April 4, 2011

Cricket Australia eye the wrong ball

By turning to other sports for inspiration and ideas, the board may be diluting cricket rather than enriching it. Why not get help from other cricketing nations?

As Michael Clarke marked his first day after his appointment as Australian Test captain with an appeal to reapply cricket's fundamentals, his board's national talent manager, Greg Chappell, and a quartet of minions were returning home from a trip to Boston and Texas to watch baseball and American football.

This unfortunately timed mission was not billed as a holiday or an exercise in wish fulfillment. Instead it was trumpeted by Cricket Australia as a "reconnaissance exercise" designed to "explore best practice being used by two world-leading organisations, covering areas such as recruitment strategies, list management, player preparation, opposition analysis and team culture". The exhaustive-sounding brief seemed to address areas that must be fine-tuned by administrators if they wish to hurry on the next generation, and at a time when cricket is bleeding talent to football, Australian Rules and general apathy at an alarming rate.

Yet the fact that five senior officials would find the time to disappear to the United States before the season had actually ended said rather too much about the thinking of an organisation that still believes it does cricket coaching and management better than anywhere else in the world. It is a notion that has persisted despite a pronounced slide down the rankings at international level, and a noticeable drop in the standards of domestic cricket.

Internal appointments are common - national coach Tim Nielsen, talent manager Chappell and new Centre of Excellence coach Troy Cooley have played their own version of musical chairs with management positions in recent years - and it would not surprise to see another promotion from within the ranks to replace Cooley as Australia's pace bowling coach.

Whoever is chosen, they are likely to be taken in by fashionable thinking about the value of other sports as a source of knowledge and ideas for the greater development of cricket. The American trip is of a kind commonly made by many sporting coaches in the early 21st century, as AFL mentors venture to London for primers on the ways of the English Premier League and rugby league bosses check in with the NFL for tips on kicking and injury treatment. A culture of cross pollination extends to the poaching of staff from one sport to another - fitness manager Darren Burgess jumped from Port Adelaide to Liverpool FC via the Socceroos.

While this all sounds quite enlightened, it is arguable cricket in Australia is being diluted, rather than enriched, by ideas from outside the game. Clarke certainly would appear to think so, having this to say when asked on a national current affairs program what needed fixing in the Australian team: "To start, it's about me being able to do things my way. The advantage is, after these three one-dayers in Bangladesh we have a couple of months at home where we can, as a group, Cricket Australia, selectors, board members, Shane Watson and myself, sit down and make a plan to build to the future. But the things that come to mind straight away are, I love the Australian cricket team playing that entertaining brand of cricket. I think it's really important that we go back to some of the old-fashioned style basics of cricket, where we get better at our basic batting, bowling and fielding, which is going to mean doing more of it at training. These days in cricket there's a lot of technology, there's a lot of sports science, which I think is a big part of our game, but I think with a young group we need to get better at the basics."

"I love the Australian cricket team playing that entertaining brand of cricket. I think it's really important that we go back to some of the old-fashioned style basics of cricket, where we get better at our basic batting, bowling and fielding"
Michael's Clarke's view of the way forward for Australia

Twenty20's emergence is the highest-profile departure from said basics, but there are others ranging from the variance of opinions on how to manage the bodies of young fast bowlers to the fact that three of Cricket Australia's highest office bearers - chief executive James Sutherland, head of cricket operations Michael Brown and head of marketing Mike McKenna - each cut their administrative teeth, with decidedly mixed results, in the AFL. Sutherland, Brown and McKenna are all commonly heard to spout the buzzwords about "world's best practice", "the pathway" and "development", while advocating a wide search across all sports for the best of everything. Their apparently high-minded intentions, however, are clearly being lost when it comes to the results of the Australian team, and this is where pride in the country's coaching system has become dangerous.

Help is more readily sought from other sports than it is from other nations playing the same game. The only foreign-born mentor with the Australian team is the fielding coach, Mike Young, who has parlayed his long and decorated baseball career into a lengthy cricket tenure. But there is nary an Englishman, Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan or Kiwi in sight. Often an Australian coach will try his luck overseas if opportunity is scarce at home, a path trodden by Cooley and more recently David Saker with England. But there are precious few to have been welcomed in Australia from overseas backgrounds in coaching or development - brief stints with New South Wales for Waqar Younis and Graham Thorpe aside. The appointment of former South African coach Mickey Arthur to manage Western Australia was a welcome deviation from the trend.

Much can be learned from the ways of other nations, particularly those who bore the brunt of Australia's dominance between 1995 and 2008. Given their inability to tie down the hyperactive genius of Shane Warne for any protracted period, Cricket Australia's eyes had to be cast across the seas for a quality spin bowling coach. Bishan Bedi and Saqlain Mushtaq worked wonders for Jason Krejza and Nathan Hauritz at various times, but their roles were confined to those of one-off consultants. On his last visit to India, Hauritz bemoaned his inability to see Erapalli Prasanna. At the same time Mushtaq Ahmed was helping Graeme Swann maintain the form of his breakout summer, something Hauritz was unable to do while taking advice from Ricky Ponting and the Centre of Excellence spin coach John Davison. An attempt to attract Muttiah Muralitharan to Brisbane for this year's intake was unsuccessful, but would it have been different with the offer of longer-term employment?

Spin bowling is just one of many disciplines unique to cricket, and all the research trips in the world to the Boston Red Sox will not improve Australia's increasingly tenuous understanding of its subtleties.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo