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

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