July 28, 2013

'The worst batting side to leave Australia's shores'

It's a tag that has been used for previous inexperienced squads as well, but given the state of the Sheffield Shield, this time it might just stick

Before departing for this disastrous tour of England, the current Australian side was compared to the 1972 and 1989 teams. Let's get it straight, the only thing the three teams have in common is they were all lambasted by the English media as "the worst to leave Australian shores".

In 1972 and 1989, Australia had a number of good young players in the team, with a few more waiting in the wings. In 1972 we didn't know just how good Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh were going to be, but there was never any doubt they were Test class. They confirmed their status in no uncertain terms - with Lillee taking 31 wickets, Chappell scoring two crucial centuries, and Marsh gathering 23 victims in the series.

The current side's inconsistencies are often excused on the basis of inexperience. The 1972 Australian side that triumphed at Lord's boasted two debutants, and seven of the 11 players had between them played a total of 18 Tests. That side went on to level the series 2-2 at The Oval, against what was then regarded the best team in world cricket.

The 1972 Australian team then went on to become the best side around. The core of the touring party was complemented by a number of other good young players who had performed well at Sheffield Shield level.

In 1989, Allan Border's team sprung a surprise on a struggling England side and won the series 4-0. Once again, this team had a core of good young players in Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ian Healy, who were aided and abetted by some vastly experienced senior players. The core of this team carried all before them, once again with the addition of other talented players who had succeeded at the Shield level.

And therein lies the crucial difference between those two sides and Michael Clarke's team. When players of the earlier eras performed well at the Shield level you could be fairly certain they would make a successful transition to Test cricket. In the 1960s, Garry Sobers, then the best player in the game, described the Shield competition as "the toughest cricket I've played outside Test matches".

When Australia were beating everyone in the late '90s and early 2000s, people told me it was the coaches and the academies that made the team strong. "Bollocks," was my response. "It's the same as when Don Bradman's 1948 Invincibles were so good. It's the system that produces the outstanding players."

That system was a far cry from the current Shield competition, which is virtually bereft of Test players and runs a distant second in importance to the glitzy BBL. Not only can't Clarke rely on any strong recruits waiting at home for the next tilt against England, he's already handicapped by an order containing some marginal Test batsmen.

There are complaints about the current Test batsmen not showing patience and being wayward in their shot selection. Patience and shot selection result from a player being sure of his technique. When he's comfortable, a player can ride out a storm of good bowling for an hour or so and then cash in later in the innings. Batsmen who aren't certain of their survival instincts tend to panic and play indisciplined shots.

Far too many members of Clarke's team are batting mainly for survival. Any batsman who isn't looking to score at every opportunity will stunt his footwork and limit the chances of success. Clarke is saddled with the flawed products of a once great system that has been allowed to decay.

And it's not as if the administrators weren't warned. More than a decade ago a former player told the administrators there was trouble looming: "A lot of the Sheffield Shield competition is club cricket in drag," he told them. These thoughts were echoed by at least one other former international. The board's response brought to mind the words written by Don McLean in his hit song "Vincent": "They would not listen/ They did not know how/ Perhaps they'll listen now."

And perhaps, after numerous tries, the English media has finally got it right. This could well be the worst batting side to ever leave Australia's shores.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist