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
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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.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • arian77 on January 6, 2009, 19:09 GMT

    Totally agree with Mr.Chappell. Cricket Australia should take a leaf out of Indian Cricket or South African cricket boards, where they recognize the young players quick and groom them among the men. Thats how India got the likes of someone like Sachin Tendulkar who played his first test at the age of 16! And he's not the only one. There are quite a lot of promising cricketers coming out of these systems like AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Ishant Sharma, Rohit Sharma are all glowing examples. Guess its time for Australia to groom some youngsters in the B squad and put them in the gentlemen's league when the time is right rather than waiting for the existing bunch to retire or else, it becomes a case of the 40 year old virgin.

  • Clyde on January 6, 2009, 12:13 GMT

    The basic requirement for a bowler is that he be able to change the direction of the ball, by the work he puts on it, by at least 30cm just before it arrives at the popping crease. It doesn't matter if the bowler is slow-medium, if he knows how to swing it late and a long way, and both ways. These used to be standard requirements for school kids. Now, I don't know why, but I haven't seen this happening in Sydney, where I can guarantee it used to, with a Test-standard Kookaburra, with spin or with conventional swing. There is no other way to win Tests. I don't believe the spin bowlers the Test selectors have shown us would survive in State cricket if the games were five days. They must be getting wickets because batsmen are in too much of a hurry. The single most effective way to find good bowlers would be to change State games to five days. The spinners, especially, we have seen so far have not been physically strong enough to produce enough rip, easily, for the length of the full game

  • popcorn on January 6, 2009, 8:33 GMT

    I have the highest regard for your cricketing acumen,Ian,but I'm afraid I don't agree with you on this one.The SYSTEM has worked well for 20 years. Australia is the ONLY country that does not chip-chop their captains-in these 20 years we have seen just FOUR superb captains in Allan Border,Mark Taylor,Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting,three of whom have joined the 10,000 Club.16 consecutive Test match wins,not once,but twice.3 World Cups in Succession.Howzat for consistency!The standards set by Australia are the benchmarks other countries want to emulate.It is impractical to assume that Australia will NEVER lose a match.So I would advise against pushing the panic button on Team Selection.It IS,and SHOULD be difficult to get into the Aussie Team.Besides,you forget that two of the three main fast bowlers were unfit to bowl against South Africa-Stuart Clark and Brett Lee.That was pure bad luck.Brett Lee lost 5 kg in the worst environmental conditions-India,and is still not back to full fitness

  • itay128 on January 5, 2009, 12:48 GMT

    Some interesting statistics: Age(AUS Team in Sydney average): 29.73 (One 21-25, Five 26-30, Five 30) Age(RSA Team in Sydney average): 28.00 (Five 20-25, One 26-30, Five 30) Noticeably, you can see that RSA has exposed more players who are in the low 20s in the team than AUS.

    Age (AUS Team full strength w/ Krejza): 31.36 (One 21-25, Two 26-30, Eight 30+) Age (AUS Team full strength w/ Hauritz): 31.55 (Three 26-30, Eight 30+) According to those averages, I would say an ideal average would be around 27-30 (you may have a different range, I won't over-debate!). Still Australia needs to have a think about the future while slowly transitioning the veterans out (unlike the unstoppable mass exodus with the likes of Langer, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath leaving within 2 seasons)

    AUS will works it way back up... Either get CA to put more domestic teams (2nd XIs etc) or inject a bit more youth in 1st class and international. As well, can someone give the avg. age of Indian team currentl

  • Pekz on January 5, 2009, 11:32 GMT

    In with what charont said about a league style competition for T20's why can there not be a Cricket Acadamy team? this will allow young guns to step up and also allow their respective states to show more talent off. Having played against hill, hughes, hazelwood, patterson, faulkner they are very professional in the way they carry themselves and should be promoted more in state teams. perhaps not in the aus team yet but an acadamy team would showcase their skills and allow them to push for state selection which in turn would fastrack a push for aus selection.

  • sdjones83 on January 5, 2009, 9:19 GMT

    Ponting's incompetent captaincy is exposed by the retirement of his team of 'advisors' whom he had the luxury of playing alongside in his early years as captain. Players like Warne, Lehmann, Gilchrist etc were more skilled captains and aided Ponting's decision making. As for Hayden, the professionalisation of cricket has led to players playing longer and older - they are fit enough to continue and there is money to be made. However this neccesarily has a trickle down effect to first class and grade cricket, eg Hussey was kept out of the international side until he was 30, so he played first class cricket, preventing players like Marsh from earlier exposure at first class level. His generation are only getting the opportunity to make an impact well into their 20s. Is the onus on the state sides to consistantly pick promising 19-20yr players ahead of similarly performing older players?

  • Governor on January 5, 2009, 8:19 GMT

    Chappelli,

    And, here is an alarming statistic. Ever since Rod Marsh left the Academy in Adelaide in 2001, only Shane Watson has graduated from the 2000-2001 Academy intake to represent Australia at test level.

    From 1991 to 2001, Rod Marsh's disciples who have worn the Baggy Green are: Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glen McGrath, Dizzy, Michael Kasprowisz, Justin Langer, SK Warne, SCG MacGill, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Andrew Symonds, Andrew McDonald, Cameron White, Brett Lee, Simon Katich and Phil Jacques.

    Since Bennett King and Brian McFadyen have steered the ship since 2001, I can only name Doug Bollinger as the only Australia to have played a test match for Australia.

    These stats must be alarming to tell us that Cricket Australia is not doing enough to encourage the states to play the young cricketers like Michael Hill against men at Shield level.

  • Governor on January 5, 2009, 8:16 GMT

    Chappelli,

    You are dead right!!

    I know that Greg, yourself, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden played against men whilst you were 15-16. Your skills were tested and the rest is history!

    Promising teenagers who have been earmarked for national and state under age representation must play against men at 1st District Grade level from 15-19 to test their skills. Secondly, the states must play them at a young age so they can represent Australia by the age of 20-23.

    There is a problem. Cricket Australia must give the states and every district club an incentive to play teenagers against men. Have a look at Victoria. The Victorian selectors will not play Aaron Finch, Michael Hill and Aiden Bizzard in the 4 day matches because Victoria is concerned about winning the Shield instead of developing young talent to wear the Baggy Green.

  • emesar on January 5, 2009, 5:46 GMT

    It is indeed a timely article ! Hayden, if allowed in his present form, might make a fifty or a hundred sometime in the next two seasons - at what cost to the Aussie team ? He and other seniors like him will halt the traffic for bright youngsters like Phil Hughes. The Sydney test, a dead rubber, would have been a perfect opportunity for the Aussie selectors for trying the young blood. It's been a long time since a younster in his early twenties has debuted for Australia in tests. There is no dearth of raw and young talent - like Ishant Sharma or Ajantha Mendis in Australia. It's a matter of taking a bold decision to infuse talented younsters into the team.

  • bravesoul on January 5, 2009, 4:51 GMT

    Its time Shaun Marsh and Ben Hilfenhaus were given a place in the test team. And what happened to Beau Casson?

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