<
>

You don't need Shield cricket to prepare for India

The injury-troubled Steve O'Keefe is making sure he trains well for India AFP

Rather than playing in the Sydney Smash on the weekend, Steve O'Keefe was out at Manly Oval, taking 9 for 54 for his grade side and spending consecutive days in the field in preparation for the Test tour of India. Steve's decision to forego his place in the Sixers' BBL team in favour of getting ready for a Test series is one that I applaud, but it also shines a light on the fine balance the players and Cricket Australia must maintain these days.

Though he possesses an outstanding record in first-class cricket and has also excelled in limited appearances on the international stage, Steve has an unenviable injury record relating to his calves and hamstrings. To some degree this is surprising given the simple economy of his left-arm orthodox bowling action, and it has been a source of frustration for many over recent years.

Never was that more evident than in the first Test of the Sri Lanka tour last year, when Steve bowled beautifully in Pallekele but then had to withdraw from the match and the series with a hamstring strain. I'm aware that Australia had planned a lot of their strategy and tactics around his consistent, skidding spin bowling, and the captain, Steven Smith, struggled to find the right combinations from the moment O'Keefe had to leave the field.

That's why it was great to see O'Keefe take some responsibility for his India preparation and choose club cricket, training and a 2nd XI appearance over the BBL, attractive as the T20 circuit can be. Instead of remaining in the spotlight of a tournament that is proving wildly successful once again, he has gone away to do the unseen things that will hold him in good stead for India, as tough a tour as there is in the game. Yes, Sixers miss him, but had I been in his shoes I would have done the same thing.

Numerous former players and others have come out with criticism of the lack of first-class cricket available to Steve, and also to the young opening batsman Matt Renshaw at this time of the year, leaving them to chart their own preparatory plans in the weeks leading up to the team's departure for India via Dubai. I can't say I agree with them.

A critical part of the BBL's place in the Australian season is the capturing of the school-holidays audience that is flocking into the grounds and watching on television. Looking out for those fans is exactly the right thing for Cricket Australia to be doing, and over the past few years it has absolutely mastered that time slot. There were a few years in the mid-2000s where Australian cricket had stopped growing, and the BBL has been a key element in getting things moving again, particularly for young kids. The tournament is getting a lot of people into cricket who had either tuned out in the past or never been interested.

That being said, I'm not an advocate for further expansion of the tournament for some time yet. I would need convincing that we have enough depth in players to add to the number of teams while keeping the competition at a high standard. I'm also doubtful the case is strong enough to avoid what has happened to numerous other Australian sporting competitions, like the A-League (football) and the NBL (basketball), which both expanded too soon then had to pull back in difficult circumstances. It's vital, too, that the number of games does not grow in a way that would further marginalise the Sheffield Shield and Matador Cup competitions, both so valuable to the national team.

That brings us back to guys like Steve and Matt, and the supposed handicap of not having any Shield cricket to play right now. I can safely say from personal experience that a round or two of the Shield is not going to make much difference at all to how an individual will play somewhere like India, because the conditions contrast so violently. Before going over there you actually need to get out of your Australian comfort zone, and that's more likely to happen in a specifically controlled training environment on tailored practice wickets than it is in a Shield game.

Matt's got a great example of what to follow from a fellow Queenslander, Matthew Hayden, who famously spent hours in the early part of 2001 honing his sweep shot on spinning practice pitches in Brisbane before going to India and dominating. If I were a 20-year-old Test opening batsman about to go to India, I'd be on the phone to Haydos, talking to him about how he did that. Given the chance to prepare specifically for Asian conditions due to their absence from the BBL, I'm looking forward to some good things from Steve and Matt once they get over there.

Another balancing act in terms of growing a tournament that we are seeing at the moment is the discussion around whether or not the Pakistan Super League final should be played in Lahore. Last year's event was a great success, and I will happily admit to being pleasantly surprised by how well it all played out, not only for our team but everyone involved. Arriving in the UAE, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but I left thinking this had been a great thing for Pakistan cricket and the game in general.

I can understand why the organisers of the PSL are eager to get as much of the tournament played in Pakistan as possible. But I also look at the success of the first edition, a massive television audience, and the terrific way in which the competition was organised and staged in the UAE. Overseas players are led very much by the advice they receive from players associations under the umbrella of FICA, and I would hate to see the final played without their contribution.