Australia might have had a disappointing run in the Under-19 World Cup - losing to Sri Lanka and Pakistan - but their expectations of what to take from the tournament were different from other major sides. While India and Pakistan watch this tournament for future international stars, Australia attempt to spot a few outstanding talents who could make the next step: entering their highly-competitive first-class structure.
"In Australia, it's more about a stepping stone into the first-class system," the U-19 coach Brian McFayden told Cricinfo. "The players that perform well at this level and are recognised as outstanding players: they are the guys who will step into the first-class system in Australia, which is the world's best first-class competition by a long way."
The major difference between Australia and India, the team to beat in this tournament, is the number of players with first-class experience. India have ten while the corresponding number for Australia is just two - Philip Hughes and Steven Smith. An exposure to first-class cricket helps players, especially batsmen, to mature. While most sides - Australia included - have struggled to build an innings and play 50 overs, India have not lost more than five wickets in an innings in any of their matches.
"The quality of cricket in the first-class system [in Australia], with just six teams, means that it's incredibly competitive and very difficult to provide opportunities for younger players unless they are at the very elite level," McFayden said. "There are more mature cricketers from a lot of the other nations [at the U-19 World Cup]. A lot of them have played first-class cricket.
"And there are also allegations that they're older than what they are, all sorts of different allegations. We've certainly seen some players that have played five-six years of first-class cricket, playing in the U-19 World Cup and we find that quite strange but apart from that they are more mature cricketers because they [the countries] have more opportunities for younger cricketers. Our six states, although very strong, one of the negative aspects is that not many young players play first-class cricket."
|"The quality of cricket in the first-class system [in Australia], with just six teams, means that it's incredibly competitive and very difficult to provide opportunities for younger players unless they are at the very elite level"|
McFayden was a part of the Australian squad which won the inaugural Youth World Cup at home in 1988. Their only other notable performance was in 2002, when they won again. They failed to go past the group stage in 2004 and did not win the Plate Championship either, and lost in the semi-final to Pakistan in 2006.
"I don't think our teams have become weaker necessarily but I do think that the other nations are spending a lot more time and money on the U-19 program," McFayden said. "Teams like India and Pakistan are touring 4-6 countries in a year. So they are investing differently to what we are in Australia.
So how does Australia go about developing their youth cricket given that their state and national teams are of the finest quality? "We base it very much within our state programs," he says. "The state programs are very well run, well resourced, and they produce good cricketers.
"We see our state program being the great strength of Australian cricket and we rely heavily on developing good structures for everyone - club cricketers, first-class cricketers, U-17 cricketers and U-19 cricketers. So we don't feel that we need to take the cream out and spend six months travelling the world. We see it as a long term view and, as much as we always want to compete hard and to win, the most important thing is to be the No. 1 cricket nation."
McFadyen also involved with the Australian U-19 side during the previous World Cup in Sri Lanka and felt this side wasn't inferior to that one. The major difference was that in 2006 Australia's best players - Moises Henriques, Simon Keen and Aaron Finch - performed whereas the key members of this side - Hughes and Michael Hill - have had ordinary tournaments. Australia were bowled out for 201 and 172 in their group matches against Nepal and Sri Lanka, and made only 129 in the quarter-final against Pakistan, even though they made four changes to field their strongest batting combination.
"We just didn't adapt to the conditions with the ball slowing up and spinning," McFayden said. "Our players talked about it a lot and we did lots of practice but when it came to the games, our guys got out. We played them [the spinners] well in patches but we weren't able to play as a batting group for long enough periods of time to be in good positions. We didn't bat very well at all so that is what we see as the most disappointing aspect of our play."
They had training camps in preparation for this World Cup and also played a couple of matches in Malaysia in October 2007 before touring Pakistan for a one-day series, which they lost 0-5. McFayden felt that given limited exposure to quality spinners in alien conditions, it was too much to expect the players to play spin competently overnight. For him, the U-19 World Cup had a long term role to play in cricketers' development, giving them exposure to different playing styles and conditions.
"The best thing that our guys have got is that they've been really challenged by spin, different kinds of playing styles and by the quality of the opposition. They'll now have an understanding of what elite cricket is about on a world stage. They've also experienced four-five games on wickets that assist good spin bowlers in conditions that they just don't see in Australia. What we do want is for them to become better players over a long period of time and that should be the benefit of this experience."
While the Indian players will hope that their excellent performances fast-track international, and perhaps IPL careers, the Australians will slip back into their system. Fifteen of them visited Malaysia in 2008, not all will go on to play first-class cricket, and even fewer will win a Baggygreen.
Picks for the future
Their performances in this tournament haven't helped the general public gauge which players will form Australia's next generation but McFayden feels there are a few that will make the next grade.
"Steve Smith, the legspinning allrounder, and Philip Hughes are both playing first class cricket," McFayden said. "To have guys at the U-19 level, who are playing first class cricket doesn't happen very often so those two are definitely players to watch. We see Michael Hill as someone with real talent. Josh Hazelwood is a fast bowler with a great future. He's 6'5 now and will probably grow to 6' 7. He also has the next U-19 World Cup ahead of him. We see him as a future Australian player."
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo