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 The very existence of a board containing two members from each state has been condemned as outdated.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