'When I came in there were too many comfort zones'
As he surveys Australian cricket with the benefit of a season in charge of Western Australia, the former South Africa coach Mickey Arthur's conclusions are not always the obvious ones.
His first impressions of Western Australia, upon replacing Tom Moody as the state coach, were famously withering, and have resulted in the first major squad upheaval at the WACA in years. But taking a wider view of the domestic game, Arthur is a little more optimistic than some. Establishment figures such as Ricky Ponting, James Sutherland and Tim Nielsen have all expressed the opinion that the Sheffield Shield is not what it was, and is losing relevance as a proving ground for aspiring Australian cricketers. Arthur, though, saw enough in his first season to suggest that any problems are not related to player talent, for he reckons there is more than enough on show to compare favourably with South Africa's domestic SuperSport Series.
The most troubling things Arthur saw were to do with pitches, not players. "I'm not of that opinion, to be honest with you, [that state cricket has declined]," Arthur said. "I've seen enough good young players around the country to know that Australian cricket is going to be very strong in the future. My issue is that some of the pitches that we played on weren't conducive to first-class or international standard. I think you need to be producing players to play at the next level in your states, and some of the pitches weren't conducive to that.
"We saw state games over in two or three days, which is not good enough, and the players are better than that. That had to do with pitch preparation and looking for results. I don't think that's the right way to go about it, because you also have the responsibility to produce players for Australia. But I think there are enough good players in Australian cricket for Australia to be a force going forward. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind. I don't think the state game is that bad at all."
Bad was a word Arthur would have been tempted to use upon making his first assessments of the Warriors, who have not won any domestic trophy since 2004 and have not lifted the Sheffield Shield since 1999. A talented but wayward generation has largely come and gone in that time, leaving the likes of Marcus North and Adam Voges as remnants. Meanwhile a younger group, led by Shaun Marsh and Luke Pomersbach, has also stagnated, either for reasons of injury or a lack of application.
"It's been a challenge down here in the West," said Arthur. "We've made some big changes, changes which were long overdue. We've modified our squad a little and got everything going in the right direction now hopefully.
"When I came in I thought there were too many comfort zones. I thought there was almost a culture of mediocrity, and I want the players training at international standards. That, for me, was key, and the intensity hadn't been high or wasn't high enough, and we certainly changed that. We definitely took the players out of their comfort zones. I think mediocrity had been accepted for far too long. The players were comfortable in that and that's never a good thing.
"They need to be secure in a structured environment, but always being pushed to deliver their best. So we certainly did that. We had the players training at an intensity that was of an international team, and they responded and bought into it very well. We've obviously had to make some tough decisions now towards the back end. We've let nine players go, I think, and that's right. We need to move on."
Arthur utilised his first year assessing the players they had. Sending away nine to 10 players was a big decision but he said he wouldn't have taken it if he hadn't thought there were enough younger players to replace them.
The youth Arthur speaks of was ushered into first-class ranks across 2010-11 as the team's results slowly improved. The cherubic teenaged batsman Marcus Harris caught the eye; Nathan Coulter-Nile showed plenty of bustle to the wicket when taking the new ball; Ryan Duffield offered a dependable swing-bowling option throughout the summer, after injuries gave him a headstart; and Mitchell Marsh, an undoubted talent, finally put it to worthwhile use with his maiden first-class century in the final Shield game of the season. Then there was the Victorian recruit, Michael Beer, whose left-arm spin was seen in Australian ranks at the SCG and may yet be utilised on tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa.
"Our future with our young players is very, very good. And these are all young West Australian boys," said Arthur. "They do need to have the experience around them to bring them through the tough times."
This is where North, Voges and a handful of recruits come into the equation. Arthur is searching for a few extra players to bolster his group, likely to include a tall fast bowler and perhaps a wicketkeeper batsman.
"I've identified skill sets that we need and roles that we need. We need guys who can fit those specific roles. And if we haven't got it in WA, I'm going to look outside the state for those players.
"Marcus and Adam were fantastic within the structure, and I think that every state definitely needs those players in their system because those are the guys who bring the young guys through. You can't have a team of total youngsters with no players to learn off. But similarly you can't get yourself into a position with a team that's just old, and we're going to lose three or four guys in one go, and have no succession plan."
Not long into his time in Perth, Arthur was approached by Cricket Australia about a possible consultancy role at the Centre of Excellence. Clearly his is an opinion to be valued.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo