January 4, 2009

Catch 'em young

Cricket Australia need to find fresh faces in a hurry, but they may have left it too late already

Phil Hughes could well have been blooded in the third Test, but wasn't © Getty Images

The Australian selectors have had to make a lot of decisions lately but the toughest one is just around the corner: do they opt for band-aid solutions to stem the flow of losses or embark on a major operation?

The last time Australia experienced a downturn like the current spiral, triggered by India's 2-0 series win, was in the mid- eighties. On that occasion the selectors opted for a major overhaul. They took into consideration character as well as ability, and this resulted in the selection of uncompromising young players like David Boon, Steve Waugh, Ian Healy and Mark Taylor. The selectors accepted there had to be some short-term pain before the patient returned to glowing good health and a rosy long-term future.

The difference between then and now is in the system that produces the up and coming players. Back in the mid-eighties international players still participated in Australian club and first-class competitions and selectors were prepared to choose promising cricketers when they first flowered. Nowadays the sighting of an international player at club or first-class level is as rare as Halley's Comet, and the debut age of an Australian cricketer is more likely to be in the late rather than early twenties.

A few years ago when Allan Border said, "Australia has to get used to 28-year-olds making their debut," the administrators should have twigged that the system required some tweaking.

What made Australian cricket strong was the competitive environment that produced talented young cricketers. They were sorely tested many times before they reached international level, and having survived those examinations of both ability and character there was a fair chance the better players would survive in the toughest arena.

Through no fault of the board's, that Australian system has been diluted by a crowded international schedule. However, Cricket Australia has contributed to the problem by placing too much emphasis on under-age competitions, where players tend to get picked on age rather than ability.

The sooner a good young cricketer plays against men rather than kids his own age, the better. The best U-17 players should be playing in the first-grade competition, and by U-19 at first-class level, with some even being mentioned as possible international players.

Young left-hand opener Phil Hughes is a 20-year-old with the credentials to succeed, but the Australian selectors didn't grasp the opportunity to gauge his value by playing him in a Test against South Africa after the series was decided.

In an effort to correct the flaw in the "28-year-old debutant" theory CA now stipulates that the interstate rookie contracts only be awarded to players who are under 23. However, this doesn't address the problem, as a really good player should be fairly well entrenched in the international side by the age of 23.

Australia's current selection panel is choosing from a diminished number of talented young players who have a chance of succeeding at international level. This means they may have no choice which path to take for the future

Consequently, the current selection panel is choosing from a diminished number of talented young players who have a chance of succeeding at international level. This means the national selectors may have no choice which path to take for the future, even if their preference was to opt for a major overhaul.

There has to be an express lane for the better young players, and they need to bypass a lot of under-age cricket to be tested against men at an early age. This method places a priority on smart and ruthless selection, as it requires a large pool of teenagers playing club cricket in order to promote a dozen to first-class level, with a view to one or two clinching international honours by their early twenties.

The selectors also need to distance themselves from the senior-player group. They have to take tough decisions, and unfortunately, when the inner circle of players is influential, there's a likelihood that likes and dislikes become involved in selection. Whether a player is liked or disliked shouldn't come into the discussion; the only consideration is whether he can score a hundred or take five wickets.

It will take time to correct the major flaw in the system to the point where benefits start flowing. Unlike when the Rolling Stones first sang the hit, time really isn't on CA's side.

Australia faces a return series in South Africa that will be tough to win, and then an Ashes contest where, for the first time in almost two decades, England could start favourites. It's a tough time for the selectors to embark on a major overhaul, especially when the ranks of the young talent pool are thin.