June 27, 2011

Views from the Blues' big smoke

You never know your luck in the big city that is New South Wales cricket, Nathan Hauritz says, but then you never know when you might disappear, either

Life in the New South Wales state squad rather resembles life in Sydney. It is a bustling metropolis, with more eligible candidates pushing for the same jobs than anywhere else in the country - not all of them home-grown.

Though opportunities for high achievement are vast and varied, it is just as easy to disappear in an environment where no one is likely to stop for anyone who has fallen in the rush. Sometimes that pressure encourages high fliers, but others deduce it to be a cue to take flight to other cities.

As befits this kind of environment, success and failure seem to arrive in equal measure for NSW Cricket. The Blues have finished first and last in the Sheffield Shield three times each over the past decade. Their new coach, Anthony Stuart, has been charged with breaking that sequence, and will have the assistance of senior men like Simon Katich, who has chosen to show the national selectors the error of their ways rather than retire.

Another well-travelled figure is that of Nathan Hauritz, a sometime-captain of the Blues, and for two years up to last summer, Australia's No. 1 spin bowler. He has grown a lot since moving to Sydney in 2006, but still bears the scars of his use and misuse in Queensland, where the understanding of slow bowling has never ventured far beyond the rudimentary. In NSW he found greater competition for places but also greater guile, and grew his game accordingly.

"Coming from such a large talent base everyone has to fight for their spot just a little bit harder," Hauritz told ESPNcricinfo. "There might be three players playing for one spot, where in Queensland there might have been one or two people. Probably that fight and that drive, it's the same for any player, but in NSW a bit more selfishness comes out, which in the end helps the team.

"The depth of the squad has always been very good since I've been here, the transition of players from NSW to Australia has always been very good, and the professionalism here is second to none, with coaching staff and that sort of thing. They're the things we have done really well.

"The only thing we haven't done as well is the transition for the Australian players to come back into the NSW team - the gelling of the team. It can be really tough when you've got [Brad] Haddin coming back and [Michael] Clarke and that sort of thing.

"Sometimes the other players will think, 'Since they're back, they'll do it for us.' When they're not there, the boys generally play really well."

Playing really well but then getting dropped has become an occupational hazard, and the rest of the nation is littered with NSW players who have decided to venture elsewhere. Ed Cowan in Tasmania and Dan Christian in South Australia are two who have parlayed their moves into greater success, and Peter Forrest (Queensland) and Mark Cameron (Western Australia) are about to tread a similar path. The remodelling of state contracts may see others move too.

"I reckon this year the talent is being spread around a bit more, with the player payment pool going down and contracts being cut," Hauritz said. "We've got guys here who could play for Australia, but because sometimes you've got those Australian players coming back, they're playing less and less cricket here, guys like Peter Forrest having to go.

"You've got so many good players playing here now. There's young Patrick Cummins coming through at 18, and we've still got Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Trent Copeland, Stuart Clark to bowl a little bit, Doug Bollinger, Brett Lee when he's back, Burt Cockley as well. So there's an abundance of players and you can't fit them all into a side.

"Ultimately you've got to make the decision as a player. If you think you've got the potential to play for Australia and you want to get to that level, then by all means I think it's the best thing to do to leave and seek opportunities elsewhere. But if you're more than content sitting in the squad and not growing as much as a player, you'll see those guys stick around. But more often than not you'll find that guys leave and improve."

As well as the jostle for places within NSW, there is tension between NSW and Cricket Australia. It is no secret that the game's central authority and its most populous stakeholder do not always see things the same way. One of the continuing debates is whether or not CA can offer anything greater in the way of player development than the state association.

Key to the argument is the Centre of Excellence, which has been pushed in a different direction by CA ever since the central contracts system was formalised in 1998. Rather than a primer for young first-class aspirants, it has become a finishing school for players with international potential, meaning the intake is now populated by cricketers who have already been in the national system for some time. Hauritz believes the atmosphere in Brisbane is not what it could be.

"At the CoE you've got nowhere to escape your cricket, training two or three times a day, and I feel it becomes mundane," Hauritz said. "You build friendships there and you have them for the rest of your life, but when you're training here at NSW, everyone comes in at 8am, trains for four hours, goes home, has a hit of golf. You have a good base of mates.

"But up at the academy now there's 30 kids, different drills... To me it has gotten away from how the academy was when it started. You had Rod Marsh there and Wayne Phillips. It must have been working because you had a lot of guys come through and play for Australia. Now I just feel that the academy, the facilities are great, the coaching and everything is fantastic, but they've got to make sure they still keep the kids interested.

"They've got to want to train, they've got to want to play, they've got to want to come back and do all that sort of stuff at home. They have a whole six-month off season at the academy and then come back and play the summer at 22 years of age. There's got to be a bit of give and take there, I reckon."

In recent times the "take" has been away from established development practices, including the weakening of the second XI competition. That gambit, known as the Futures League, has been partly corrected for next summer, but Hauritz bemoaned the loss of the chance for young players to earn a place in matches against established players returning from injury.

"They used to make a joke that the first year after the academy a lot of guys would play pretty poorly because we'd have a chip on our shoulder and think we were very good," he said. "But you got that sense of playing with men down at the academy, because you played in the second XI competition, and played against second XI cricketers. You weren't playing against Under-23s or anything like that, you were playing against guys who were 30 years of age and who'd played second XI cricket for four years. When those guys get into the system of first-class cricket, they succeed because they know their game. Now it's 22-23, you've got a kid steaming in, it's so different.

"That's the part of the game that I think breaks down. They're still very good cricketers. Travis Birt's a very good cricketer, but if he just plays grade cricket and scores hundred upon hundred, what else does he have to do to make it? The second XI was a good competition - you played with men and young kids who deserved to be there played.

"You got the feeling of almost playing first-class cricket. You played with guys who'd played or were coming back through injury. I remember playing a first-class game against Nathan Bracken, Don Nash, Stuart Clark, Dom Thornely - they were all very good first-class cricketers. But now you can't do that, or it's very hard to do that. What better experience could you get as a batter, having to face those guys coming through?"

Hauritz can see the gap in the system when he runs his eyes over Steve Smith and Phil Hughes, two young men with much invested in them for the future of the Australian team. Each emerged at a time when the Sheffield Shield had been weakened by the loss of numerous older heads to Twenty20 pursuits or state squad rationalisation, and have seemed a little less hardened at the international level for it.

"You can't beat match experience. Fair enough, the young kids can play, but as you see from NSW, the performances aren't consistent, they're very yo-yo," Hauritz said. "At the Australian level if you have those performances, you're in the media eye a lot more, you're going to cop a lot more scrutiny, and there's going to be a lot more scrutiny on those kids than when they're back here.

"When there's a settled side, they're a lot older, they know their game when things aren't going well. If Ricky Ponting's not scoring runs - he's scored 15 billion runs because he knows how he did it. If Steve Smith's not scoring runs, he's got a little bit of experience to fall back on, and he'll come through, but it's just a different thing."

Much like the difference between a newcomer to the big smoke and a seasoned city dweller.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo