'We can't afford to have the states focusing on silverware'
At a time when Australian cricket asks itself all manner of difficult questions, Greg Chappell is in a curious position. As the most recent addition to the national selection panel, a post he last held in 1988, Chappell has brought experience and lateral thought to the choosing of Australian teams. But as Cricket Australia's national talent manager and former head of the Centre of Excellence, he has been responsible for the development pathways that are now facing the harshest light of independent interrogators.
How do you reflect on your first season in the role of national talent manager and national selector?
I certainly looked forward to the challenge, having been involved with the Centre of Excellence the previous two years. I had a pretty good idea of what our talent pool was like and what we had to look forward to, so from that point of view it was an exciting opportunity, I suppose. The unknown [factors] were around the new role as national talent manager, trying to establish the network below the national selection panel. I suppose the last 12 months have been about trying to put in place that talent management network, and I think by and large that's gone well. I believe we've got some really good people involved in those roles in the states, which probably made it more systematic.
How has the selection job evolved since you finished your first stint in 1988?
It's very different in that we have professional first-class cricket now as opposed to the 80s, when I was originally involved. Being a full-time selector obviously makes it different. There's a few more layers in the system these days, and my role on the national selection panel has a very large youth component to it. I am full-time and I am working with people in the states and the Centre of Excellence. There's a bit more depth to it and a bit more day-to-day responsibility than just turning up to selection meetings and picking teams. But the process hasn't changed that much.
How are the lines of communication between the selectors and the players?
I think it's in a good place. Can it be in a better place? Probably. You're always looking to improve those relations, and particularly the communications. Most players like to know where they stand. Some of the more established perhaps feel pretty confident and comfortable with where they're at, but there might be players on the fringe of the team or just new to the surroundings who probably need a bit more comfort and discussion about the position, the role and all the expectations.
The players are always saying they'd like open and honest appraisals of where they're at. Trying to achieve that is a constant exercise, but receiving bad news is never easy, delivering bad news is never easy. The chairman of selectors is the one who has to deliver that news and it isn't always well received, obviously.
At the moment hard decisions and tough conversations are not easy to avoid. Do you think that has been difficult for those experienced players who lived through the previous era of great success?
Yeah, maybe. I don't think it's ever easy to get to the stage of your career where the end is closer than it once was. So dealing with all of that is the challenge we as a selection panel have to deal with.
At selection time, Andrew [Hilditch] deals with the media and the players. I have more of a day-to-day role after those major events. I'm obviously more available than Andrew is, and I am constantly conscious of [having to be] not at cross-purposes with the selection process and what the chairman's talked about. Trying to make sure the messages are consistent, concise and up to date is the critical thing.
One of the early signs that you would bring something different to the panel was the pre-Ashes suggestion to Ricky Ponting that he should move down to No. 4 in the batting order. How do you view that dialogue now?
It was throwing around options and ideas really. We were just looking at the best way to use our resources. A lot of discussions go on about a whole range of things. Some come to fruition, some don't.
There's no doubt the Australian team is at a low point in the cycle, if you believe in cycles. How can the team break out of that?
I think if you get caught up in the moment and the emotion of the moment, if you get caught up in wins and losses, you can confuse yourself. The fact of the matter is, players take time to develop. The players coming out of our youth programme into first-class cricket - I think the talent levels are pretty solid and reasonably consistent with what's gone before. You do have periods of extended success like we've had in recent times, but nothing lasts forever and no one team stays up forever. The challenge is to try to ride out the troughs and the peaks.
What we want to try to avoid is being in a long trough, so that exercises everybody's mind, not least the national selectors, as to what the tactics and the strategies are to come out of it. You constantly look to produce the best team you can. Put combinations together because teams are about combinations, whether it is opening batsmen or opening bowlers, spin bowlers…
You look at opening batsmen, there is often consideration to left-hand and right-hand combinations, but we had a great left-hand combination of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer for some time. They played differently. One was a tall, strong front-foot player, the other one was shorter, more compact and a very good back-foot player. So that combination worked very well because bowlers had to constantly adjust their length.
You're looking to put out combinations that give you a chance, and if you can find some outstanding match-winning players, that's great, but if you haven't got them, you do the best you can with the combinations you can put together. That's the challenge for us over the next few years. We can see we have got some potential champions on the horizon, but it's going to take time for them to get to the point where they're going to be ready to play for Australia. In the meantime you're looking for the best combinations you can get.
The nature of Australia's domestic structure, and particularly the introduction of age restrictions in the second XI competition or Futures League, has faced heavy criticism. Do you think the system is working as it should be?
I think it is developing in the right direction. Not to say it can't be reviewed - it is being reviewed, and no doubt there'll be more discussion before decisions are made on the future of the Futures League. For what it was brought in to do, I think it's been quite successful. We had a situation where the average age of state-contracted players gradually crept up, and I think there was a feeling that that was not in the long-term interest of Australian cricket.
We have six state teams, we have 100-odd players on contract, but only 66 can play at any given time, and we need to have a reasonable number of those players as potential match-winning players for Australia. If we have only got one or two in each state who are in that bracket of being young, talented and potentially match-winning, we've only got about six to pick from. If we have got five per team we have got 30 to pick from.
I understand the argument that you need hard-headed players, and I agree, you do need players who make the competition as strong as possible, who can either directly or indirectly teach the future generation what the game's all about. But equally you've got to have available to you potential players for the future. So the restrictions on the age are about giving the next generation chances to bat in the top four, to be opening bowlers or spin bowlers, to learn what it's all about. The less spots you have available, the less opportunities there are to develop, and to face the challenges they need.
I think a lot of the criticism comes from particularly players who are in the over-23 bracket. While it's understandable that they are going to have that view, it's very important there are people in the organisations and in CA who look at the big picture. We can't afford to have states focused on silverware at the domestic level. It's not about silverware; it's about development and silverware. If the focus is on winning competitions at that level, it's going to impact what happens at the top level. So we're trying to get a process in place that seamlessly takes people from youth programmes into our adult programmes, giving them the challenges they need, recognising the players have attributes that will be useful to Australia down the track, and as quickly as possible getting them to play for Australia.
First-class pitches have also been a recurring theme, and the CA playing conditions committee that meets at the end of May is sure to discuss the prevalence of "result wickets".
I'm on the committee, so I'll get a say when the time comes. We want a variety of wickets in Australia. I think the great strength of Australian cricket through its history is that each centre has had slightly different conditions and therefore players are more likely to be able to adapt to the variety of conditions that are available or encountered internationally. There is some criticism that a few states have tried to produce result wickets to help them win silverware. Now I certainly don't agree with that. What we want is the best cricket wicket available in each centre - hopefully wickets that challenge batsmen and bowlers alike, and help us produce players who are going to have a better chance of being successful at international level. If we're making cheap runs or taking cheap wickets it's not going to help Australian cricket in the long term.
Can the rise of Twenty20 as another source of money divert Australian cricket's focus?
Yes, it can. I think Twenty20 is good; the changes to the Big Bash League have the potential to be very positive for Australian cricket. Dealing with the challenges that it presents will be important at many levels - at a state level and at the national level. Being an employee of CA, and a member of the NSP, I have a focus on Australian cricket. There's no doubt that the money available with Big Bash leading into the Champions League means that the franchises, the states as owners of the franchises, have some focus in that area, which just means that all our other competitions and how they are run… the focus on those competitions is going to be even more important than in the past.
The Centre of Excellence in Brisbane is another target for critics for varying reasons. There appears to be quite a divergence of views as to what it is there for?
It's a constantly evolving thing and it's often difficult to satisfy every stakeholder. But I don't think there should be any argument on what our focus is. The strategic plan for CA is to be the No. 1 in all formats of the game. If that's our focus then doing what is best from the national point of view is important, and the Centre of Excellence is very much part of the pathway from youth cricket through domestic cricket to international cricket. The Centre of Excellence was moved from Adelaide to Brisbane because it is a winter project. It's an opportunity to have identified players from our youth programmes and our domestic first-class programmes get some further development in the off season.
I think half the time the sort of criticism I hear is that a lot of money goes into it and that money might be better spent in the states. If it was just about producing state players, maybe it would be, but you're looking to develop international players. From a CA point of view the Centre of Excellence is a very important part of that development process. I think there's a level of comfort around that that says it will continue. Can it get better? Can it do a better job? Probably. And we'll be aiming to do that.
Australia's Under 19s recently played a series against West Indies in Dubai and lost. How do you view those talent stocks?
I think it's pretty healthy. Again there's a lot of discussion about what our youth programme should look like. I don't think we're far away from what we want. If you make youth cricket a destination, it's going to impact negatively on what you can produce at the international senior level. The U-19s programme isn't about winning games, it's about developing players. History tells us most of them won't become outstanding senior cricketers. That's just a fact. A lot of them will choose to do other things, but for the two or three or four or five, however many in each intake, who will choose cricket as a career and will be potential Australian cricketers, it is a fantastic opportunity.
Two or three of our best bowlers were unavailable for the series. The management of the tour made the decision to give everybody opportunities rather than to play the best team or try to win games, so the teams were changed around and opportunities were created. For instance, we won the toss, batted first and won the first one-day game. In the second one-day game, we probably had a better chance of winning the game batting first, but the management chose to bat second to experience the challenges of batting second under those conditions. It's always nice to win, but if you judge everything by wins and losses alone, you're likely to make a lot of mistakes.
Australia have tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa this year. The team haven't been subjected to back-to-back overseas Test tours since the fateful summer of 1969-70.
If you want to look at it in that light, it is, yes, but if you want to look at it as an opportunity for us to get better, I think it's a great opportunity. There will be different challenges on each tour; much like 1969-70, there will be very different conditions on the two parts of the tour, so it will be a challenge. The good news for this generation is they won't have to go back to back from one set of conditions to the other; the Champions League will intervene, so the opportunity will be there to pick specialist groups for the two tours.
In India Duncan Fletcher has been appointed national coach. Given your experiences over there how do you think he'll fare?
I think it's an interesting appointment. He's a very experienced coach. I think he'll bring a lot to the job. Coaching at that level is a challenge in any environment. We know how fanatical India is about the game of cricket, with the population and the media population, that brings with it different challenges. Duncan's been a proven coach and has experienced India from the other side, so he'll be as ready as anyone.
If he sees out his contract he'll likely have to manage some quite high-profile retirements, too.
Cricket teams are always in a state of flux. I don't think you've ever got a finished product - you're always dealing with the need to regenerate it at one level or another. Duncan's been through all that sort of stuff. He will be as experienced as anyone could be to handle that.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo