The hired mini-buses in the car park are the first sign of a facility on the move. From the receptionist flanked by wallpaper of some of the finest graduates, to the clutch of elite coaches, and the players who the selectors hope will soon slip comfortably into the national squads, nobody at the Australian Cricket Academy seems capable of sitting still. Any concerns that Australia was going to regress at all levels after the Ashes loss were not visible on the cushioned ovals of Brisbane's Allan Border Field as the 18-week scholarship program wound down and the players prepared for the month-long tour of southern Africa starting on Wednesday.
Forced into change by the England result and the dangers of an ageing bowling attack, the national selection panel under Trevor Hohns, the then chairman, altered the outlook of the Academy. (Officially it's been the Commonwealth Bank Centre of Excellence for three years but the naming legacy of the initial ground-breaking institution is impossible to lose). Rather than focusing specifically on developing young players for state cricket, the aim for the 2006 winter was to provide short and medium-term options for the international teams. Only one player in the original 15-man cohort, Victoria's Tim Finch, did not have first-class experience and bowlers such as Brett Dorey, 28, and Ben Edmondson, 27, were picked at an age when in previous years their only chance of returning would have been as a coach.
With Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz spending extended time out of the national side in the past year, the Australian management is readying itself for more change and planning for a smooth transition. Using the Academy selection as a guide, the men lining up at the bowling fringes of the set-up include Dorey, Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger, who were named in the 30-member Champions Trophy preliminary squad, and Edmondson.
"If they are not getting the experience in the shop front, they're basically working out the back and ready to come in," Troy Cooley, the bowling coach re-recruited from England, describes the situation. "They won't know everything, but we hope that by doing these things they go into international cricket with confidence."
Dorey, who stands at 203cm, is the senior member of the squad but Tim Nielsen, the Academy head coach, describes him as a "bowling baby, 28 going on 21". Blooming so late he almost missed his calling, Dorey is catching up on the years lost to cricket through travel and injury. After playing four one-day internationals last summer, he is viewed as a potential replacement for Glenn McGrath and is relieved to have the opportunity to develop. "I've done a lot of bowling here," Dorey says. "Everything has been good here, working with Troy and Tim. It's also been new to me because in Perth you have to train indoors."
The weather is a significant reason behind the Academy transfer from Adelaide to Albion's Queensland Cricket headquarters in 2004. While south-east Queensland is experiencing a severe drought that restricts water usage on the grounds, the clear winter weather offers few distractions for the players waterproofing their techniques for first-class competition. Instead of sitting inside watching endless videos looking for flaws, they have more training choices than food options at the all-you-can-eat salad bar in their dining hall at Griffith University's Nathan campus.
Seven concrete and synthetic pitches compete for use with a rotation of 40 turf practice wickets and the centre square of the complex's No. 2 oval, which is perched next to the delightful Allan Border Field. A couple of bowling machines are ready for almost constant operation from squad members or the coaches not juggling video cameras or computers as they record data and deconstruct actions.
On the oval, a scattering of cones signal a fielding drill or a run-up exercise and kitbags are strewn like school camp dorms. The mess grows when specific clinics are held in tandem with the Academy intake. August began with a batting camp, which was attended by the former internationals Greg Blewett and Matthew Elliott, and it was followed by spin and wicketkeeping sessions, with Brad Haddin among those offering tips. Guest scholars also make the facility international, with three Indian players spending six weeks with the squad on Border-Gavaskar scholarships and the Trinidadian fast bowler Ravi Rampaul arriving for a month at the end of term.
Each day the activity plan is drawn on a whiteboard stuck to an old block of changerooms: 9.55 warm-up and throw, 10.20 competitive nets, 12.00 visa applications + lunch, 1.00 skill development. Nielsen, the fifth head coach in the Academy's 19-year history, is in charge of the high-energy program and will lead the squad on its tour to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. A former South Australia wicketkeeper and Australia assistant coach, Nielsen is in his second year with the centre and believes the support staff has developed into such a strong unit that it is the best in the game.
A break in Australia's touring has allowed the national assistants Jamie Siddons and Dene Hills to spend most of the winter in Brisbane while Cooley's brief is to produce "a conveyor belt of fast bowlers for the future". Belinda Clark, Australia's greatest female player who retired last year, manages the centre and other well-credentialled employees include the sports scientist Marc Portus, Richard McInnes, the Australia team's performance analyst, and the women's Test bowler Cathryn Fitzpatrick. "The environment we have here is brilliant," Nielsen says. "And I believe we're getting better every day."
The restructuring of the Academy program led to an extra six weeks of training for the main intake and Nielsen says the extension has been successful in sustaining improvements. "In the past the program has been pretty crammed," he says. "Eighteen weeks gives the players a chance to get into the swing of things and identify and work on the things they need to improve on. We've had time to see what works and try alterations; they've tried the changes in match situations. By the time they go back to states the changes are ingrained."
Heavy weeks of two sessions a day in the gym were followed by an Emerging Players tournament involving teams from New Zealand, South Africa and India. Over the past month the squad, which shrunk following injuries to Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Beau Casson, has been finalising the lead-up work for the tour that includes three fixtures against the Zimbabwe and Kenya national teams.
"By the time they've finished they will have played one four-day game, 15 one-day games and three Twenty20 matches [during the winter]," Nielsen says. "It's busy but there's no better way to be prepared." The players had a week off after the Emerging Players tournament in July before checking back into their university apartment's adjoining bushland in Brisbane's south.
Wearing the team uniform, the players mix with the boarding students at dining times, but stay in a separate block of four-bedroom apartments with communal lounge, bathroom and kitchen facilities. Photos of girlfriends fight for space with cricket gear and computer games. An ironing board reminds players they are responsible for cleaning their own clothes. Nightly karaoke competitions on the Playstation have been a feature of the current group, which has staged mini-concerts. "I've never done it," Dorey says, "but the guys were singing Shannon Noll last night." A common room offers pay television, table tennis and a space to escape the demands of living at a university without studying there.
As the oldest in the group, Dorey finds the living situation "gets a bit boring". But most of the younger scholarship holders embrace the student culture when they are not at training. "It's a good learning curve in the life of a cricketer," Michael Jeh, the manager of Griffith Sports College, says. "It's like a mini-town here. It's self-contained with a corner store, post office, hair dressers etc. They are here for 18 weeks and want to be part of it."
Jeh is a former Oxford University and MCC allrounder who posted his highest first-class score batting without a helmet against a Pakistan A team that included a young and angry Shoaib Akhtar. His role with the cricketers includes counselling, guidance, friendship and occasional discipline, although in the three-year partnership there have been no expulsions. The only downside seems to be that the players have not taken the opportunity to begin a tertiary course, even a part-time professional development program, in their spare time. FHM remains the required reading while the neighbouring students flick through Marx, Lenin and Renaissance texts.
Instead the cricket scholars channel their thoughts towards being part of re-birth of Australian cricket. Thirty Test players have attended the Academy, starting with Damien Martyn and Shane Warne from the class of 1990 and currently ending with Phil Jaques, who was in Adelaide in 2000. Another 35 names, including Dorey's, have been stuck in the one-day international column on the glass door in the Centre of Excellence's main office.
A host of retirements are predicted after the World Cup and the Academy plan is for more of its graduates to join the honour's list. Nielsen says players are never going to be catapulted from the finishing school into international teams, but the aim is they will be better equipped to perform strongly and consistently for their states. "Hopefully we have 15 blokes going home to nail first-class cricket so when the selectors are picking Australian teams they have 15 extra blokes to consider rather than the core they've got at the moment," Nielsen says. "If we can make the pool of talent in Australia bigger I feel we are doing the job."