January 19, 2011

After the debacle

To repair its reputation and standard of cricketing excellence, Australia must restore the strength of its domestic cricket and introduce balance in its corridors of power

Over the weekend, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Hauritz, David Warner and Phillip Hughes turned out for their clubs. At once, it was a commonplace event and a promising sign. It indicated a return to basics, an involvement in the game at the grassroots, a willingness to submit to its cruel authority. It is, also, an important part of the rebuilding already underway in Australian cricket.

Shaken not so much by a widely expected Ashes defeat as by the calamitous nature of the results, alarmed by the slide to fifth in the Test rankings - the only ones that really matter - and worried about the impotence of its young players, Australian cricket is undergoing a radical review of its structure and performance.

How radical the conclusions will be remains to be seen. Plain as day, the system is not working as efficiently as previously. Nor has Australia been in the vanguard of change. England created Twenty20 and even wore more suitable whites on the field in Test matches. Nor could Cricket Australia find a suitable candidate for the post of ICC vice-president from within, while the decision to award the coach a new three-year contract before this summer's campaign began has drawn criticism. Even the promotion of Greg Chappell as talent manager and selector has been questioned, as attention was drawn to his patchy recent record.

Accordingly, the review will consider all aspects of Australian cricket. The very existence of a board containing two members from each state has been condemned as outdated. Cricket is no longer a mainly domestic game to be presided over by past players or ageing administrators with years of devoted service in their records. Rather, it is an international affair and a modern multi-million dollar operation.

Not that the game should not come first. Cricket does not exist to make money. Commerce is a means to an end; that is all. Woe betides the nation that concentrates more on the bottom-line than the production line. A balance is needed between officials with expertise in management and finance and those best able to keep the game on the correct path.

Still, the feeling grows that Australian cricket ought to follow the practice applied by other sports of appointing a commission to run its affairs. It seems a reasonable proposal, calculated to leapfrog the local game ahead of its overseas rivals.

Assuming it's proposed and accepted, the commission ought to reflect both the diversity of the nation at large - Australia is far more of a melting pot than either its cricket or its caricature pretends - and the importance of the female of the species. That Australia has fallen behind in women's cricket confirms that the game has lost its previous drive.

Inevitably, the administration will also come under scrutiny. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, has been in the hot seat for ten years and his performance is bound to be examined. Even the best executives can run out of steam. Likewise a back-room packed with experts in public relations and media will be overhauled. The sight of the selectors naming 17 players for the Gabba Test at a ceremony arranged almost a fortnight before the Ashes series was due to begin did not enhance the dignity of the game or the credibility of those involved. Naturally, the Englishmen chuckled into their tea.

Even the medical and fitness staff will be called to account. Australian cricket has suffered a terrible rash of injuries. Of course cricket is played on hard grounds, with a hard ball, and occasional setbacks are to be expected. However, the list is long and not limited to fast bowlers, young or old. Clint McKay, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Michael Hussey, Simon Katich, Moises Henriques, James Pattinson and Callum Ferguson can be included in the long list of walking wounded. Obviously, the current methods are not working.

Meanwhile, Shane Watson, once as fragile as porcelain, plays every match while Brett Lee, Peter Siddle and Ricky Ponting, till he broke a finger, looked the fittest of the players. Fitness is another issue. England looked sharper and more athletic than their hosts. Australia were out-fielded. At one stage, the home captain observed that a bowler had "hit the wall." Doug Bollinger did not look fit enough and he was not alone. The primary responsibility lies with the player himself, but the coaching staff needs to demand the highest standards.

Nor can the coach emerge unscathed from the debacle. That Tim Nielsen is a good man is beyond dispute. No one has a bad word to say about him. Perhaps that is the problem. Popular figures are not always best-placed to instill rigour. Respect is more important than fellow-feeling. Nor did Australia's tactics seem especially astute while few players improved as the season went along. England were superior off the field as well as on it.

The selectors too will be asked to explain themselves. By now the response may sound drastic but its manner will be measured. The only reason to look backwards is to light the path forwards. Andrew Hilditch and colleagues may argue that they picked the best side from the players at their disposal and that the problems are deeper-rooted. It's not easy to be a selector in a nation used to winning and full of opinions. Still the responsibility was taken on gladly and the fees accepted willingly.

The past is another country and right now Australian cricket is in trouble. Changes of personnel and customs are in the offing, and even an unexpected victory in the World Cup will not stop them

Hilditch and the panel suffered from poor timing. Perhaps, the addition of Chappell and the loss of Merv Hughes upset the balance. Plenty of opportunities had previously arisen to ditch Nathan Hauritz and Marcus North, yet the panel waited till the Ashes was approaching or else underway. Of the replacements, Xavier Doherty looked inadequate, Phillip Hughes was still sorting out his game and Steven Smith seemed to be batting too high at No. 6.

From a distance, it seemed that the original commitment to hold the team together till the end of the Ashes was suddenly ditched in favour of a more progressive strategy. If so, it was both too early and too late. Clearly the panel cannot survive its errors. Not that selection was the critical issue. As Hilditch tried to point out in his tongue-tied way, England were better with bat and ball.

By no means can these honest servants of the game be allowed to duck their responsibilities. Only after all these debates have been completed is it worth talking about the captaincy and the playing field, the influence of the IPL, the effects of the Australian Football League's ever-stronger venture into New South Wales, and the significance of the northern hemisphere's increasingly strong stranglehold on the sporting dollar and so upon the prospects and locations of the players. It's worth pointing out that a large majority of the players, and all the important coaches involved in the Ashes series were born below the equator.

Perhaps these topics can wait for another day. Meanwhile, Australia have a World Cup to defend. Although Ponting's side occupies top place in the ODI rankings, it does not look good enough to retain the trophy for a fourth time. From afar, it might seem that a country that has held the World Cup for 15 years, been top of the Test rankings almost as long, and been a beaten finalist in the World Twenty20 is going along well.

But the past is another country and right now Australian cricket is in trouble. Changes of personnel and customs are in the offing, and even an unexpected victory in the World Cup will not stop them. Three innings-defeats at home against the third-placed team told the story. Australians expect high standards and appreciate straight talking. Of course, the two are connected. Now is the time for Cricket Australia to chart the course forwards with a view to restoring domestic standards and establishing best practices in the corridors of power. Only then will the wider world once again feel the wrath of the baggy green.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on January 21, 2011, 11:28 GMT

    the problem isn't the standard of Domestic cricket its the selectors being too narrow minded, Marsh was a far better option than Hughes to open the batting & no surprise given the chance he's looked very classy against the English. 1 of the Main issues is that players really struggle to find their spot in a team, Michael Beer & Doherty were struggling for first class games not too long ago as only 66 players get a go in any given round of first class cricket. When you knock out those who are probably too old to bring in now like Jacques, Voges, Manoe, Krejza, Dave Hussey... a few who look promicing but aren't quite ready for tests like Maddison, Pattinson & the couple international players & the pool of talent is fairly small. you're probably down to 40-45 players eligibe in your pool across all positions regardless of form & quality.there's proof if you think about in the success of the likes of Klinger, Blizzard, Christian showing they're top quality when they move & get a chance.

  • Warrick on January 21, 2011, 11:06 GMT

    JeffG...yeah, I understand we're not going to dominate world cricket with the current crop of players, in fact no one probably will, SA stars starting to get on abit Kallis, Smith, Boucher etc. Indian stars certainly getting on Ganguly, Tendulkar, Laxman etc. It's one thing getting outplayed & beaten by a better team. I'd just like to see a team of scrappers not give an inch & fight all the way. Too many soft dismissals. I don't think the current players lack any skill, if they were really hungry for the game, I wish they'd portray that more on the pitch & in the nets. I do think our media hypes our players up too much all hoping for the next 'star'. As I say, I'd rather a team of 'lesser lights' & scrappers go down to a superior line up than see what's been going on this summer.

  • Jeff on January 21, 2011, 9:32 GMT

    @Wozza-CY - absolutely you need to do the basics right and play to your strengths in order to get the best results you can - the current England set up is the perfect example of doing that. BUT - even doing that, a team is still not going to win more than 50-55% of it's matches. That is the reality of modern cricket. Every other team (who haven't had the luxury of Warne-McGrath) understands this and accepts that there will be good and bad runs of results. I don't think Australia (fans, players or officials) have come to terms with this yet. I still think they believe that changing the set up of their sport will enable them to return to those halcyon days of the late 90s/early 00s. All i'm saying is that was a freak period, a one-off and even if Australia do everything right they will still be "only" another good team. And by not recognising that, they are running the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  • J Ranjith on January 21, 2011, 2:55 GMT

    Solution must be simple. Ricky used to say that Aussies play hard and fair and win the game. Why don't they just do the same, Ricky is still the captain, right? They can't because they were not playing hard and fair but they were terrorising the opponents with quality players and unbearable sledging which they cannot pose now. Ricky used to behave like a hitler and battle like Alexander when everybody around were legends but now his true color and ability are being exposed which itself eats him all the time. His avg since 2007 is around 40s but every aussie was telling themselves that he is not playing well for only last 1 or 2 years. Same for the team - they didn't believe that team needs to be grown, thought legends will born out of nowhere. Accept the reality, that those ours-is-perfect-domestic-structure boasting are good to hear when things are fine. At least if Warne had been made captain, he would have captained even now and would have rebuilt a strong team. Fire Ricky first.

  • Warrick on January 21, 2011, 0:50 GMT

    JeffG..clearly you can't replace 1100 test wickets overnight. Many people understand as well as the fact that bowlers like Warne & McGrath come along rarely. What Oz cricket fans want is for our team to play accordingly. Clarke was at logger heads with the coach about playing more conservative before and after breaks in play. Clarke wanted to 'play a natural game'. That worked fine when you had Gilly in the middle order or Warne & McGrath to bowl them out cheaper. The team needs a reality check and go back to basics & not 'flash' at everything. Do things like, have the openers see off the new ball, play to your strengths, block an over if you have to, bowl maidens, build pressure. The result wouldn't have changed, England were the better team through the whole Ashes series. What we need is better organisation, more discipline & pick the right players for the job & not get caught up in political or state based selections. Just pick the best team, lead & coach them well.

  • Jeff on January 20, 2011, 13:32 GMT

    @meety - I honestly do think that 95% of the problem is down to Warne & McGrath retiring. The numbers are clear on this. When both of them played in the same team, Australia won 68% of it's matches. When one of them was missing, that fell to 59%. When neither of them played, it fell again to 55%. Or to put it another way, even that "great" Aussie team was no better than any other "good" team - say the current SA team, who have a similar winning % to that. Of course, Australia's winning percentage since they retired has been 49%, so it is a bit lower but it's still the kind of winning percentage that most teams (including England and India) can still only aspire to - and it's 2nd only to SA in the period since Warne/McGrath retired. I think a reality check and a lowering of expectations is needed here.

  • Andrew on January 20, 2011, 7:36 GMT

    @ c5nv2838a47i - Re; 2nd tier comp. There is a 2nd XI comp called "Futures" or something like that. I don't believe that many games are played but includes ACT as well as the other states. I'd like to see a NT side playing with some retiring greats playing a mentoring/playing role in the side. Based out of Darwin, this would be good for Oz cricket as Darwin's pitch is about as close as Oz can get to simulating a sub-continental pitch. The NT Shield side, (doesn't have to play in the Shield comp - maybe just against State sides who have the bye), would almost be a spin acadamy where they always have 1 or 2 spinners in the starting XI. I think the Shield should start a little earlier & the Internationals be available, I also think the Big Bash needs to be condensed, so that more ist class games are played in January. Maybe move the Big Bash to October?????? Get more Internationals playing Shield & beef up the Futures comp.

  • Dummy4 on January 20, 2011, 5:23 GMT

    @Munro_Mick, the comment regarding AFL in NSW has nothing to do with the availability of grounds, but it's about young cricketers choosing to play Aussie Rules rather than cricket. It's easy to see why - in the elite AFL competition, as of next year, there will be 18 teams, each team has 18 on field players and slightly more than that number again in the entire team (usually made up of 42 players), that is there is a position for nearly 750 men to be a part of an elite football team. Compare this with cricket. There are six first class teams in Australia - NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, plus the Australian team - made up of 12 players each - for a total of only 84 first class cricketers, plus perhaps another 20-25 that would play regularly, i.e. less that 120 men in total playing elite cricket. It's easy to see why juniors with the talent are picking AFL more than cricket...

  • Sampath kumar on January 20, 2011, 4:38 GMT

    Peter Roebuck always give a fair assessment. The major problem that Australia have had over the years has been that they always stick to winning combinations and change personnel only when the person retires or he gets injured. When the old guard is back, the new person sits out again irrespective of his performance ... How else can you expect some body like brad hodge who has scored so heavily in domestic cricket not tried enough at test level ( he has a double hundred in tests). The other problem they have is that they brand resources very quickly. How can they not include some body like a David hussey or a Cameron White in their test teams inspite of they scoring so prolificly in the domestic competitions and so Stuart Clarke, who has done very well in the test matches that he has played . krezja not tried enough ... On the other hand, people like Mitchell Johnson / Dougie bollinger continue to be automatic choices or back ups for the main teams. The entire system needs a overhaul

  • richard on January 20, 2011, 4:18 GMT

    If we look back 25 years when Australia had to last rebuild - Captain grumpy, a Coach that could terrify players and bringing in and trying younger players. It really took them 4-5 years to find and develop a core of players that would start to bring Australia back as a force in world cricket. This sort of thing will not be quick and it is right to look at the administration as well as the players. People bagging Michael Clark as not being right for captaincy need to look at what he was doing in the Sydney Test..... Ok he didn't score, but he will come back to form and has a lot of runs in the bank. His handling of Mitch Johnston was excellent - bowl 2 overs of rubbish, get dragged and come back later. He did that with a number of bowlers and at one stage had Beer and Watson bowling because they were the ones who could put it in the right spot. His captaincy was a lot more patient than Ponting and I honestly think he is the man for the job.

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