Sheffield Shield resumes in uncertain climate

Saturday night: Adam Voges, Michael Klinger, Nic Maddinson, Sean Abbott and Moises Henriques are among the players taking centre stage for the Big Bash League final, watched by a sell-out crowd at the WACA Ground and an Australian television audience of close to two million viewers.

Wednesday morning: Voges, Klinger, Maddinson, Abbott and Henriques will join many of their fellow BBL counterparts in round six of the Sheffield Shield, watched by handfuls of spectators and an Australian television audience of no one.

The Shield is one of the bulwarks of Australian cricket, long considered the most demanding domestic competition in the world and the ideal proving ground for Test cricketers. But, as it resumes with the experimental use of Dukes balls ostensibly chosen to help prepare the players for seaming and swinging English conditions, its future seems more uncertain than ever.

Partly, this is due to the success of the BBL, which is going to be further expanded next summer to include an extra eight matches. At the very least, the 33-year-old Shield final is under serious threat as Cricket Australia's planners try to squeeze ever more "premium product" - the term used by the BBL chief Anthony Everard - into the same summer window.

But there is uncertainty of a different kind enveloping many of the players set to turn out for the six states, of a quite fundamental kind: at training sessions and in coffee conversations around the country, players are genuinely unsure of how much the Shield matters anymore.

Why? Because a handful of recent selections have left players to wonder how much their performances are being taken into account, and whether they are being bypassed in favour of the BBL's shooting stars or the long-term prospects granted opportunities through the CA "pathway" of under-age teams, national performance squad, Australia A and even the CA XI that took part in the Matador Cup. That Sam Heazlett made his debut in New Zealand on Monday without ever playing a limited-overs match for Queensland has only heightened this feeling.

"We've seen with selection over the last period of time that the Big Bash seems to be the be-all and end-all. You can get picked to play for Australia in any format out of the Big Bash, really. It doesn't make a lot of sense." Cameron White

The man at the other end of the scale is Cameron White, captaining Victoria this week in the absence of Matthew Wade, Pete Handscomb and perhaps even Marcus Stoinis, the breakout performer at Eden Park. On Allan Border Medal night, White was voted a runaway domestic player of the year by his peers; yet he seemed no more likely to be included in the under-strength squad for the Chappell-Hadlee series than Klinger or Voges. White made no secret of his sense of confusion.

"I grew up watching and dreaming of playing for Australia and thinking how hard is it going to be to get a game for Australia and to earn the absolute right," White said on RSN radio. "Now it sort of seems like the Australian team at some stages is a development team. For me, playing for Australia isn't about giving you a chance to develop. Domestic cricket is where that happens, and Futures League. I just want to see the best players playing, I don't care who they areā€¦ I'm not against young players playing at all, but I'm just not sure about bringing people into the Australian team to develop.

"We've seen with selection over the last period of time that the Big Bash seems to be the be-all and end-all. You can get picked to play for Australia in any format out of the Big Bash, really. It doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm just a little worried to be honest, on the importance the selectors are putting on domestic cricket. For years, the strength of the Australian game has been the domestic game. I'm just not sure that there has been much importance put on that and it worries me for the future of Australian cricket and the strength of Australian cricket."

Another layer to all this are the ongoing MOU discussions between the players and CA. This is the first Shield round to take place since a board submission to the players questioned domestic player wages as an "issue of sustainability", while at the same time claiming that only CA-contracted players deserved a fixed percentage of the game's revenue. BBL and state contract talks for next season are on hold until a resolution is found.

To be told that the domestic competitions don't contribute to the wealth of Australian cricket through the performances of players raised on the Shield and the Matador Cup is a hard thing for many to stomach. That is until they look around at how Shield performances are seeming to count for less and less next to longer-term talent identification or the BBL box office.

"The worry for me is that if I'm a young player sitting at home, I'm thinking 'I'm not going to worry about State cricket, I'm just going to put all my energy into the Big Bash'," White said. "'Whatever I do, I'm just going to try and get a Big Bash contract somewhere because I know that's a great opportunity to picked for Australia.'"

Perhaps the most pointed irony of all this is the presence of the Dukes balls, made specially to cope with harder Australian pitches but still retaining the more prominent seam and likelihood of more sustained swing that can be expected in England. This brainstorm is all well and good, but as White pointed out, almost every likely Ashes prospect will miss out on the trial due to commitments in New Zealand or the pre-India training camp in Dubai.

"Certainly got my head around it in the nets yesterday, it was flying around everywhere," White said. "It'll be interesting to see how it reacts on our wickets. I guess the idea is to prepare players to play in the next Ashes series, but I don't think any of the players who are looking to play in that Ashes series are [here], currently in New Zealand or heading to Dubai to prepare."

Once again, the players will be forced to ask themselves how much the Shield really matters anymore. The more they ask themselves that question, the more they will think longingly back to the BBL final, and to whether that is now the main game.