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.