Like English cricket in 1882, Australian cricket deserves its own obituary. Since this is 2019, we can also do a proper autopsy and explore the cause of death.
In 1882, Australia’s first Test win in England led to the famous obituary in an English paper announcing the death of English cricket, and the ‘Ashes’ rivalry between England and Australia was born. In 2019, Australian cricket deserves its own obituary after suffering its first series defeat at home against a subcontinent team, but since this is the 21st century and we have a lot more data at our disposal, we can also do a proper autopsy and explore the cause of death.
How did the mighty Australians fall? Despite a win at Perth, the Australians were playing catch-up for almost an entire series. At Sydney, they were made to follow-on for the first time in 31 years. The highest individual score for them in the series — Marcus Harris’ 79 — is the lowest top score for Australia in a series of two or more Tests in the last 100 years. To say that Australia is going through a low ebb is an understatement, the current state of Australian cricket is omnishambles.
Yes, the Indians were well-prepared and in peak form, and many rated them as favourites before the series started, especially in the absence of Australia’s best batsmen, David Warner and Steve Smith. But history was on Australia’s side, and isn’t every team a home bully these days?
Believing in its own hype
The decline of Australian cricket is a classic case of believing in your own hype. After dominating the sport through most of the 1990s and 2000s, Australians had started thinking they are blessed from above and their only rightful place in the cricketing world is at the very top. They also felt a moral obligation to teach the rest of the world the right way to play the game, something they referred to as “the Australian way”.
In his book Crossing the Line, noted Australian writer Gideon Haigh attributes the ebbing of Australian cricket’s values and results to the self-congratulatory boardroom culture that replaced the more decentralised and democratic structure of its earlier days. (Note or warning to BCCI: Sounds similar to what we are doing to Indian cricket by letting the CoA run the show).
When stalwarts like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist had retired from the game in quick succession, Australia’s ranking in world cricket took an inevitable fall. In 2011, the team also failed to defend the World Cup after a hat-trick of wins in its previous editions.
The rise and fall of national teams is usually an organic process and shouldn’t be a reason for panic as long as the game itself is in a healthy state at the grassroots. But in true corporate fashion, the Australian establishment sprung into action at the first sign of defeat and commissioned a review of the Australian cricketing ecosystem to find out the necessary measures to regain the status of top dog in international cricket. More corporate jargon ensued when Cricket Australia announced that it was keen to get the “outside view” and appointed Don Argus, a reputed businessman, to head what came to be known as the Argus review.
The first-class experiments
The first-class system became one of the primary victims of this corporate governance era. Australian cricket was well served by an academy that it developed through the 1980s, through which came graduates like McGrath, Warne and Ricky Ponting. With its success, the Australian administrators were starting to believe that real talent comes from the academies, and first-class cricket was redundant in feeding the national side.
Based on Argus’ recommendation, Pat Howard, hitherto a rugby coach, was appointed as the High Performance Manager for Australian cricket, and made several changes to the domestic structure. A self-fashioned Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, Howard was obsessed with numbers and micromanaging players’ workload.
In the 2014-15 season, Howard changed the Sheffield Shield point system to reward teams that play a more aggressive brand of cricket. Teams were allowed to make substitutions to give certain hand-picked players more game time. Players like Cameron White, who were scoring consistent runs in Shield cricket, were assumed to be past their prime, and young academy graduates like Nic Maddinson, with poorer first-class returns, were given a run at the international level.
Howard wasn’t alone in this attempt to overhaul the first-class system in Australia. Greg Chappell, who was made the National Talent Manager after his disastrous stint as coach of the Indian team, came into the system with obsessions like “getting them young” and “picking the fruit when it’s ripe”. On Chappell’s recommendation, the second XI competition was renamed the Futures League, and teams were restricted to pick only three players over 23.
There was no place for late bloomers like Adam Gilchrist or Michael Hussey in this new regime. If you were past 30, there was no way back into the Australian team. Someone like Chris Rogers, who honed his skills in county cricket and came back into the team in his 30s for a prosperous second wind, wasn’t noteworthy. The template that Australian selectors were looking for was a Smith or Warner, both exceptional batsmen who made it big at the international level with little or no first-class experience.
Lessons from ‘outside’
The Fox Sports commentary team may not be fond of India’s first-class system, but despite its many follies, it still acts as the primary feeder not just to the national team, but also the IPL. Rishabh Pant and Mayank Agarwal, two stars of the series win in Australia, bloomed at the age group level, but were included in the national team only after proving themselves in first-class cricket. Shubman Gill is already considered a batting superstar, but is doing the hard yards in the Ranji Trophy at the moment, and scoring big runs to make a case for national selection. While youngsters are getting chances, all is not lost if you are on the wrong side of 30. Players like Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel and Kedar Jadhav can still make it to the national team if they prove themselves worthy.
The Ranji Trophy retains its position as the longest fixture on India’s domestic calendar, and is still held in high esteem by the players, if not so much by the fans anymore. The same can be said about English county cricket, but in Australia, the Sheffield Shield doesn’t hold the same clout anymore.
The much-needed winds of change may finally be blowing over the Australian regime after the debacle of sandpaper-gate. The scandal that took in its tide not just the current captain, vice-captain and coach, but also Cricket Australia’s CEO since 2001, James Sutherland, and Howard.
A board is often predisposed to defend the decisions it took, but it’s time for Australia to swallow its pride. The core principle behind looking to assess and improve the state of cricket is praiseworthy, but instead of looking at businessmen and rugby coaches, perhaps Cricket Australia should invite cricketers, coaches and administrators from other countries to help it out.
Australia can also look back at the situation the Indian cricket team found itself in 2000. Shaken by the match-fixing scandal and shamed by South Africa defeating them in a home Test series, BCCI gave the reins of the team to Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright, with the aim of not just changing the results, but also the team culture. The duo laid the foundation for a successful two decades for the Indian team.
Cricket Australia needs to find a John Wright outside of its shores to provide a proper outside view and recommend changes. Last I checked, Anil Kumble isn’t coaching any team.
Unlikely? Yes. But we are all allowed to dream!
Rajesh Tiwary tweets @cricBC and is known for his blend of cricket insights and irreverent humour. A self-confessed cricket geek, he prides himself on remembering every frame of grainy television cricket coverage of the 1990s.
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