Eng v Aus, 2nd Investec Test, Lord's, 4th day July 21, 2013

The rotting of Australian cricket

The marginalising of grade and Shield competitions has left a painful legacy for the Test team

Amid the usual sea of opinions leading into this series, Andrew Strauss cut to the core of Australian cricket's troubles with an observation he made about the last Ashes tour down under. While the Test matches of 2010-11 and their margins were clear, Strauss noticed something a little more far-reaching and disturbing on his travels. The standard of the players and teams his side faced in their tour matches was nowhere near the level that England tourists had come to expect. Where once the visitors expected a serious fight no matter where they played, now they were surprised to feel unthreatened.

Three years on, and a very public execution at Lord's has confirmed the decline Strauss witnessed. First evident among the grassroots, it has now enveloped the shop front of the Australian game. The bewilderment experienced by a succession of batsmen as they trudged off with inadequate scores for the fourth consecutive Ashes innings was mirrored on the faces of the Sunday spectators, Australian television viewers and Cricket Australia staff on both sides of the world. How had it come to this?

Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Phillip Hughes, Michael Clarke, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith fell in manners familiar and unfamiliar, technical or mental, to pace or spin. There was no underlying pattern. But the death dive of the national team's recent performances, including a sixth Test match defeat in succession, is the ugliest and most visible symptom of a collective malaise that has been creeping ever wider for some time, hurried along by band-aid solutions and rampant market thinking that has helped to rot the teeth of the domestic game.

Among the most troubling elements of Australia's current state of poverty is that there is no single person in the team nor around it who has the capacity to provide a remedy. Not the captain Clarke, nor the coach Darren Lehmann, the selectors Rod Marsh and John Inverarity, nor even the high-powered general manager of team performance, Pat Howard. Had he still been employed, the estranged former coach Mickey Arthur would have been equally powerless.

They all have had influential roles within Australian cricket over the past three years, and all have a genuine desire to see the team winning matches. All are doing their best to prepare players for tasks such as England. But none have complete control over the areas of Cricket Australia to where the game's decline can be traced. Perhaps not surprisingly, all are often heard to say the words "not ideal". All should be speaking earnestly to their chief executive, James Sutherland, who despite much financial prosperity has presided over the aforementioned rot.

Several issues stand out as causes of the problems on display at Lord's. The first is the marginalisation of the grade and Sheffield Shield competitions, for so long regarded as the best proving grounds of their kind in the world. In 2013 they sit at the fringes of CA's thinking. Grade cricket has fallen behind the much vaunted "pathway" of under-age competitions and Centre of Excellence training as the primary providers of players bound for international duty. The Shield, meanwhile, is now played disjointedly and unhappily around the edges of the Australian season, having ceded the prime months of December and January to the Twenty20 Big Bash League.

This scheduling stands in marked contrast to the fixtures now produced in England and India, Australia's two most recent tormentors. For all the buzz and hype around the IPL and the Champions League, neither competition cuts across the first-class Ranji Trophy, which remains a tournament fought in an environment of continuity and cohesion. Similarly, the English county season offers domestic players a greater chance for building up form and confidence in the format most representative of Test matches. Plenty of battles have been fought within England to keep it so, and next summer its primacy will be further embossed by the spreading of T20 fixtures more evenly through the season.

Even if the Shield were to be granted a place of greater centrality to the Australian summer, the matter of pitches is also a source of problems. Australia's glaring lack of batsmen capable of playing long innings can be related directly to the emergence of a succession of sporting or worse surfaces, as state teams chase the outright results required to reach the Shield final. Queensland and Tasmania have been among the most notable preparers of green surfaces, often for reasons of weather as much as strategy, but their approaches have become increasingly popular across the country. This has resulted in a litany of low-scoring matches and bowlers celebrating far more often than they did during the relatively run-laden 1990s. Batsmen are thus lacking in confidence and technique, while bowlers are similarly less used to striving for wickets on unresponsive surfaces so often prepared in Tests, as administrators eye fifth-day gate receipts.

Money is never far from anyone's motivation, of course, and the financial modelling of Australian player payments must also be examined. This much was pointed out by Arthur himself when the BBL was unveiled in 2011, accompanied by the news that state contracts would be reduced on the presumption that every player would also play T20. Arthur's words should be ringing in the ears of CA's decision makers almost as much as his anguished complaints now about the loss of his job.

"Your biggest salary cap should be your state contracts with the smaller salary cap being your Big Bash," Arthur had said when coach of Western Australia. "If we're really serious in Australia about getting Australia to the No. 1 Test-playing side in the world, we should be reflecting that in our salary caps and budgets. You can feel the squeeze just through the salary caps that we have to work with. You're getting a bigger salary cap for six weeks' work over the holiday period than you are for trying to make yourself a Test cricketer. I think that's the wrong way round."

The wrong way round and the wrong way to maintain a strong Test team. The pain of Australia's players at Lord's, not least their clearly upset captain Michael Clarke, was patently clear. But having almost conjured miracles at Trent Bridge, St John's Wood has provided a much more realistic picture of where the team has slipped to, and why. There can be few more humiliating places at which to be defined as second rate than the home of cricket, for so long the home away from home for Australia's cricketers. In a moment of hubris after their win at the ground in 2005, Ricky Ponting's team held uproarious court in the home dressing rooms. This time around any visit to the England side of the pavilion will be made far more humbly.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gaurav on July 24, 2013, 19:25 GMT

    We need Clarke at 4. He is our best batsman and needs to anchor the innings. David Warner has made 193 against South Africa A today, he is in good form and needs to be brought into our top 6. I would replace him with Khawaja who seemed very susceptible against the spin of Swann. Despite Agar being an amazing young talent and his heroics in the first test, we need Lyon as the main spinner. Although he is no where near Agar with the bat, but with the bowl he is more reliable. 1) Watson 2) Rogers 3) Warner 4) Clarke 5) Smith 6) Hughes 7) Haddin 8) Starc 9) Harris 10) Siddle 11) Lyon 12) Cowan Or Warner Rogers Hughes Clarke Watson Smith Haddin Starc Siddle HarrisLyon

  • mayank on July 23, 2013, 18:27 GMT

    My Squad for next Ashes Test - 1)Watson 2)Warner 3)Clarke 4)Smith 5)White 6)Faulkner 7) Haddin 8)Siddle 9)Starc 10)Harris 11)Lyon

    OZ need to bring the man which England fears ....and he is the big Camroon White .. If we see he his test stats it looks like he has not got enough opportunities in Test cricket . Time to give big man a chance as he is still 29 and a heavy run getter in domestic cricket....

  • t on July 23, 2013, 18:12 GMT

    @Someguy if you'd seen the AB devilliers dismantling of Dale steyn in one of the IPL matches last year i can bet you would not say that there was no skill involved. all the new shots that have come about due to t20 (ramp, reverse sweep, scoop etc) require a great deal of skill & plenty of courage to boot (if you miss a 145+ kmph steyn missile when trying to play the scoop you're pretty much guaranteed to land up in hospital). to say that just leaving alone the ball & blocking require skills while playing aggressive shots do not is pure one eyed bias. t20 also helped test cricket in that teams are scoring at a much quicker rate now which leads to more results & the advent of more aggressive batsman (who are admittedly more likely to get out then say a Cook or Dravid) has atleast spared us of dreary draws which was the norm not too long ago.

  • Sharky on July 23, 2013, 13:53 GMT

    Great article and good points made. I still feels Australia Cricket did do the right move to employ Mickey Arthur, but they gave him the wrong position. He should have been Darren Leahman's technical advisor. The Auzzies needs to be auzzies again. Won't Merv Hughes step up and give them a speech, please. When the auzzies lost a bit of status in the 80's, the very hardened Allan Border came and make them auzzies again. He wasn't there to make friends. Barry Richards once told us how prestige and hard it was to play in the Australian domestic series. Mickey was right when he warned "don't let your 20/20 salaries outplay your Test salaries". Money can be a b@tch too! Pride and patriotism could be the answer. When the young inexperienced Graeme Smith captained South Africa, Ricky Ponting once made the comment that the most competitive cricket he played that year was Australian domestic cricket. The more than one days. Don't mess up your factory because of money.

  • Dummy4 on July 23, 2013, 10:26 GMT

    The points outlined in this article are factors, the other contributor is the poorly selected and balanced team. The bowlers are fine, except Lyon should be playing instead of Agar. A far better balanced team would be Warner & Cowan to open, if Khawaja must play he should be number 3. Clarke has to move to 4 it's simply to late for him to shape the innings at number 5. Watson at 5 with Steve Smith at number 6 sharing 15/20 overs with Watson. Wade/Haddin as keeper, Wade is the better keeper in my opinion and this is part of the selection problem. The best keeper should be selected, not the best keeper/batsman. The bowlers are fine, they just have nowhere near enough runs to bowl at. Australia needs to select the best eleven players in the country, regardless of how flashy they are or their crowd appeal etc. These players need to have a god 12 month run to solidify into a team, the constant chopping and changing of players is also a large contributing factor. Back to basics!

  • Phani on July 23, 2013, 9:45 GMT

    Oh! give them a break...the whole speaking of negativity deepens/ worsens the problem for the team which is currently after Ashes...i am from india & am certainly aware of high pressure or expectations situation from fans...but its not fair...Most of the people are speaking on no.of balls faced at Junior level & hence the adaptability...however to all Aussie fans " May i know any Australian batsmen made his debut in teens"?

    well, the team is in hunt for Ashes...cheer them up & say it loud " Come on boys, we are the fighters, never give up"....this way / blessings, will help aussie get the required confidence

  • Michael on July 23, 2013, 9:27 GMT

    Both Anthony and David hit the nail on the head with their comments because this is where all our trouble starts. Our local junior comp is so bad that it not only forces retirement on a batsman but the games are only 36 overs long, which basically means anyone coming in to bat from 2nd drop onwards has to play a sluggers role.....this is not skill development at all and this is the comp. David Warner comes from.

  • David on July 23, 2013, 8:21 GMT

    Two bigger issues have not been discussed. Firstly, the homogenisation of Australian wickets (drop ins; WACA has lost it's pace and bounce whereas Sydney has lost it's turn) has meant that players are not getting experience in a variety of wickets. Once upon a time, a trip around the Aussie cricket grounds was akin to playing around the world. Secondly, in the 90s, the test players featured in many more shield matches (these days they might not play any) giving first class players a better yardstick (and sharing experience) than they are getting now.

  • Ronald on July 23, 2013, 7:55 GMT

    How Sutherland has managed to survive is beyond my understanding. He should have been sacked before Arthur. He has reduced the Sheffield Shield to nothing but a a sideshow so of course test Cricket is suffering. T20 should be the sideshow, not REAL cricket.

  • Jeremy on July 23, 2013, 7:08 GMT

    I agree with most of these points, but I would like to comment on the state of Australian pitches. I agree that they should be modified, but not to be "batsman friendly" roads per say just for the sake of allowing batsmen to gain higher batting averages and for the bowlers to toil. A return to the varied pitches would be best. The stereotypical wickets could shift, but CA needs to have a variety of wickets to expose the Shield teams to play in international conditions. The slow, turning wicket (SCG), the fast, bouncy wicket (WACA), the green pitches (Gabba and Bellerive), the 4-5th day deteriorating "road" (Adelaide) and the all round wicket (MCG) should be encouraged. There was a period in the late 90s to early 00s where all of the pitches were relatively flat and unchallenging for quality batsmen. That was one of the reasons for the so-called failure of Australian pace bowlers in the 05 Ashes. Australian batsmen and bowlers need to gain experience on varied wickets.