Cowan avoids Ashes thoughts
Ed Cowan has a tricky course to steer. Last week his Australia A team played Durham at Chester-le-Street and this week they take on England Lions at Old Trafford. Both venues will be used for next year's Ashes Tests and Cowan is as aware as anyone in his squad of the importance of gaining experience on these grounds. Yet he also understands the perils of his players gazing ahead to next summer when their focus should be on the unofficial Tests against the Lions in Manchester and Birmingham.
"It's natural for people to ask whether these guys will be back next summer," said Cowan, "and it's also a natural, but unhealthy, thought process for those guys themselves to be thinking: 'I'm here. If I do well, I'll be back next year.'
"I think we all know how fickle cricket is. Two weeks can be a long time. People who put their hand up on this tour and combine that with really consistent performances in the Australian first-class system will go a long way toward pushing for Test selection. For people like Nathan Lyon, Tim Paine, Mitchell Johnson and myself, who are either in the Test team or right on the fringes, it's invaluable experience on Test match grounds. But cricket is played in the moment. You start thinking two months ahead and you miss your opportunity right now. For guys to be looking that far forward is not a healthy thought pattern."
Cowan's task in concentrating his players' minds on the threat posed by the Lions this week is not made easier by the fact that Old Trafford is currently in the throes of a £32m redevelopment, most of it predicated on Test cricket, particularly Ashes games, returning to Manchester on a regular basis. The sound of bat on ball currently has to compete with the clang of mallet on transom. Yet Cowan, the 30-year-old opener, is convinced that his players are ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead over the next eleven days.
"The squad's feeling pretty good," he said. "We've had three weeks to acclimatise and had two good hit-outs against county sides, so we're looking forward to the next two games being the pinnacle of the tour. Our focus has been these two matches and I wouldn't read too much into our form so far. We've been good in patches and pretty disappointing in other patches. A bad hour cost us the game against Durham last week and if that creeps into our game consistently, the Lions will pounce all over it and put us to the sword. Our best cricket is good enough to win, and win convincingly. We just need to play that best cricket over four days.
"We've got four guys with Test experience in tomorrow's eleven, two or three on the cusp on international selection and three or four where there's more of a development aspect. This is a big mini-series. The focus has to be about winning in England because Australian teams quite recently haven't been winning in England, so it's important to build that confidence by winning games of cricket. We're now into full-tilt four-day cricket and we're expecting some strong results. The best eleven will be on the park for the Lions games. I don't think it's the next best Australian Test team but it's certainly close to it."
In order to achieve the outcome he desires, Cowan and the Australia A management team have stressed that individual performances will need to be placed within the context of the team's achievement. And having played for a Tasmania side whose 2010-11 Sheffield Shield triumph was based on precisely that ethos, Cowan is well placed to extol its value.
"When people play for the team, individual performances take care of themselves," he said. "The challenge for me as a captain is cultural. On field decisions affect the ebb and flow of a game, but the bigger picture is the management of a culture and making sure that people want to play for the team. Having moved to Tasmania and having seen how important a culture can be for guys who do want to play for each other, I'm a firm believer in how strong that can be.
"This squad had a good ten-day training camp in Hampshire and the importance of being a team player was stressed. Not only here, but in the full Australian Test team there's been a cultural change in that there's very little tolerance for guys who want to be playing for themselves. In terms of mirroring the senior team, that cultural thing is a big theme in the Australian game at the moment and you saw after the Argus review that you got strong guys in the right positions to drive a little bit of a cultural revolution in Australian cricket. Michael Clarke is doing a fantastic job with the Test team and I guess the challenge for me is to try and replicate that."