Changing priorities lead to sharp ODI decline for Australia
A common complaint among politicians, business leaders and sporting administrators is that they tend to be assessed not by the long-term implications of their decisions, but instead by the issues of the week. For Australian cricket, the issue of this week is a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of England's effervescent ODI side, leaving the team led by Tim Paine and Justin Langer in considerable disarray a year out from the 2019 World Cup.
Looking at the series in isolation is a sobering experience, termed by none other than the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland as "an ouch moment" in terms of the team's recent performance in 50-over matches. But no one has been more closely associated with playing the long game than Sutherland, who this month confirmed his forthcoming resignation after no fewer than 17 years as the most influential decision-maker in the Australian game.
To understand why Australia's ODI performance is in free-fall - a trend that began well before the Newlands ball-tampering scandal deprived the selectors of Steven Smith and David Warner and injuries ruled out Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins - it is critical to take the longer view. Seven years longer than this week's 5-0 result, to be precise. At this time in 2011, an independent panel led by Don Argus, the former chairman of multinational mining company BHP, and featuring Mark Taylor, Allan Border and Steve Waugh was in the midst of interviews for a team performance review that followed the loss of the 2010-11 Ashes on home soil by shuddering margins.
One of the clear recommendations of the subsequent review was the prioritisation of Test cricket above all else, and by extension that every effort be made to preserve a robust 10-round Sheffield Shield competition with a final to decide the winner. As a consequence, the Test team's resourcing and preparation has been the major priority of the team performance manager Pat Howard, appointed shortly after the review, and the team's results over the long-term have largely backed up this prioritisation.
While Australia have endured ongoing problems against the moving ball, whether seaming, swinging or spinning, since 2011, the Test team has been the world's most successful over that time, returning 41 victories, 27 defeats and 13 draws. South Africa (36 wins) are next best, followed by India (35) and England (31). Tellingly, Australia have successfully avoided the result that heralded the Argus review in the first place - a loss of the Ashes at home. Only South Africa, twice, have managed to beat Australia at home in a Test series. These results have, by and large, had the effect of allowing CA to improve its financial standing while also ushering in the Big Bash League.
But the collateral damage of this focus on Test matches has been the squeezing of 50-over cricket, particularly at the domestic level over the past five years, and soon in the international arena also. When the Argus review was being drafted, Australia were still the world's No. 1 ranked ODI team, but this seemed rather superfluous given the outcry that followed the loss of a home Ashes series. Pressure was to come too from the scheduling of the BBL in the prime months of summer, as part of a wider strategic priority to grow the game's audience.
These two factors, plus the growing influence of sports science in dictating the schedules of fast bowlers in particular, led to the abandonment of the domestic limited-overs competition format that had been commonplace from 2000 to 2011: a double round-robin tournament intermingled with the Shield season, meaning states had regular exposure to 50-over cricket over the summer and played a minimum of 10 games. Two of Australia's three consecutive World Cup wins from 1999 to 2007 took place during this period.
As the review stated: "Note that the panel is also generally less concerned about reductions in the volume and/or timing of the [domestic limited-overs] Cup, given the greater importance of Test Cricket and the opportunity to develop 50-over players via Australia A and the 100+ ODIs played between World Cups."
So as of the start of the 2013-14 season, and in line with one of the Argus review recommendations, the tournament was drastically cut back into a pre-season carnival with each state playing six games apiece, largely on club grounds well away from the major Test and ODI venues. That number was to increase in subsequent seasons, but only by the inclusion of a developmental Cricket Australia XI, featuring players not deemed good enough or mature enough to represent their states. Reduction in quantity was followed by dilution in quality. While the Shield was deemed important enough to be played in two separate blocks so as to maintain its traditional number of matches, the 50-over format was not.
Of course, the effects of this decision were not to be seen in the short term. An ODI team still stocked with senior players who learned their trade during the 10-game round-robin format was still around to form the core of the 2015 World Cup winning team, which was able to take advantage of that experience but also familiar Australian conditions. This was a fitting capstone to the ODI careers of Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, all extremely well-versed in the art of the 50-over game even before the advent of the IPL shifted players' individual priorities towards Twenty20.
What has followed, though, is a gradual depreciation of the skills and performances of the ODI team. While Australia's ODI record post-Argus is serviceable (won 76, lost 57, tied 1 to rank third or fourth in the world), it dips from 2013 onwards (won 51, lost 36, fifth overall) and then slides alarmingly after the 2015 World Cup (won 27, lost 30, fifth in the world on wins, seventh on win percentage).
One of the many outcomes of this trend is to make performances in the limited-overs competition more or less irrelevant on the international stage. As coach of the tournament winners Western Australia, Justin Langer probably thought his stocks were stronger than they are. Instead, he has been given a stark reminder that winning displays on early season pitches and club venues bear little resemblance to the standards required on flat tracks in mid-summer against England.
Here, most pivotally, is the contrast that speaks volumes. Upon their unceremonious bundling out of the 2015 World Cup, the ECB made 50-over cricket as much of a priority as CA have done for Tests, with a strong eye on hosting the ODI global tournament in 2019. Not only was Trevor Bayliss appointed largely on the strength of his record as a coach in shorter formats, but the county competition was first pushed to the very margins of the English season, and then reduced in competition length.
Domestic 50-over cricket is played closer to peak summer than first-class cricket, in a reversal of CA's decision. England have duly declined as a Test-match force, never looking like threatening Australia in last year's Ashes series, but they've risen rapidly as an ODI nation, with a fearless brand of the game that denotes both the influence of T20 and the supreme confidence of one player in another. Put simply, Eoin Morgan's team play like a team of specialists, Paine's like a collection of part-timers - because they are.
"There was a lot of guys who were extremely tired at the end of the Ashes," Paine said. "England had a massive changeover of players after the Tests and we went in with very much the same cattle and guys were pretty tired. We didn't play well in that series either.
"Before that, there was a series in India and they're never easy to win for anyone, particularly over there. But this organisation and a number of people in it have peaked at the right time, a number of times. I think we're going to build slowly to try and do that again."
The latest jape in the Australian limited-overs tournament is to have every team qualifying for the finals, a brainstorm resulting from the desire to not reduce the number of matches while removing the CA XI from the fixtures. As the governing body's operations chief Peter Roach has said, in every balancing act there will be winners, losers and differences of opinion.
"Definitely. It is a real balancing act to balance up the needs of all parts of the business," Roach said. "Test cricket being a priority, we've prioritised the Shield landscape and we've maintained having a strong six-team Shield competition of 10 rounds and a final is the best way to produce good quality players for Australia. We still aim to win the World Cup, that's a high priority for us and having this competition where it is, we believe, is the best way for this year.
"Does everyone believe that around the country? Clearly not and we wouldn't expect them to, but all of our discussions and strategies are in place to lead towards this being the best outcome for us. That includes international cricket, Big Bash League, Australia A tours, they all form part of the picture of best preparing players for Australia, and best promoting our sport to the people of Australia."
There is no indication that the priority imbalance between Tests and ODIs is about to change, in fact quite the contrary. It spoke volumes that in CA's most recent A$ 1.18 billion broadcast rights deal, ODIs played at home were banished behind a paywall for the first time in their history, as the free-to-air Seven network was only interested in Tests and the BBL. And there has been another strategic complication in the form of the ICC events schedule, which has Australia hosting the men's and women's World T20 tournaments in 2020. Having never won the tournament since its 2007 inception, CA is eager to play more of the format to make a strong showing at home. Over the next four years, the number of T20Is played by Australia will jump from to 45, from 24 from 2015 to 2019, while ODIs slip from 58 matches to 47.
Sutherland, meanwhile, is into his last 12 months as chief executive, meaning that by the time the inaugural ODI league starts in 2020, affording a 2023 World Cup place to the world's top seven ranked sides, the issue of improving 50-over performance will be someone else's problem. Context and meaning have long been a goal of Sutherland's in his years dividing time between CA headquarters and the ICC's quarterly meetings. But it would be a reflection of CA's wider strategic direction should the team with more World Cups than anyone find themselves failing to automatically qualify for 2023.