June 18, 2011

Where's the next Katich coming from?

CA needs to focus on developing proper cricketers, but it seems too much in thrall to the needs of Twenty20 to care

It's contract time in Australian cricket, and not just for the 25 cricketers other than Simon Katich now enjoying the ripe plums of Cricket Australia packages. All around the country, state associations are making decisions about their player lists for 2011-12 - never a happy time, but round about now indicative of the fiasco that Twenty20 is making of the game in this country.

Here's what's happening. To reflect that the forthcoming BBL is a club competition, state teams are discounting their contracts accordingly. Your 2010-11 contract to play Sheffield Shield, Ryobi Cup and the Competition Formerly Known as the Big Bash might have been worth, say, $80,000; next season for your availability for Sheffield Shield and Ryobi Cup, it will be closer to $55,000.

The sop being offered to state players is that the BBL will come along later this year and, as in Alice in Wonderland, everyone will win and all will have prizes. The BBL teams have a salary cap of $1 million each to spread over 18 players: that makes for a median contract of $55,000, right? Except it stands to reason that not everyone will receive $55,000. What stands to reason is the opposite, that others will have to make do as the big money chases the most recognisable names: the Test players, even though their availability is far from clear, and the international stars, or what nowadays pass for stars, the Chris Gayles, Kieron Pollards and Shahid Afridis.

Alas, poor Chris Gayle. In Australia in 2009-10, he looked like a superfine Test batsman in the making. Twenty20 has turned him into a device that generates sixes like a novelty Pez dispenser spits out sweets - kind of fun in a kitsch way to begin with, but after a while a chore and a bore. He will be "poor", though, only in cricket terms: for batting a maximum of about 60 balls, he stands to become wealthier than the rest of Caribbean cricket altogether.

The problem, though, is not really Gayle and his ilk. It is Twenty20 itself. Let us say you are a young legbreak bowler, or a dogged middle-order accumulator, or a wicketkeeper who aspires to be more than a back stop, or a gutsy opening bat, or a bowler who maintains full lengths in search of swing. In Twenty20 terms you are not worth $55,000. In Twenty20 terms you may be worth nothing at all.

You are actually the sort of cricketer Australia needs to be developing if it is to arrest the freefall in its global Test ranking; but you are the sort of cricketer whom the BBL looks like rendering a second-class citizen. Australia's most consistent batsman, Shane Watson, struggles to bat longer than two hours, yet our priority is developing players to hit 20 off 10 balls. Australia's best slow bowler is… actually, that's a question for another time, but it's not one the BBL will answer.

Incentives shape outcomes: promise greedy young investment bankers huge bonuses to parcel up toxic mortgages and you shouldn't be surprised if they leave a dirty great financial crisis in their wake. If cultivating the skills of Twenty20 is what will make you wealthy, what young cricketer will not recalibrate his game accordingly - indeed, will not be counselled to do so by his agent, parents and coaches? But, again, please don't be surprised if you end up with a generation of batsmen who can play three different reverse-sweeps and hit inside out over cover then break out in a sweat if they have to play a maiden. And please don't be surprised if you actually erode your overall talent base as under-rewarded specialist four-day players drift prematurely from the game.

It may soon no longer be sensible to call Australian players "cricketers", insofar as that savours of continuity and variety: as part of a culture of infinite interchangeability, better perhaps to designate them APUs (autonomous playing units)

Australia's domestic summer is already a fine old mess. Batsmen lurch from trying to clear their front leg one day to straining to bat for time the next. Slow bowlers can be aiming to fire it in one night and trying to toss it up next morning. The international season is carefully blocked out, with Tests quarantined from shorter forms of the game, because this is known to be difficult; why what is deemed a challenge to a top-class player should be considered second nature to an inferior cricketer eludes me.

At least, though, state cricketers have been able to practise and bond and come to an understanding of one another's games together, to work with one set of coaches, as part of a cohesive and complementary set of philosophies. Now they won't even be doing that. They will be criss-crossing the country to play with strangers, who at other times in summer they will be playing against, for rinky-dink three-hour cricketainments. It may soon no longer be sensible to call them "cricketers", insofar as that savours of continuity and variety: as part of a culture of infinite interchangeability, better perhaps to designate them APUs (autonomous playing units). Whatever the case. Cricket Australia's solution to one domestic mess looks like being to make a bigger, uglier and stupider one, like a bad artist setting out to paint a tree, ending up with something resembling a phallus, and finally painting over the lot and calling it an abstract.

What is truly disturbing about this is the deep phoniness it suggests about Australian cricket at the moment. Consider all the fanfare about the "performance review panel" of wise men (Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Mark Taylor), chaired by Don Argus, chosen to get to the bottom of Australia's cricket woes. The results of some of their deliberations have already been foreshadowed, such as the tinkering with the Futures League, which is sensible, while also looking perilously like too little too late and a face-saving fudge.

Yet the panel looks increasingly like a form of camouflage: the decisions that matter have already been made, and cannot be unmade. Their report lies in the tradition of so many such reports - commissioned to give the appearance that everything is under control, and that the processes already in motion are prudent and thought out. Does anyone believe that if the Argonauts reported tomorrow and described Cricket Australia's embrace of the BBL as hasty, ill-considered, marketing-driven and ultimately destructive, it would make a blind bit of difference?

The panel may come up with some useful recommendations - it has ample cricket sense to draw on. But the probability is that they will fall as seeds to stony ground, because the system into which they must be integrated is geared not to restoring Australia's Test ranking but to creating a noisy performance art for ten-year-olds. Yes, it's contract time in Australian cricket, but with all due respect to an admirable cricketer, the issue is not so much what we have done with the last Simon Katich but where on earth we will find the next.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on June 20, 2011, 5:11 GMT

    The point about the language analogy is then that whole languages don't just die because no-one cares, they die because the opportunities with them become too limited (unless you count people constantly talking to themselves). Long-form cricket skills are no different - you don't get them on your own. You need a healthy culture for a lad/lass to learn to bat, bowl & keep for the long-haul. However, if national boards have problems coping with 3 forms of the game, how are common-and-garden clubs supposed to cope? And aren't these the places that set the more talented and committed youngsters on their way to becoming a Katich?

  • Philip on June 20, 2011, 4:47 GMT

    What I was saying was if prestige shifts in cultural terms (& all cricket is cultural just like language) then just because a lot of people still value long-form cricket doesn't mean it can't suffer serious decline if a significant chunk of the cricketing world are brought up on something else. It's an argument of the 2-edged sword. Cricket in the Olympics, for example, would spread the game but it would be a different game because of it. It has to be. There comes a tipping-point beyond which the old game could be unviable. Now, you might say that if we spread the game world-wide there will be more niches for old ways to flourish - but the contention there is between the rush of spreading the new prestige form and the settling down, where does the old form go in the meantime? I believe managing 3 forms of cricket is too big a task for many boards. If India manages okay, it will only be because of their population etc. If we want to spread T20 we must kill off ODIs for Tests to survive.

  • Jay on June 20, 2011, 4:02 GMT

    Gideon - What is truly disturbing about this (article) is (your) deep phoniness it suggests about Australian cricket at the moment (your words w/ my inserts)! Recall your article "Packer's circus"? You toasted "Sir" Kerry Packer for all speedy changes his breakaway World Series Cricket wrought in making it "more like official cricket rather than less, his Australian team more truly the representative of the people"! You liked his promotion of TV revenues, mass marketing and even his exclusive rights & more! You endorsed WSC's investment in popularizing one-day cricket! Why not? Aussies won the World Cup many times! So, what's different now? You blame 20-20 for the Aussie cricket "fiasco." The inconvenient truth: You cannot fight market forces; 20-20 changes are just as inevitable as the "historical inevitability" of WSC's. The genie's out of the bottle. Note 20-20 is authorized, WSC wasn't. Lost your ethical compass? Sour grapes? Not-invented-here syndrome? You're wrong, Gideon.

  • Andrew on June 20, 2011, 0:05 GMT

    @ram5160 - its not contradictory - because what is been said is that over time, youth will adapt their game to 20/20. Tests will become less of a priority & will suffer in status & ultimate pulling power. Nobody in the current test scene made it big as a 20/20 BEFORE playing tests. Over time there is an expectation that will change - IF the salaries are bigger in T20. @youngkeepersdad - umm, I dunno if its because its Monday or whether you're on an intellectual plane far higher then me, but I didn't get the point of the "tri-something" arguement!!!!!

  • Subba on June 19, 2011, 15:38 GMT

    Australia have dropped a great opener, while he's still delivering and persisted with a No. 3, when he hasnt looked an international level batsman for more than 2 years. So they actually need two replacements, not one. The approach itself is not convincing and there seem to be pressures and confusions of various sorts, with a rather meek Cricket Australia taking funny steps.

  • Philip on June 19, 2011, 15:25 GMT

    Cricket has gone tri-form - great! - but if you set up a team in a bilingual area (where 75% still speak a local language at times, which sounds a strong situation) the default team language will be the major outside one (because 3 of your 12 will only know that & 2 others will probably only partly understand the local one anyway). Bilingualism doesn't necessarily save minority languages, it often condemns them instead. The major one gets the prestige. And so to cricket. Your team plays 2-day games and T20. As T20 gains popularity, new players may see it as the prestige form and not want 2-day games. Thus, if 4 of your 12 players/clubs etc want to play T20 only the default setting can become T20 (because it's that or nothing). Despite over 50% wanting longer matches, after a while the seperate skills for the 2-day games could well fall into disrepair anyway and the decline become somewhat irreversable. Cricket has always changed, but managing 3 forms is a juggling act of some order!

  • Dummy4 on June 19, 2011, 14:13 GMT

    Why all the hate for T20?? Eoin Morgan played all IPl and got hardly any runs, then went for england and got 193 in tour games and two 70's i the tests. It didnt ruin his game at all. Rahul Dravid is a accumulator he still makes good money from T20, amit mishra and Rahul Sharma bowl leg spin and they went well in IPL. Whatever puts bums on seats is good for the game and T20 does that.

  • Pradeep on June 19, 2011, 10:42 GMT

    Why is Gideon contradicting himself? - "Big money chases the most recognisable names: the Test players." Would'nt most people then conclude that you had to be a test match international to earn the big bucks and not focus entirely on T20? Besides this obvious flaw, its a good article.

  • A on June 19, 2011, 5:16 GMT

    Phantom XI: I think you've got the wrong time period. That particular message is meant for Sir Donald Bradman and the BCCoA (Board of Cricket Control of Australia) circa about 1968. Players are easily clearing a million dollars a season, and that was BEFORE the IPL came along and added more. The problem with T20 is exactly the same way ODIs started out: New. exciting and fresh; then completely overdone in the name of the dollar. Then in 10-15 years time everyone starts moaning that 'its stale', when in reality all the administrators had to do was take a step back, shorten the 7 match ODI series to 3 or 4, and then there wouldn't be so many meaningless matches played for nothing more than money and TV ratings. T20 is heading down the same path, and we need to look no further than the latest IPL season to see what happens. 74 matches in 4 or 5 weeks...and no one cared by the end.

  • prasanna on June 19, 2011, 3:14 GMT

    PHANTOM 11:I have found dat u don know cricket at all

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