Where have all the batsmen gone?
Seven years ago this week, a 30-year-old Michael Hussey walked out on to the Gabba to make his Test debut. He was well prepared. Hussey had accumulated 15,313 first-class runs at an average of 52.80 before he was handed a baggy green. On Friday, Rob Quiney will make his Test debut at the same venue. He too is 30. But he will embark on Test cricket with only 3092 first-class runs to his name, at an average of 37.70.
That is not to disparage Quiney's selection. Two consistently strong Sheffield Shield seasons made him the best man to replace the injured Shane Watson. And he is far from alone: Ed Cowan and Shaun Marsh both averaged less than 40 at first-class level when they made their Test debuts. David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes had better figures, but were picked after relatively little first-class cricket.
Whichever way you spin it, things have changed dramatically from the days when the Test selectors could look at Sheffield Shield cricket and see mountains of runs being piled up by Darren Lehmann or Brad Hodge, Justin Langer or Jamie Siddons, Matthew Elliott or Martin Love. Or Michael Hussey. It is a shame for Chris Rogers and David Hussey that their best seasons came when Australia's batting line-up was more settled.
When John Inverarity's panel searched for Watson's replacement, they saw that Khawaja has been stalling after promising starts, Hughes continues to tease but has a chequered Test past, and Marsh has been dropped to club cricket. Tasmania's Alex Doolan, who made 162 against the South Africans for Australia A at the weekend, and Queensland's Joe Burns are two to watch. But the first-class batting cupboard is alarmingly bare, as evidenced by the fact that the 37-year-old Ricky Ponting is the leading Shield run scorer this season.
So where have all the young batsmen gone?
There is no question that the standard of domestic pitches around the country has played a part. Michael Hussey returned to the Sheffield Shield last week and was alarmed at how difficult the conditions were at the MCG. So far this season, the Sheffield Shield has produced 20 completed innings in which teams have scored less than 250. There have been only 13 totals of 250-plus.
The last men to make 1000 runs in a Sheffield Shield season were Rogers and Michael Klinger, who both achieved the feat four years ago. Quiney went close last summer, when he scored 932 runs, and Cowan accumulated 921. In Hussey's eyes, those performances were the equivalent of 1200-run summers a decade ago.
"It was pretty different," Hussey told ESPNcricinfo of last week's Shield game. "The conditions were pretty conducive to seam bowling. Certainly when I was growing up, the pitches were a lot truer and a lot better for batting, so as a batsman 1000 runs was a good benchmark and if you got to that, you knew you'd had a good season. But I think that has certainly lowered in the last few years.
"I'm a bit concerned, to be honest. It seems like the nature of pitches around the country are really result-based. I'm concerned that batters aren't learning to bat for six hours and construct long innings and concentrate for long periods of time."
Hussey's worries go even further. If life for the batsmen is so difficult, then it also creates a false sense of achievement for young fast bowlers. And on seaming wickets, young spinners are left feeling irrelevant.
"I'm concerned that we're not allowing spinners to develop because spinners aren't even required, because seam bowlers do the job and have a better chance of getting the wickets," Hussey said. "And I'm even concerned about preparing seam bowlers for Test cricket, because the margin for error is so big, they just have to lob the ball somewhere up there and it will do a fair bit and they're going to pick up their wickets. [But] in Test match cricket you've got to be very patient, very disciplined, for long periods of time. I'm a little bit concerned that we're not developing players and skills for Test match cricket."
Hussey is not alone in his assessment of domestic surfaces. This week, South Australia's coach Darren Berry voiced his concerns that pitches were being tailored towards results instead of towards providing an even contest. And the Australia coach Mickey Arthur was upset conditions for the most recent Shield match in Hobart were so seam-friendly that the offspinner Nathan Lyon, who must this week bowl to the South Africans in a Test match, was barely used.
"We've been disappointed [with Shield pitches]," Arthur said. "When you see Shield games going two and a half days, it's not great. It was disappointing for us when our spinner, who could play in the Test match, bowled three overs in the game. I know that this issue is being addressed at a higher level."
But the lack of big runs is not all down to the pitches. As Quiney and Cowan have shown, there are runs available if a batsman possesses the technique and is prepared to work hard. Last year Ponting questioned the techniques of the emerging crop of domestic batsmen and said many were "nowhere near what they need it to be to play Test cricket". Earlier this year Rogers analysed the techniques of several of the country's Test batting candidates and found plenty of problems. Rogers, Ponting and Hussey all know what it takes to bat for a full day and come back the next morning hungry for more runs. Between them, they have scored more than 60,000 first-class runs. Their credentials are impeccable.
Brad Hodge fits that category as well. For 16 years he piled up runs at first-class level until one day, playing for Victoria in a Shield match, he was facing the second new ball and knew that his job was to get through until stumps. But within two balls he had driven the fast bowler Peter George for a massive six over long-on. Hodge made 195 in that innings, but knew he no longer possessed the discipline for the long format. Now he makes his living exclusively as a T20 player. The format has been good to him, but he fears it has been detrimental to the development of young batsmen.
"I think the game dramatically changed the day the IPL came into the system," Hodge told ESPNcricinfo while watching last week's Sheffield Shield match at the MCG. "I honestly believe that. I think it changed the way young people thought, what they wanted to do and what they wanted to achieve. To be honest, you can play in the IPL and your technique doesn't have to be 100% up to the standard of a Test match player, and get away with it, and make a lot of money doing so."
Some batsmen have made their name in T20 and still developed into Test players. Warner is one, Quiney another. Others have slipped by the wayside. Others still are young enough to make the transition over the coming years. It was fitting that shortly after Hodge spoke of batsmen being geared to T20, he would have seen Mitchell Marsh throw his wicket away for 2 from 6 balls, chasing a wide ball from Peter Siddle.
Hodge, speaking before Quiney's call-up to the national squad, said the lack of batting depth had become such that if a batsman like Ponting were to suddenly be injured and miss the next Test, there was not an obvious replacement knocking down the door.
"There was a time when you could say someone could come in and do an 80% job of what Ricky can," Hodge said. "I reckon you'd be saying someone could do a 50% job now. There's just no one out there screaming absolute talent. Phil Hughes is one who is good, I think he's a real good player. Khawaja is good but inconsistent at this level. You need consistency at this level and he's lacked that.
"You're going to get found out for sure. When you're picking guys with an average of 30, you're going to get an average of 30 in Test match cricket. You're not going to get 50. Guys average 30 at this level for a reason. They've got flaws in their technique. Until guys start making 1000 runs, you're never going to be sure of any guy in the competition."
But if nothing else, the past few months have shown that there are at least some batsmen to watch. One of those is Joe Burns, who made an unbeaten 74 for Australia A on their tour of England this year and averages 45.71 in first-class cricket. An organised, well-rounded player, who notably is yet to play T20 cricket, Burns has made 116 and 64 in his last two Shield games. He is one of the young batsmen who have impressed Victoria's coach Greg Shipperd over the past couple of years.
"I'm impressed with Alex Doolan's technique, he looks like a very pure, technical player," Shipperd said. "I like the look of him. Joe Burns' weight of runs is starting to open people's minds about him. Hughes, of course, this year has made some runs and he's still such a young player, so he will have plenty to offer going forward. They're probably the three best young players, and Khawaja is another."
But there are few others who have made compelling cases for Test consideration. And if domestic pitches remain treacherous and techniques flawed, don't expect Hussey-like figures any time soon.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here