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The states need to look at producing pitches conducive to four-day cricket, and ensuring that younger players have mentors to turn to, says Queensland captain James Hopes
July 25, 2011
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Across the past decade Queensland has seen the departure of its greatest and most successful generation of cricketers, a drop in results, intrigue and unrest at management and coaching levels, and the first sprouts of hope for a better future. Sound familiar?
The parallels between Queensland Cricket and Cricket Australia are numerous. The state enjoyed its happiest era around the same time that the Australian team was laying waste to most of the rest of world cricket. Players like Matthew Hayden, Michael Kasprowicz, Andy Bichel, Stuart Law, Jimmy Maher and Martin Love were valuable to Australia but integral to the Bulls, allowing the team to add five Sheffield Shield titles to the first, celebrated so wildly in 1995.
Much as the Australian team did for their first 18 months after the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath in 2007, the Bulls teams who immediately followed their greater forebears were able to use the confidence of past battles to bluff and bluster to victory, but the results have ebbed away in more recent times. The captain, James Hopes, believes the expectations of both Queensland and Australia must, for now, be kept within realistic parameters.
"I think Queensland may have overachieved when we did win a couple of one-day titles with individual performances that got us over the line," Hopes told ESPNcricinfo. "Some guys had come through, players like Chris Simpson and myself had come through playing under winning teams.
"So we still had a bit of an expectation that we were going to win, and I think that stood us in pretty good stead. But then we started to lose players like Clinton Perren, who were good players in those teams and were leading players. When we started to lose that next rung down from the Jimmy Mahers, that was when we started to struggle, and we realised we had to rebuild.
Replacing "some of the greatest players to walk around Australian first-class cricket" was never going to be easy. "There has to be a slow process of identifying a couple of young players and giving them opportunities at the right time," Hopes said. "And I think we've done that.
The likes of Chris Lynn and Luke Feldman were given a chance and stood up to the mark. "And then we saw Joe Burns, who we identified at Queensland two years ago, but we didn't rush anything. We gave him a go when we thought he was ready to play, and I think we saw that when he did play he was absolutely ready for first-class cricket.
"I think that's the trick - when you do lose a group of senior players, don't panic. Understand there's got to be a process, you've got to identify the right people, and then on top of that, play them at the right time. We've started to get that right the last 12 months or so, and at the moment our squad is looking pretty strong."
In the middle of that period the Bulls had to negotiate a most unsightly coaching changeover. Trevor Barsby, the former opening batsman, was summarily dismissed - though the board tried to encourage the impression it was his decision - so that Darren Lehmann, the Twenty20 coach, could be installed. Hopes was non-committal about the episode, saying Barsby was a good coach and he had learned much from him about batting, but could also see the positive of Lehmann's influence.
"I was captain and the first I knew about Trevor Barsby going was when I was called into a board meeting along with four other senior players," Hopes said. "So if that was there, I didn't know anything about it and the guys who did have a problem kept it quiet, because we were working okay and starting to play okay. But the board felt it was time to go in a different direction and that's what they did.
"Darren is getting through to young players. They seem to understand him when he's talking about the game […] they're turning themselves into players that are starting to learn about the game and to understand their own game a bit more."
Having been jettisoned from the national squad ("I would've been stupid or naïve to think that if changes were going to be made I wasn't going to be one of them," he said), Hopes has resolved to guide the next generation in Queensland through the closing seasons of his career. It is a path he is adamant must be followed by more senior players in other states, lest a crop of players currently being pushed towards national duty lose all avenues for guidance.
"Every state needs a few players around who have been through it all before, who know what's going on and when young guys are going through tough times there are proper sounding boards. That's where Lehmann's so good as well. He's been through the whole process of it and he knows what to say to young guys, when they're playing, about selection.
"I'd like to think that I'm getting into that category now. I've been around long enough and been left out of teams and put in teams, so I know what's going on. I think it'd be a sad state of affairs if Australian cricket just tried to turn every competition played into ones where only guys under the age of 25 are playing."
The reversion of the Futures League second XI competition to a more organic four-day format, with age restrictions relaxed - teams may now choose six players over the age of 23 rather than three - will help to maintain a greater balance. Hopes appreciates that CA had seen the error of its ways, but still remains miffed about why it had changed in the first place.
"I think the Futures League was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to six Australian greats retiring all in the space of two years," he said. "We could've picked a pretty handy generation of players in club cricket who have missed out on playing that level now, and they're probably a bit old to start.
"We picked a guy called Andrew Robinson to open the batting, and he could have played three or four years of that. But now he's playing Shield cricket based on club cricket, and we would've loved to give him some cricket in between, but we could only play three or four over-23s.
Hopes said it was important to trust the states to bring in young talent. "The system didn't let us down for 20 years and we just changed it because we wanted a bunch of kids to come through and try to replace the Haydens and [Justin] Langers, and that's an impossible task. You're not going to replace greats of the game with greats of the game.
"They have to come through the same process those guys came through, and I think that was gotten away from a little bit. But CA have identified that now and are back closer to the track with the six and six. I think six and six is about what it would normally be. You normally have six players under 23 in a second XI team, and six players who you want to give some cricket to.
"If one of those six guys is a senior guy coming back from injury, it gives those younger guys a chance to play four days with them and learn a bit about the game and learn what it's all about. It is very important now that our younger guys just don't expect it to be given to them, and that they have to start working hard to reap the rewards of playing for Australia."
Critical to the rigorous education of young cricketers, Hopes believes, is a departure from the growing trend towards result wickets. Southern states will snigger at the sight of the Queensland captain saying all Shield matches should be played deep into day four, but Hopes argues that it is the only way for proper development to take place.
"We play on some green wickets up here […] if we play early-season games at the Gabba, the wickets are going to be green because the AFL's just got off them and we get a bit of rain that time of year. But I think everything being equal, every Shield game should aim to go late into day four - that should be the aim of all the states.
"Then you're going to have guys having to bat for a long time, fast bowlers having to bowl long spells, and you're going to get spinners having a say in the outcome of the game. If we can get to that stage there's going to be no issues about what's coming through in Australian cricket, because the players are going to be playing hard games in hard conditions.
"Don't produce wickets that give results to take you to a Shield final, produce wickets that you're going to play four-day games on, so young players get used to playing four-day games. So when they do play Test cricket, they don't expect these things to be over in three days.
Perhaps Hopes' most resonant argument, within the broader theme of healthy development, is about unearthing spinners. Like Simon Katich before him, he said the treatment of Australian slow bowlers had been unsatisfactory, cycling through too many bowlers without giving them adequate chances, and then discarding Nathan Hauritz after he had returned more than respectable figures everywhere but in India.
"The whole search for the next Shane Warne, let's give up the search, that's not going to happen. Let's let some guy come through and be his own person," Hopes said. "I thought Nathan Hauritz filled a pretty good role for Australia and he did the best he could. Now we're looking for the next guy to come through. Hopefully we let that guy develop his own reputation instead of trying to make the next Shane Warne, which I think is going to have to wait for a few years.
Hopes said to produce new spinners and develop the current ones, it was enough to ensure that Futures League was a four-day tournament and to encourage states to produce wickets that last four days in Shield cricket. "A spinner is going to come through in the next few years and he's going to be winning games for his state, then he's going to turn up to play for Australia and going to expect to win the game for them. That's the way you develop players. You don't develop them by picking them and hoping they do what Shane Warne did, because it's just not going to happen."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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