The more things change the more they stay the same. The recent retirements of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey have left a large gap in Australia's middle order that the current players are not capable of filling. The fact that these retirements fell only a few years after the loss of opening greats Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, middle order maestro Damien Martyn, spin king Shane Warne, devastating Adam Gilchrist and the deadly Glenn McGrath shows how much the depth of talent in this country has been tested.
The fall in success in test cricket as a result should not have come as a surprise to those with a keen memory, for this has happened before. In 1984 Australia lost D K Lillee (record holder for the most test wickets at the time) Greg Chappell (Australias highest test run scorer at the time) and Rod Marsh and later the same year they would lose the next Captain Kim Hughes. The fact that only a few years earlier Doug Walters ended his test career only helps to draw a closer comparison.
The loss of such a large and consistent part of the team left Australia weak and while more factors would come into play, it would take nearly a decade for Australia to truly recover.
It was a very good thing that Australia still had Allan Border, for it was upon his back that we rebuilt Australian cricket. Looking for players with grit and determination, Australia first had to learn how not to lose, how to force a draw. We had to crawl before we could walk. Several Wicket Keepers were tried. Batsmen came and went. Allan Border remained. In spite of facing the might of the West Indies at their best, New Zealand's Richard Hadlee, Pakistan's Wasim Akram, Imran Kahn and Waqar Younis and a host of other a grade bowlers Border would later finish his career with a batting average greater than 50 and over 11000 test runs to his name. When you look at the averages of other players at the same time it truly was a marvel.
One of the things that Australia tried didn't really work at first. An all rounder who was good in the field but whose batting just never seemed to come together. A Test debutante at age 20, in his first 26 matches he passed 50 ten times but had no hundreds to his name. With a batting average of 30.52 Australia could have easily pulled the pin but they persisted. His 27th Test marked a change from Steve Waugh to STEVE WAUGH! 177 not out against the English in an Ashes tour abroad got Steve Waugh going and in his next 141 tests he would raise his average to over 50.
There were others too that helped forge the team into what it was. The five foot two Tasmanian with the flared trousers, David Boon forged a competent opening partnership with Geoff Marsh until Mark Taylor joined the team. Marsh would be replaced and a few players came and went until Michael Slater would join forces with Mark Taylor. There was Merv Hughes, Terry Alderman returned. Mike Whitney popped in, proving who dares wins, or at least, who dares holds on for a draw. Steve's brother Mark made his way in as Dean Jones became a superstar and then was on the outer.
It took time. But Australia was building a very good team. The West Indies were still tough to beat, as were the South Africans. The last piece of the puzzle was Shane Warne. That's a story I don't have to tell.
We should have been prepared. The history was there for us to see. Great players can't play for ever and so their retirements, ideally, should be tempered with the gradual introduction of players. It is rare for a player to announce himself on the world stage straight away, though it does happen, as we have seen recently. We did not adequately plan for the future, as we had so nicely in the mid nineties.
The strength of Australian cricket came from it's state competition. The six teams representing the states playing four day games at a high quality preparing young players for Test Cricket. With visiting teams playing games against the states as warm up games and with Australian Test players often representing their states international standards infiltrated the first class system. Young players pushed their way in as the older ones moved on. The state sides were mostly “pure”, in that we did not allow our system to be infiltrated with too many foreign players which allowed the maximum number of home bred talent to play first class cricket as possible.
In 1995 Australia fielded an Australian “A” side in the one day format. Amazingly, the A team won enough games to qualify for the finals against the national team.
The Finals team line ups were as follows:
Australia Australia A
- Mark Taylor 1. Matthew Hayden
- Michael Slater 2. Greg Blewett
- Mark Waugh 3. Damien Martyn
- David Boon 4. Michael Bevan
- Steve Waugh 5. Justin Langer
- Stuart Law 6. Ricky Ponting
- Ian Healy 7. Phil Emery
- Craig McDermott 8. Gavin Robertson
- Shane Warne 9. Joe Angel
- Damien Fleming 10. Greg Rowell
- Glenn McGrath 11. Shane George
Four years later, three members (Including Greg Blewett) of the “A” side had made their way into the Test team and by 2002 the top four batsmen in the Test team were all products of the “A” side of 1995.
Test Side 2002
- J Langer
- M Hayden
- R Ponting
- D Martyn
- S Waugh
- D Lehmann
- A Gilchrist
- S Warne
- A Bichel
- J Gillespie
- G McGrath
While I don't want to go through every match played by our A side in in those years I have pulled a team from each era to see how many players would have a significant impact in test cricket in the years to come.
The “A” side of 2002 was captained by Justin Langer who was still in the test team. Most notably, it contained Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Nathan Bracken and Stuart Clark. It also contained Greg Blewett, 7 years after he opened for Australia A in the finals against Australia. Surely his spot was a bit of a waste. It could have gone to an aspiring batsman 7 years his junior. Brad Hogg also played, as Australia searched for a spinner to cover for the eventual retirement of Shane Warne.
All in all the A side of 2002 produced 6 future test cricketers. Only two of the 6 would play for any serious length of time but still the output was a success.
In 2008/9 he A side looks a lot less accomplished. Captained by Simon Katich it produced only two players of Test note. Phil Hughes and Peter Siddle. The fact that Bryce McGain, B Cassan, Marcus North, Adam Vogues, Luke Ronchi and Ashley Noffke filled the out the majority of the rest of the team shows there were tough times ahead. George Bailey was also part of the side, though his rise has been in the limited over sides. Bryce McGain was never going to seriously play much test cricket by this point, and the other spinner Beau Casson isn't currently any where near contention.
Which takes us to 2011. Now, under the 3-4 year idea from 1995 we are only half way from this side entering the national team. So far, M Starc, N Lyon, D Warner are all on tour in England but not playing in the second test. Tim Paine was skipper of the A team and should have been the incumbent test keeper by now if not for a major injury to his finger which allowed Matthew Wade in. Wade has lost his spot as Brad Haddin lucked his way back in but his is only a very short term appointment. The hopes are that Paine will push Haddin out shortly.
The 2011 A Side reads like this:
If we can get M Marsh or N Maddinson playing the sort of cricket that will get them in the test team then this A side will have been a success, otherwise it will have failed in exposing talent with a view to it playing test cricket in the next few years.
From the above, it is no surprise that we are currently struggling to field a competitive batting line up. The shortage of talent has been on the cards since 2008/9 but it is now showing up at Test level as those stars have said goodbye and the up and comers are not good enough to fill their spots.
So what should be done about it? It is a multi layered problem.
The strength of our system has become a bit of a weakness. With Test tours now compressed into much shorter time frames, visiting teams play much fewer first class warm up games which lessens our state teams exposure to world class opponents. Our Test stars also play much less state level cricket due to an increased workload of more tests, One Day fixtures, and the circus that is T20 Cricket. With the greater money available to good, ordinary state players the trend is for those not quite up to Test standard to play for longer. This keeps the younger players in the club cricket system longer and slows down their chance to shine in front of national selectors.
The state teams are independent of the national selectors, so they pick the teams that are going to give them the best chance of winning cricket games now. This can mean older, more experienced players ahead of youthful up and comers which, is what the national selectors would prefer with an eye to the future. Basically, the states are feeder sides for the national side that are not picking teams with a view to feeding the national side. They are picking the best players they have for the now, and who could blame them? They want to win the Shield. In Victorias place, dropping David Hussey last year would have been foolish as he was one of their better batsmen, but he is not going to play Test cricket so perhaps we need to see the future on display.
I believe it is time for the ICC to set up a highly competitive “A” tour. At the moment, the A side does tour, but it never makes the news and no one cares. Few would know the side playing in Africa at the moment were it not for Warners plane trip to join them after the first test in England.
We should celebrate the A side, publicize it, push it and report on it with a view to showing what we have in the wings. There are a lot of cricket fans out there who care deeply about the national side and who know that it is vital to have a good second string. They would be delighted to have a greater coverage of an A side.
The selection of an A side also should have criteria upon it. For example, I would include an age limit of 28 when first selected. Ideally you would like to pick players around 24 or 25 and setting the age limit of 28 gives years of experience before going back to strengthen the state comp. Then a younger player goes into the “A” system. While 28 is a high number, it is appropriate to how players develop.
The A side is a lead in to the national side and selection for the A side should be seen as a very high honour. A true “A” tour would expose our best young talent to the differences in playing conditions around the globe, giving them much valued experience. It would also allow them to play against the best young players that the other countries have to offer. Again this adds a great deal of experience. With a view of integrating players into the test team in two to three years time imagine the benefit of a wealth of experience such a tour would offer when a player with 120 test matches under his belt retires.
If you take the best 12 players out of our state system for Test Cricket, and a further 13 of the best younger players for the “A” side then state cricket will offer a further 25 places for more young players to come in and show their wares. The fact that the older, more experienced players not playing tests will still be playing state cricket to guide the younger ones will create a good balance and a great environment to learn plus keep a high standard of cricket in our first class system. We all win.
Of course, the national selectors could still select any player they wish to play Test Cricket. A nineteen year old spinner with 10 first class games or a 35 year old with spectacles if they are the best choice. It would not matter if they did not play for the “A” side. Re-invigorating the “A” side would do wonders for our national cricket system and I believe that the greater cricket loving public would get behind it. Cricket fans are not as vocal as AFL fans, so we can get forgotten. But we are there and we care. Watching our batting in England has been painful and it is the system that has let us down.
Steps need to be taken. While the above may not be the whole solution, we need to get better and I believe this would be a step in the right direction.