August 19, 2011

A different type of clean sweep

Don Argus has made far-reaching recommendations in his review into Australian cricket. It is the first step in the right direction

"I was thinking of putting in a recommendation that we put in a Zimbabwean coach and get four South Africans into the side," Don Argus joked to the media as he explained his review into Australian cricket. After the polite laughter died down, Argus clarified that no, his panel hadn't in any way copied the structure of England, the new No.1 Test team.

Could've fooled us. From the creation of a new general manager of team performance (see Morris, Hugh) to the appointment of a full-time national selector (see Miller, Geoff), to a review of central contracting (Australia award 25, England only 11), the similarities between the Argus review and the Schofield report, which came after England's 2006-07 Ashes disaster, are striking.

And so they should be. As much as Australia's players and coaching staff would hate to admit it, England are now the benchmark. The 3-1 Ashes drubbing last summer was just as embarrassing as the 5-0 whitewash inflicted on England four years prior, probably more so given how familiar Australia had become with success at home.

The only clean sweep in Australian cricket right now has come from the Argus broom. Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, is gone. Greg Chappell, the national talent manager, has been dumped from the selection panel. Tim Nielsen, the coach, must reapply for his job, and could well be out of the picture by the Australian summer.

That's on top of the existing personnel changes since this time last year: a new captain, a new bowling coach, a new fielding coach and a new team manager. And just for good measure, David Boon quit as a selector and Simon Katich was axed during the off-season.

The departure of Hilditch was the most widely expected change. When his panel didn't offer Katich a new contract this year, Hilditch was asked about his future as the chairman of selectors. His response was: "I'll just keep doing it until someone wants me to stop." Australian fans had been asking him to stop for years; now the powers that be have done so.

Not that Hilditch has been sacked per se, but his role has been made full-time and he has previously made it known he is unwilling to give up his day job as a solicitor. His five-year tenure since replacing Trevor Hohns as the chairman of selectors in April 2006 has been tumultuous, and ultimately unsuccessful as the team slipped to No. 5 on the Test rankings.

During those five years, Australia handed out a new baggy green roughly once every second Test; 23 debutants were used in 50 matches, compared to 14 debutants in 66 Tests in the previous five years. The rebuilding process after the departure of champions like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden was fraught.

Hilditch's panel had particular trouble with the spin position, choosing 12 Test spinners during his five years at the helm, which could soon become 13 if Nathan Lyon makes his debut in Sri Lanka next month. Under Hilditch, the panel made a critical mistake by not choosing a spinner for the final Ashes Test at The Oval in 2009, when the England offspinner Graeme Swann used a dusty pitch to take eight wickets, and the defeat cost Australia the urn.

The following Ashes series wasn't handled any better. They picked a 17-man squad for the first Test at the Gabba, which gave England a clear indication that the Australian selectors weren't confident who were their frontline players, and then they axed the established and consistent Nathan Hauritz on the eve of the series. Hilditch exacerbated the problem when he said after the series debacle that the selectors had "done a very good job".

Whoever replaces Hilditch - Rod Marsh and Hohns are among the possibilities - should learn from his mistakes. Plan for the future and stick with new players for more than a couple of matches. Don't take crazy gambles on the eve of a major series, like picking a one-day specialist such as Xavier Doherty for the Ashes based on flawed logic.

And don't unsettle the players. That's one of the criticisms that has been levelled at Chappell, who according to the Daily Telegraph was banned from the Australian dressing room while the team was batting, such was his disconcerting influence. Like Hilditch, Chappell won't be part of the new selection panel.

Nielsen may or may not be. He must reapply for the new coaching job, which includes a position on the selection panel, and if the buck stops with the coach, he could be in trouble. The new mentor will have the task of directing coaching strategies all the way down Australia's pathway. Given the concerns raised over the past few months by Ricky Ponting and Langer about the standards of domestic cricket, it's a vitally important role.

England didn't get all of these issues right straight away. After 2006-07, Peter Moores was made coach but was gone soon enough. Not everything will fall into place immediately. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. By accepting the advice of Don Argus, Cricket Australia is at least heading in the right direction.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo