Almanac Cricket: Disarray by design

Glamorous, jaw dropping, captivating, brilliant. No, it is not Erin McNaught strutting down a catwalk. It is T20 cricket – and it is about to rock Australia like never before.
BBL ‘20 Days to go’ promo

 

The primary objective of the Review is to make recommendations to the CA Board that will
position the Australian Cricket Team to return to leadership in all three formats of
international cricket: Tests, ODIs and Twenty20.
Argus Review Purpose and Scope

 

Wendell: It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell: If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.
No Country For Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

 

We have, of course, been here before. Only as recently as 2011.

 

That 2010-2011 home summer saw Australia suffer three innings defeats to England. Australia had a cricket problem: a team of all-time greats had retired. We were struggling to fill their boots. As a response, Cricket Australia undertook a sweeping Australian Team Performance Review, that became better known as the Argus Report. This report recommended largely managerial/procedural solutions to that cricket problem. New levels of bureaucracy were introduced to cricket’s traditional structure. Rather than rely on the club-state-country pyramid that had produced that golden era in the first place, we were now going to manage our way back to test cricket excellence.

 

Feels like that’s gone well, doesn’t it?

 

The merits of individual Argus recommendations can be argued to this day (many have already been scrapped, more will follow), but the report’s biggest problem was that Cricket Australia was in the process of undermining it even as it was written. Argus was focussing on international cricket, but CA was simultaneously betting the farm on the establishment of our own IPL-lite. They invested heavily in the revamped Big Bash League, and could not afford it’s failure.

 

It is not the intention of this article to argue the merits or otherwise of T20 cricket. Nor is it to deny the considerable financial achievement of the BBL, as it currently stands. A largely domestic competition is now commanding a sizeable free-to-air evening TV market, and drawing new income streams to cricket. By any fair measure, this represents a major triumph of marketing over substance. Within its own narrowly defined terms, the BBL is a success. But the wider cost of that success is becoming impossible to ignore.

 

Amongst the widespread gnashing of teeth following Australia’s abject capitulation in Hobart, m’colleague E Regnans contributed a thoughtful series of observations. Not the least pertinent inquiry he raises is that fundamental question – whose team is this anyway? The Australian cricket team has long held a special status in Australian culture. It is our team. For better or worse, it is an expression of our national character. It is not Cricket Australia’s team. It is not some high performance coach’s team. It is not Pat Howard’s team. As we have observed the piecemeal patching of the test side over the last five years; as we have seen impossible schedules, and obtuse management philosophies, dictate that Australian caps be dispensed like lollies at a kid’s party; as we have seen the concerted denigration of Shield cricket (once the world’s premier domestic competition), it is hard to conclude that CA hasn’t forgotten this most fundamental point.

 

At no stage in the last five years has CA even looked like addressing the obvious contradictions of its own making. Shield cricket has been shunted to the extremities of the season, losing all continuity with, and relevance to, selection. Its points system has been tinkered with to dubious effect. State 2nd elevens have been turned into glorified youth teams. Every half-arsed management theory has found indulgence. Pathways have been created that now more resemble toll roads. We may not be able to produce batsmen anymore, but we’re not short of rent seekers.

 

You would need unshakeable faith in the powers of levitation to believe the test team could float above this shambles. It hasn’t. Selectors couldn’t decide between Dads Army or a genuine rebuild. A generation of young fast bowling talent has broken down under the untested demands of format hopping. Dennis Lillee could rehabilitate himself in 18 months using 1970s technology, yet Pat Cummins can barely take the field a full five years after his only test match. We have never seen more coaching for less effect.

 

Even worse, the dressing room culture has scaled new heights of toxicity. Writers like Daniel Brettig have amply documented the neurotic culture endemic to the highly pressured, richly rewarded, increasingly micro-managed, modern Australian team. This culture seems prone to factionalism that makes the ALP look half-hearted. All is fine when we win, but watch out when we lose. Mickey Arthur appeared a cheerful enough soul, yet he was quickly engulfed by the homework debacle, itself a product of a losing Indian tour. A lost Ashes series saw Michael Clarke retire amid the sort of public drubbing that would have made Kim Hughes feel like he got off lightly from the Chappells. As things currently stand, Darren Lehmann must be wondering when his number will be up.

 

We now know that the numbers have come up for nigh on half the Hobart team, and the man who oversaw its choosing, Rod Marsh. If anything, the hasty response to Hobart has only exemplified the confusion now endemic. Trevor Hohns appears to be the predictable return-to-golden-age selector pick. But Greg Chappell stands accused by many of being one of the chief mad scientists, guilty for the Shield’s near-death. Together, they would hardly seem to represent a united philosophy.

 

This division is reflected in the new chums chosen. Handscomb and Renshaw represent the promised reward for performance (though Alex Doolan must be wondering what he had to do). Maddinson would appear to spring from the Chappell school of Chosen Ones. Sayers is the horses for courses pick. Wade appears to be a return to that hoary old theory that Australian teams can’t succeed without a set quota of mongrel (sorry, we call it ‘toughness’ in public). He may provide on-field yap, but one wonders what his up-to-the-stumps keeping will do for Nathan Lyon’s current travails.

 

As a new start, this looks more like a patch job. Which isn’t to say they can’t succeed, at least in the short term. None of these players are without talent. And the abject Aussie change room was crying out for a cleansing gust of new air. If stung pride can’t draw an Australian response in Adelaide, we really are in trouble.

 

You usually don’t leave the chief arsonists in charge of putting out the fire. In that sense, the most important heads are yet to roll. Pat Howard’s appointment has always perplexed, not because he lacked a cricket background, but because his role seemed superfluous, beyond providing the ‘single point of accountability’ mysteriously recommended by Argus. At the very least, he should be accountable for coaching appointments. If so, he has questions to answer. Why was Lehmann given four more years on the back of a soft home summer against New Zealand and the Windies? Is Graham Hick really the best option as batting coach? Or Greg Blewett the best fielding coach? And what do we think of our high performance fitness management? Would it be too much to ask that the ‘single point of accountability’ finally be accountable?

 

Not that he should be the single point. James Sutherland has sat astride this burgeoning farrago for the last 15 years. He took the reins in the age of Warne, McGrath and co, when the only real challenge was to prepare for life without them. The mere existence of Argus suggests we weren’t that well prepared. Yes, he can claim success on the commercial front, but the game is now saddled with a much bigger bureaucracy than before. Cricket has developed many expensive habits. That extra money may not stretch as far as hoped.

 

Next to India, Australian cricket remains the best resourced cricket country. Mr Sutherland deserves credit for that. But it’s hard to make a case that we have used those resources as wisely as we could have in the last 5 years, let alone the last 15. We should thank Mr Sutherland for what has worked, and look to a fresh set of eyes to repair what hasn’t.

 

We should also remember that things are rarely ever as good as they might seem, nor as bad. This applies especially in cricket, where the next partnership, or the next bowling spell, can always turn a game. There is no dominant test nation at present. We aren’t that far off the pack, if we can pull ourselves together. But we need to stop kidding ourselves over short term bounces and easy kills. Our cricket’s foundations aren’t what they once were. They need fixing. The summer needs to regain a sense of balance, and a sense of meaning, every bit as much as the team.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. An important piece JB. Your observation of the last decade is instructive. And you were on the money ealry – a few at the Almanac were. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  2. As good a summary as I have read on the travails of Australian cricket. Well written JB

  3. John Butler says:

    Cheers JTH. I was hardly Robinson Crusoe in seeing where this was all leading. Which makes you wonder what goes on at Cricket Australia.

    Thanks Pal. Very kind of you.

  4. JB

    Well written

    Am I right in saying that the sole Shield round pre the first test in Perth was a day/night one and the shield game pre the coming day/night test (which unexpectedly turned into a mass audition) was a day one?

    That’s the sort of logic that drives you mad

    Sean

  5. JB – Robinson Crusoe wasn’t even Robinson Crusoe!

    Terrific piece, especially the last line. Its needs its meaning back.

  6. Eloquently dissected, JB.

    A trend in professionalisation of once amateur pursuits is the employment of layers of management. We see it everywhere. Coaches, line coaches, discipline coaches, directors, operations managers, etcetera etcetera.
    It can (and does) blur the responsibility boundaries.
    And we could well ask “what value does it all provide?” and “Is it all worth it?”

    I’ve not hit upon the person who advocates for the Australian Test side, when fixtures, schedules, Argus recommendations, coaching appointments, selection, are discussed.
    Whose side this is still needs some deep thinking, before we are turned loose.

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Insightful stuff JB. You did indeed see the danger signs half a decade ago. Meaning is such a key because you can’t coach it , invent it or market it. It comes from junior cricket where the foundations are laid.

    In our childhood was there a higher cricket honour than wearing the baggy green test cap for Australia? We didn’t have coaches or parents telling us “play one dayers, you’ll get rich”. Such sentiments were laughable if not borderline offensive. Not so since the IPL, over a decade old now. Test Career vs Cricket Career? Players just don’t need to care enough about the former to sustain any profound meaning.
    Thought provoking stuff mate. Cheers

  8. Citrus Bob says:

    Agree with JTH John. A wonderful piece that could spurn another Almanac of its own. There has been some wonderful stuff written in the last few weeks.
    One wonders what might happen if the Happy Pakkis do like wise to the Pat Howards’ (that is if he hasn’t resigned after Adelaide).
    Faf is now on a Minties contract that will see him lick Australia again in the City of Churhes. Have mercy on us who will be there.
    Citrus

  9. charlie brown says:

    Thank you John. I really enjoyed the read. As you and others have observed, our problems are a mixture of structural (the Sheffield Shield program and the lack of opportunities for test players to represent their state and raise the standard of that competition being a major example), coaching (in spite of a myriad of state and Australian under age “elite” squads and “talent pathways” we have produced very few “elite” players. This hardly qualifies as “high performance” coaching) and people (the Australian team and its individuals are so damned difficult to like. Kids can no longer identify with any of them as their heroes. Where is the next DK Lillee, IM Chappell.?)

  10. Your magnum opus JB. Eloquent on many fronts.
    If there are 3 essential building blocks to an Australian cricket season – meaningful Sheffield Shield (the foundation); meaningful Test Cricket (the holy grail); and BBL (the cash cow – for players and administration; the crowds and the excitement/motivation for young people to take up the game) – I fundamentally don’t see how you fit them into the narrowing gap left by the encroaching football codes.
    I wonder if only those of us over 40 really care so much about the demise of Test Cricket. I can’t think of another sport that has cannibalised itself so effectively as cricket. Rugby 7’s pales by comparison.
    I keep thinking Test Cricket has outlived its time and role in society. We only support it with sentiment; and can’t afford the time and dollars that it demands. We get our sporting fixes in shortened dramas that demand shoehorned resolutions in 3 hours over the enlightening contemplation of the 5 day game.
    Anyway, I hope there is a big spring cleanout of the schedule as much as the personnel at Cricket Australia.
    As you say the Argus Report represents an unrealistic “have your cake and eat it too” cornucopia. A lot of things have to be chucked out to make way for the things we HONESTLY (ie time and money not sentiment) want to maintain in Australian Cricket.
    Without that the centre cannot hold.

  11. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the feedback gents. It’s always encouraging to know someone reads this stuff. :)

    Sean, you are correct re the scheduling. Since the BBL became they’re focus, I think the rest of the fixturing is done by throwing darts at a board. Any cricket logic is purely incidental

    Dips, the summer now looks like an assortment of obligatorily assembled bits. No context. No narrative.

    E Reg, Argus talked a lot about accountability. We haven’t actually seen much of it. Except Mickey Arthur. Easy to sack a foreigner.

    Phil, I get the impression many players still care more for the game than those administering it. But that’s in spite of the environment surrounding them.

    Bob, I reckon we might put up a fight in Adelaide. Smith has looked lost at times recently. But he’s a determined young man. And I’d say he’s pretty cranky right now. A lot will depend on who is batting in those night sessions.

    Charlie, I think we are in furious agreement. But the thing that really makes me furious is how so much of this has been self inflicted.

    PB, I think there’s plenty of scope to rearrange the summer. So much of what currently happens after mid January feels like an anti climax anyway. I’d be careful calling time on test cricket. Anything that lasts 140 years has been written off several times before now. I wonder why cricket doesn’t make test cricket’s point of difference more of a selling point. In an age where a lot of sports ‘product’ feels increasingly homogenised, I would have thought a point of genuine difference was an asset, if looked at with a bit of imagination.

  12. DBalassone says:

    Well expressed JB as per usual, but I reckon it’s important not to overlook the fact that this team had some astounding success in 2013/14 beating England 5-0 (after being thumped in the previous 2 Ashes series) followed by an incredible performance defeating a vastly superior SAF in SAF soon after. Throw in the brilliant World Cup victory in 2015, and I think it’s fair to say that some of the planning, coaching, restructuring back in 2011 certainly bore fruit.
    Over the past 12-15 months we have lost Clarke, Rogers, Haddin, Johnson, Harris and I dare I say it Watson (who when on the park was very useful). That’s more than half the test side, so maybe what’s happening now, as hard as it is to take, is not that unusual.
    Your comments ‘There is no dominant test nation at present. We aren’t that far off the pack’ rings true with me. Pakistan were rated no.1 recently.

  13. John Butler says:

    Agreed Damien, there have been some high points for sure. But they were largely due to Mitch Johnson’s late career purple patch. And some good performances from resurrected veterans like Haddin and Rogers. That was never going to be a long term solution.

    But Argus was sold as a long term restructure. A lot of the changes have already been reversed. And here we sit, 5 years down the track, and the cupboard looks considerably barer than when we started.

    The Lehmann era started with much promise, but that hasn’t been maintained. My fear is that we’ll continue to convince ourselves short term blips constitute something more than they do, while all the time Shield and club cricket erodes.

    We need a better balance between the needs of commerce and the needs of the game.

Leave a Comment

*