clint McKay and Mitchell Johnson, and all the rest of the one-day guys, men who presumably want to play Test cricket, should be playing against Australians in the long-form domestic game, and so making other players better for playing against them. It's the game as a whole. The so-called Big Picture.

So: less blooding kids, more first-class matches featuring every CA-contracted player, more 30-somethings in the game, the six-week period from mid-September to early November exclusively for long-form interstate matches, play the short-form stuff in January and February, finish Sheffield Shield, then everyone can go off to play T20 and make some dough leaving several dozen first-class cricketers all sufficiently… Hussified.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here