December 23, 2006

Retirements expose missing link

So much for all the talk of carefully planned generational change

Glenn McGrath's absence will leave a huge gap for Australia © Getty Images

Late next year Australia will face India without half of their bowling attack. More than 1250 wickets will be missing and the replacements will be fortunate to have five Tests between them. So much for all the talk of carefully planned generational change.

With the retirement of Shane Warne and the departure of Glenn McGrath after the World Cup, Australia will lose their most reliable house stumps. Throw in Damien Martyn's exit and the potential of both opening batsmen to join in and the foundations suddenly look shaky.

In 1983-84 Australia lost Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee to coaching and commentating in the one Sydney Test. It was a gutting experience and the cry of "never again" came quickly. The mid-1980s were one of the worst periods in the country's cricket and after Allan Border manned the life support the next generations were planned and the departures were organised to prevent a rush for the door. David Boon, Ian Healy and Mark Waugh were tapped while Mark Taylor chose his moment perfectly and Steve Waugh waved before the nudge.

Rebel tours to South Africa also emptied Australia of talent in the 1980s, although dwindling stocks are not an issue this time. The next level is apparently strong - selectors, coaches and administrators have to say that - but the long-term stability of the senior team has prevented the key performers from being examined properly. Australia A trips and tournaments are useful as a bridge but, like the domestic first-class games, they are not a stringent guide for international success.

Both Warne and McGrath played only a handful of games before they were promoted into the Test arena and quickly adjusted to the water. Young players such as Tait, Johnson, Cullen and Watson have swum on the domestic scene for at least three seasons without extended promotions in whites. The quartet is an option along with Brett Lee, who grows in significance despite a poor summer, for the first post-champions Test. Add in Stuart Clark, the bowler of the Ashes series, and the six viable options will have played a total of 76 Tests, with Lee accounting for 59. Is anyone else frightened?

Stuart Clark has been outstanding, but by the first Test of 2007-08 will have played only nine games © Getty Images

Australia will miss the experience of Warne and McGrath more than their world-beating statistics, which might give players such as Stuart MacGill, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz hope of a recall. It might help at the beginning but a longer outlook would be sensible after the periods of Ashes-induced short-sightedness. The clutch of mid-30s players, who have served incredibly well, has blocked the passage of the younger brigade and the ride could be bumpy. It is good news for India.

After the feast comes the should-have-thought-about-this-before famine. Remarkably, Merv Hughes, the Australia selector, said the day before Warne announced his farewell that it would be irresponsible to let a group of players go at once and they hadn't "nutted out" a succession plan. Three have already left and after the elongated and emotional celebration at the WACA more could be on the way. Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, might plead for them to stay.

Warne and McGrath deserved to pick their times and have done it when supporters are wishing for more instead of less. Of Australia's greybeards they are the ones who have the right to stay longest. The nation will miss and thank them over the next two Tests while wondering how they can be replaced.

Possible Test squad for 2007-08 Phil Jaques, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting (capt), Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Adam Gilchrist (wk), Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Mitchell Johnson, Dan Cullen, Shaun Tait.

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Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo