Australian cricket's pitched battle

Even as Australia come to terms with 2-0 series loss to Pakistan, the wheels of change are slowly turning in the Sheffield Shield, reshaping old methods and ideas to meet the new realities of international cricket

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
New South Wales celebrate their victory, NSW v Western Australia, Sheffield Shield final, day 5, Canberra, March 25, 2012

Some of the debates around the Sheffield Shield have been not just about the pitches but the players and the style of play being promoted  •  Getty Images

Between the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Test matches, James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's CEO, expressed total faith in the capacity of Michael Clarke and Darren Lehmann to turn Australia's fortunes around. "I'm really confident that this week we'll see a different and improved performance," he said. "One of the things I've been really impressed with under Darren Lehmann is the way the team's adapted, and I think with Michael Clarke's leadership and experience in those conditions we'll adapt this week."
Based on recent Test match results, Sutherland's confidence was well-placed. But even as he said those words, he was aware of gears grinding slowly and noisily in reverse in the Sheffield Shield, of domestic wickets being recast to better reflect international conditions, and of batsmen and bowlers having to learn how to better operate in climes prepared specifically to trip them up in India, England and now the UAE. The idea of a quick fix in the space of a week was optimistic.
As far back as 2011, following the disastrous home Ashes series that concluded in January of that year, Sutherland had spoken of his concerns about Shield pitches no longer reflecting the sorts of conditions found in Tests, even in Australia. "For batsmen they have to work hard and it's difficult, but at the same time it can lull bowlers into a false sense of security as to actually how good things are," he said following that year's Shield final. "If you go and have a look at Test pitches around the world, they are very, very hard, very, very dry and they have very little grass on them."
So in the years since, underneath the publicity generated by the Argus review and the Australian team's fluctuating results, Cricket Australia have quietly debated the relevant issues with the states. These did not just include pitches but also the styles of play and players being promoted in the Shield, as the national team sought spin bowlers, batsmen capable of long innings and pacemen conversant in both conventional and reverse swing.
It has not always been an easy conversation, with successful players and states arguing that they were doing the right thing by performing, so why change? But the penny appeared finally to drop in 2013, due perhaps, in part, to the dire India results that showed, among other things, how one-dimensional Australian cricketers had become. At North Sydney Oval for a CA sponsorship announcement shortly after the tour, Sutherland spoke not only about the "homework" fiasco but also how the experience of Australian cricketers had to be broadened.
"As we saw in India, you can't buy the experience of playing in those sorts of conditions, they're very much alien to what we have anywhere in Australia," he said. "You need that experience and part of it is making our Shield pitches more like Test pitches, but it's also broadening the experience and the resilience of players to work through different conditions. The best players are the ones who can adapt to pitches all over the world - that's where someone like Allan Border is an out-and-out great because of his ability to adapt his game."
Last summer's Test results did not reflect that search quite so much as the rejuvenation of Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin and the unity forged by Lehmann and Clarke. But it is arguable that the more significant long-term trend over the summer was actually witnessed in the Shield, where several years of cajoling by the team performance manager Pat Howard, among others, finally resulted in the preparation of pitches more equitable to batsmen and spin bowlers. Both disciplines received a spike in their productivity, while pacemen had to work harder.
This tweaking must be balanced to a certain degree - Australian cricket does not need six facsimiles of the Dubai playing surface in Shield competition any more than it needs six green seamers. But the sense was of some kind of balance being regained. In the words of the New South Wales' Trevor Bayliss, who coached his state to victory under the new conditions last summer and is now subbing in as national Twenty20 coach while Darren Lehmann flies home from the UAE:
"If you look at when wickets were very flat, it was more important to bowl spin. Now we've had a few different years, the batsmen don't face very much quality spin at home, and then the skill set for that is not as good as it could be if you're facing it day in, day out. From a pace-bowling point of view, it's easy to take wickets because there's a fair bit in the wickets, but then you get onto these flat wickets that sorts a few of those bowlers out as well. Somehow we've got to get back to good cricket wickets, something in it for new ball bowlers, then flattens out to a good wicket and then day three and four it spins. That way we'll produce more rounded cricketers in all conditions."
The state that suffered most by the change was Victoria, who for some years had been among the most outspoken advocates of doing things their way to secure trophies, rather than thinking more broadly about the production of Australian players. A change to the job specs of the state coach Greg Shipperd and others was significant to that end, raising the identification of international cricketers above the collection of silverware.
But the adjustment to a style of play more conversant of spin and tall first-innings scores did not come easily: the Bushrangers finished bottom and averaged only 12 wickets a match - Australia's weary UAE tourists will know how they felt. "I think part of that was definitely the change in conditions," Shipperd said. "That was a Cricket Australia directive and I think a directive that was timely because most certainly the conditions had slipped way out of kilter across the country in terms of the balance between bat and ball.
"I think the response to that directive was excellent across Australia and our bowling group weren't good enough to deal with those better wickets. That's the challenge going forward because hopefully those wickets will stay the same and make it a real challenge for bowlers to get batters out and batters to stay hungry to score significant runs."
"You will note that with the revised Sheffield Shield points system we are rewarding teams that can dig in and fight for a draw, because there will be times at international level where that's important."
Pat Howard, Australia's team performance manager
Further pressing the matter of Shield conditions was the introduction of a fresh points system for this summer, which rewards teams for batting positively in the first innings but also for pushing to 100 overs, an increasingly uncommon innings length in recent seasons. Incentives were also added in terms of points for securing a draw, something conspicuously absent from the former system, which placed a premium on outright results and functioned sturdily until states began to look jealously upon the points tallies regularly racked up by Queensland on the grassy Gabba strip.
Having shown a striking ability to twist past England and South Africa in bouncy conditions, Australia have been unable to stick against Pakistan. Dogged fourth-innings efforts and persistent spells are not necessarily the skills most desired by Clarke and Lehmann, but they will be increasingly required in the Shield and by extension, it is hoped, in the national team. Patience as well as pace.
"We like to play attacking cricket, but that all depends on the conditions and the position of the game," Howard said. "You will note that with the revised Sheffield Shield points system we are rewarding teams that can dig in and fight for a draw, because there will be times at international level where that's important."
Not everyone is a fan of the new system. Bayliss would have kept the simpler former model. Shipperd is warmer to the concept but has raised a couple of queries about it also, namely the loss of the "contest within a contest" for first-innings points and the disparity of scoring conditions at various grounds around Australia.
That said, Shipperd and Bayliss both remain open to the concept, even if before taking up Australian duty the latter had told his players not to think too much about the bonus points and simply to "play for the win as we usually do". "It will all be interesting to see at the end of the season wash-up," Shipperd said, "but Pat Howard is known for being prepared to take a risk in the pursuit of advancement, so the rest of Australia's behind him."
Howard will be relieved to hear that, given he has often butted heads with senior figures in Australian cricket, not least for his non-cricket background. In the aftermath of the Abu Dhabi defeat, he stressed that the grinding gears of Australia's domestic competition still had a way to go to help ensure that Australia are not caught out quite so badly as they have been by the Pakistan.
"To be a great side, we have to be able to win consistently on the road and it's clear that we still struggle to cope with dry sub-continental conditions," he said. "We're working hard to address our weakness against spin by getting more overs into spinners in the Sheffield Shield and installing dedicated spin pitches at the NCC. We will also continue to use spin-coaching consultants to help our bowlers and batsmen perform better in those conditions, as well as running a range of assimilation tours to the sub-continent for our elite development squads. All of those things will bring about improvement, but in no way are they an overnight solution. It will take time and hard work."
As unsightly as the UAE has been for Australia, it should at least remind players and administrators alike that their pitched battle has some way to run yet.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig