Test players deserve CA contract security
On the occasion of the 2000th Test match, between England and India at Lord's in 2011, Australia's captain Michael Clarke spoke bluntly about how the five-day game could best be preserved. "Governing bodies must prioritise player performance and payment in Test cricket," he said. "The future of Test cricket relies on the investment in continuing to make it the pinnacle of the sport. It requires all the skills of the other two forms of the game, but over five days."
A little less than two years on from Clarke's apt summary, the release of Cricket Australia's list of centrally contracted players reflects the fact that in a world tilting increasingly towards T20, the incentive for a young player to press with conviction for a Test career remains pitifully weak. Not only is there more money to be found in the T20 pot of gold, there is apparently more security to be gained from CA by being a fringe ODI and T20 player instead of being a genuine contender for the Test side.
Over a 12-month period that will feature not only ten Ashes Tests across back-to-back series in England and Australia, but also a Test assignment in South Africa, the players granted the financial security of an upfront contract include Glenn Maxwell, Xavier Doherty, Clint McKay, George Bailey and Brad Haddin. All are likely to figure for the national team over the next year, but they are as likely to hold the fate of the Ashes in their hands as India are to accept the DRS.
By contrast, Jackson Bird, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith were missing despite making staunch efforts to establish themselves as Test performers. Last year, Ed Cowan was similarly ignored, while David Hussey won what was surely the last of numerous CA deals over the past decade without once playing a Test. In Maxwell's case, his contract provides the cream on top of an IPL cake that has reaped $1 million for what can only be described as potential.
Doherty, McKay, Bailey and Haddin all have decent claims to a central contract, but are theirs stronger than those of Bird, Khawaja and Smith? It would be exceedingly difficult to argue in the affirmative. In India, Doherty was found wanting as a Test bowler for the second and likely last time, while McKay and Bailey's chances of graduating from their current status as short-format operators were cruelled over the summer by injury and muddled form respectively.
Provided they keep their ODI and T20 places, McKay and Bailey will be on the cusp of an upgrade as early as the Champions Trophy in June anyway. Haddin, meanwhile, is steeped as deeply in the traditions of Australian cricket as anybody on the list, now that Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey have gone, and as such he is likely to be a priceless Ashes asset. But it is doubtful he would have complained about earning a contract, just as he earned his international recalls over summer.
The scope for upgrades provides the most sound logic for not awarding deals to the likes of Khawaja and Smith. There is little doubt that under Australian cricket's current state of batting struggle, the selectors are in no hurry to reward mediocrity, nor to hand out contracts to the sort of speculative names that used to fill out the final six or so spots on the old 25-man list before it was cut back to 17-20 under the current MOU. Batsmen are also more likely to earn their spots given they are less likely to be rotated out if performing: a contract upfront is a fairer result for a bowler playing three of five Ashes Tests than a batsman fit for the whole series.
Yet the most important element of the contract list is not its number, nor its ranking of players, as much as sections of the media like to debate the "winners and losers". Rather it is all in the timing. A player who knows he is CA-contracted in April has the financial security behind him to plan his year, so he has the best chance of performing when the national call-up does come. A contract should provide the remunerative encouragement to spend as much time as necessary preparing for the five-day game, while ignoring the excesses of domestic T20 japes as much as possible. Loyalty to loyalty.
In some cases, this has already happened. Apart from Clarke, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc provide the best examples of players responding intelligently to a secure place in the national set-up by preparing as judiciously as possible for international duty. Siddle is perhaps the world's highest profile player not signed to any T20 team whatsoever, while Starc gave up the chance of a pay-day likely to have been as inflated as Maxwell's by keeping himself out of the IPL auction, safe in the knowledge that CA would reward him.
Pat Cummins' case is also worth noting. Plenty have already sneered at his retention of a contract despite having gone through his second consecutive home summer without bowling a single ball. However, his place in CA's plans for the future has been subjected to some thinking in recent times; Pat Howard, John Inverarity and others realise he may be damaged irreparably if pushed too soon. Cummins' contract means CA can manage his return from injury and the evolution of his bowling action, while also working at ensuring that when he does go to the IPL it will be after a career as fruitful as Brett Lee's, not brief as Shaun Tait's.
Nevertheless, Starc, Siddle, Clarke and Cummins are minority cases in an area in which CA have an ability to prove their desire to return Australia's Test team to No. 1 in the world. Without a central contract, Khawaja, Smith and Bird are freer to take any number of the many pathways down which a cricketer might travel to secure an income. The foundation of the Caribbean Premier League now means there are T20 competitions sprouting in every one of the ICC's Full Member countries, all harbouring club impresarios eager to recruit international talent.
Whatever be the reasons for splashing money around on players as experienced as Ponting or as unfinished as Maxwell, it can be guaranteed that the betterment of Australia's Test team, and the return of the Ashes, are not among them. So it is essential that CA work further with the Australian Cricketers Association to ensure that a central contract provides the clearest possible incentive for players to become not ODI battlers or T20 scramblers but Test performers. Clarke himself would hope for nothing less.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here