July 4, 2013

How T20 is hurting Australia

The pressure of needing to populate three international teams with players from only six first-class ones is beginning to tell on them

In the saturated landscape of multiple cricket formats and intense scheduling Australia have fallen the most. As arguably the most successful cricket nation of all time, going back 136 years, the country has taken a hit that it will probably never recover from.

When two formats, Tests and ODIs, were the focus, from the Packer days on, Australia had the ideal nursery to ensure they were preparing for global domination, and to be ready for it when the opportunity arose. When the mighty West Indies ran out of gas in the mid '90s, after more than a decade and a half of complete rule, Australia pounced and took the crown. And they did not let it go for another decade and a half, until a greedy little sod turned up.

That little sod was Twenty20. When T20 became an addiction the world over, Australia had no choice but to run with the hounds. Consequently the need for three teams to represent themselves successfully in each of the international formats has left Australia short on supply and confidence.

Their previous strength, the Sheffield Shield, and its high-quality six-team first-class competition has in truth now become its weakness. Six teams from which to choose three different teams doesn't wash anymore. New Zealand are in the same predicament.

England, on the other hand, have 18 teams to choose three international teams from, and they do it fairly well. They are ranked respectably in all three formats: second in Tests, second in ODIs, and fifth in T20. Australia are fourth in Tests, third in ODIs, and seventh in T20. It might not seem much grounds for comparison but when you look at the last two Ashes, each team's last tour of India, and the recent Champions Trophy result and Australia's off- field disintegration during it, England are way out in front and looking strong for the future.

India and South Africa also have large pools of domestic sides and competitions to choose their three teams from. They are strutting along nicely, with India third in Tests, first in ODIs, and third in T20. South Africa are first in Tests, fourth in ODIs, and sixth in T20. India have recovered somewhat from a difficult year in Tests, entering a transition with a new batting line-up.

If you can select teams with minimal overlap between them, with individuals specialising in each format, you will maximise the opportunity of winning. But if you have to play individuals across all three teams, then body and mind will be compromised.

Michael Clarke has settled on playing the two longer formats due to his injury woes, and he is better suited to doing so anyway, while Shane Watson, also vulnerable to injury, needs to settle on a game plan for Tests. He must make up his mind about where he might properly perform in two forms, as it would appear unlikely he can cut it in three - as has been the case lately. As for David Warner, the highly resourceful yet hugely ill-disciplined rogue, the more T20 he plays, the less effective he will be in Tests. Already he has lost his place to his erratic form in the long game. By and large Tests and T20 don't go together.

That players get injured due to the brutal demands of the international calendar, and can't play regularly only exposes those who aren't properly prepared at domestic level, and so Australia have suffered significantly in confidence across the board. They simply don't have the numbers to compete across all forms.

Not enough cream will rise to the top when you have only a limited number of cows producing quality milk. In the good old days of the roaring eighties, a settled squad of 16 or so could comfortably cover both Tests and the one-day game over the course of a year or two. However, times have changed drastically and for ever.

The nations with larger player bases will ultimately win out, now that the format numbers have increased permanently. England, India and South Arica will from here on always have the edge over Australia, and certainly over the rest

Of those playing Sheffield Shield cricket at present, Australia have selected 56 players out of the six state teams to play in an international fixture at some stage. The number itself isn't unusually high, but for Australia it represents a large percentage of those playing domestic cricket. That is not sustainable when you're looking to win across all forms.

As a fantasy, if Australasia were selecting from both New Zealand and Australia's 12 domestic teams combined, then you might have an even playing field against England and Co.

In short, the vast majority of the cream of Australia's players are trying to play all forms at once. The same model for the national team is being applied to the six state sides: we must pick our best players at all times in all formats. The burnout effect on that 80% is one thing, but the lack of fierce focus on a given job is becoming catastrophic for them. England and India are able to dig deep into their reserves and can comfortably find enough players who are specialising competently to do a job in any of the three formats.

The very finest players, of course, will transfer their skills to more than one format. For example, Clarke, Warner and Watson; Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen; Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers; Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels; Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum; Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, all feature among their country's most important top batsmen in the two longer formats.

Where it gets tougher is when they have to play in all three. India manage it the best, with about half the team featuring in all forms currently, but Australia, West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka do it out of compulsion: they have no choice but to play their best men in all three. Does it bring the best out in them in all three? No, and it starts to affect their cricket when they are most needed. In essence, T20 should not be a priority against the other two.

Most of the higher-ranked countries are consistently selecting players for two formats, with rare exceptions who play all three. MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, R Ashwin and AB de Villiers come to mind, but even they struggle to pull it off day after day, and they must be careful their Test form doesn't drop. How long can Dhoni keep it up?

England played a completely new T20 team against New Zealand recently, and while losing a close match they protected certain individuals for the more important formats, as well as preparing the new blood to play better T20 in the future. Overall and long-term, England are investing well. India need to work on their Test team, but by and large they have the numbers and will always stay in the top bracket.

Australia have tried rotating their best players. Alas, that only upsets the fans and broadcasters big time. England don't get that criticism, because they have a greater pool of competent cricketers. They have also clearly stated their intention, so there are very few last-minute changes to upset the marketing and promotion of the contest. Criticism is kept at bay.

It's simple mathematics. The nations with larger player bases will ultimately win out, now that the format numbers have increased permanently. England, India and South Arica will from here on always have the edge over Australia, and certainly over the rest.

The only way Australia will bounce back is if T20 is dropped from the international schedule completely, and rightfully sent back to the domestic scene. Going back to just Tests and ODIs in the international schedule will also assist the weaker nations and will allow world cricket to find a proper balance of power, enabling the game to grow globally and sustain its integrity.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand