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Australia's success in international cricket in recent years has made many English cricket enthusiasts conclude that the Australian methods of coaching, practice and organisation are superior to those of their own country. While I believe that the Australian victories are merely part of the cycle which in time will swing in favour of England, I also believe that the Australian boy who possesses any talent has a better chance to develop it than his English counterpart. I shall endeavour to trace the steps which a normal young cricketer in Australia must take before he wears the green and gold cap and compare them with the path of the English Youngster.
It is the general rule that most Australian eleven players play a season or two in junior cricket immediately after leaving school, and from this stage we may watch our player start on his upward path. By far the minority of Australian schools have turf wickets, so that the average cricketer spends his first seven or eight years playing on matting pitches. These pitches comprise simply a strip of smooth, level concrete covered by coir matting. They play one hundred per cent truly, take a lot more spin and give the ball more lift than a turf wicket.
While it is the ambition of all matting clubs to own a turf wicket, most realise that it is far better to play on a good matting wicket than on an under-prepared rough turf strip. Until their finances can ensure the constant attention necessary for a good turf wicket, they are content to rely on their concrete strip. These wickets have two outstanding merits--first their uniformity and trueness encourage the batsman to play all of his strokes with confidence, and, secondly, the fact that the ball will lift and take spin gives plenty of encouragement to spin bowlers. Naturally, also, these wickets are unaffected by weather and a washed-out game is almost unheard of.
Our junior cricketer, having met with some success in his matting competition, decides to play in a higher grade. In Melbourne he has the choice of several junior turf associations where the class of cricket is sound and the competitive spirit high, but all these associations are merely feeding-grounds to our major Saturday afternoon District competition. Fourteen teams compete annually for the Pennant and it is directly from these teams that the Victorian eleven is selected to play in our inter-state competition for the Sheffield Shield. A district club puts at least four teams in the field each Saturday afternoon and any junior cricketer of average ability will find a place in at least the third or fourth elevens of his club.
His steps to the Australian team are then clear before him and each promotion he receives in his club carries him directly along the path and one step nearer his goal. It is the fact that even the fourth eleven club cricketer can see clearly and understand easily the obstacles necessary to be overcome before he reaches this goal that makes our club cricket the true hub of the game in Australia.
It must be borne in mind that it is not uncommon for a talented lad of fifteen or sixteen years of age to be selected for his club's first eleven, and then the chances are that he will find himself playing in a match with or against two or three of the current Australian team. Australians generally do not subscribe to the belief that a young player can be spoiled by introducing him into first-class cricket too soon, and I believe that the early contact with inter-state and international players in our Saturday afternoon District cricket does more to improve the young cricketer than any other factor in the organisation of the game in my country. I would point out that Bradman, Ponsford, McCabe, Morris, Lindwall, Miller, Barnes and Harvey, in fact the majority of players who have represented Australia during the past twenty years, set the foundations to their careers in club cricket while early teen-agers.
The only disadvantage to the system whereby the sole path to the Australian eleven is through the main club competitions of the capital cities is that a good country or provincial player does not get an opportunity to show his talents. This is unfortunate for the individual but it does not have much effect on the efficiency of the international team, as it must be remembered that the five state capital cities hold almost three-quarters of the population of the country.
Because Australian cricket is formed around Saturday afternoon games, any player who is sufficiently proficient is able to develop his game at least to inter-state standard without interference to his business career. Until recently our first-class games during a normal season, that is a season free of Test cricket, covered about only twenty working days, so that firms employing cricketers found no hardship in granting them leave to play throughout the inter-state series. It can be seen, then, that to date there have been no major obstacles placed before any player and, in consequence, the Australian team has always been at full strength.
The present and future programme of international tours to and from this country is so heavy that young players of the future may be lost to the game because they will find it impossible to carry out their commercial ambitions and still take part in the full cricket programme.
This has been the main handicap to the advancement of the standard of cricket in England for many years, and to my mind is the biggest drawback to the system of county cricket in that country. Most keen young players in England who have international ambitions must make up their mind while in their teens that they will make cricket their sole livelihood by playing professionally for their county. If they do not follow this course they must confine their cricket either to social games as typified by the London club meetings or to Northern England league cricket. In either case, although the ability of the player may be beyond doubt, he does not come into line for selection in an international team.
I think that Australia offers more opportunities for development of the individual. I feel sure that concrete wickets are a boon to junior clubs and to schools whose finances cannot ensure the efficient upkeep of true turf wickets. I suggest that the general class and highly competitive spirit in our Saturday afternoon cricket is ideal for the development of the temperament necessary for international contests. I also believe that one season's interstate cricket is more valuable practice for a Test series than a season of county cricket because our four full-time state teams are more evenly matched than the county teams. There are no easy games in the Sheffield Shield competition. Each time a team takes the field there is a sprinkling of internationals and the atmosphere is always that of a first-class game.
Because of the six days a week full-time cricket under all conditions, the good English county player appears to me to be more efficiently educated technically than the Australian state player and the even results over the years when our two countries have met prove that the systems adopted in each country have much to commend them. I conclude by stating that the good English player receives a perfect cricket education once he reaches first-class standard, but a bigger percentage of young players in Australia are given the opportunity to reach that standard.