The biggest issue with our current program of games is that young batsmen are finding it extremely difficult to develop the solid batting foundations that can survive the close examination that Test match cricket provides.
If we continue at this rate, the danger is that we will find it increasingly hard to remain competitive in the longest format.
When there was only one format, emerging players had access to a full season of eight Sheffield Shield games (before the introduction of Tasmania), interspersed with two-day club cricket, in which to hone their technical and mental skills.
When one ran into form in this environment, it wasn’t unusual for a young batsman to make three or four centuries in a short period of time. This purple patch established the skills and the confidence on which to build their foundation for future success.
The arrival of the 50-over format changed the programming in Australian cricket from the late 1970s, but its introduction proved to be positive. Batsmen learned to be more assertive at the crease without necessarily increasing the risk of getting out. In its own way, it freed batsmen to be able to express themselves more expansively – Glenn Turner and Geoff Boycott were prime examples.
The big change occurred when T20 cricket was introduced into the equation. The first Big Bash League game was played at the WACA between the Western Warriors and the Victorian Bushrangers on the 12th of January 2005. The sell-out crowd of 20,000 had no idea of the deleterious impact that occasion would have on the production of batsmen in this country over the next 16 years.
Those who have grown up in this era have had to contend with three formats squeezed into the same time-frame that once housed only four-day matches and a handful of club games.
The double-whammy is that first-class cricketers are now playing very little club cricket, which has had a dire effect on that level as the competition is denuded of its best players for most of the season. This means that the next generation is missing out on important challenges at that tier. Without these challenges, the best youngsters are reaching state level lacking the necessary grounding to succeed.
The BBL has been a remarkable success. It has proven popular with players and fans and has expanded the domestic media rights as intended.
The downside is that it takes up eight weeks right in the middle of the season, which means that Sheffield Shield cricket goes into hibernation from early December to early February. In addition, club cricket loses another layer of talented players.
In that eight-week period, emerging players on the BBL lists are improving their hitting skills, but hardly enhancing their batting education. Defensive techniques in particular are often flawed. Building an innings or batting on sporting wickets for 100 overs has almost become an alien concept.
What I have seen regularly in the last 15 years is that emerging players begin the Sheffield Shield season well and, just as they are getting into their stride, the mid-season BBL break occurs. After the white-ball hiatus, many of them come back for the second half of the Shield season, but struggle to pick up where they left off, and the season finishes up as a lost opportunity.
If these players had been able to string together 10 games in a row, I am certain that some of them would have become successful Test batsmen.
The solution is not to keep doing the same thing expecting a different outcome. We need to do something radical.
The BBL is here to stay. For it to succeed, it must be played during the school holidays. This means that if we want the Shield season to be played in one block, we have to find another window.
Shaun Graf, High Performance Manager at Cricket Victoria, proposed a solution some years ago whereby the Sheffield Shield would be played in a calendar year, rather than in a season. This would mean playing the first half of the competition after the Big Bash, in February, and the second half prior to the start of the next season, in October.
The downside is that that would still mean halting the competition halfway. It would not be interrupted by the BBL, but it would still meant a break in momentum for the players mid-season.
My preference is to start the Sheffield Shield in September and run it through until November. Television is not a factor and crowds are not big enough for that to be a consideration. It is a crucial investment in Australia’s future as a strong Test nation.
The challenge is that having six teams in a hub for eight weeks, as opposed to a home-and-away fixture, is an expensive exercise, but I think that governments in the Northern Territory and Queensland would be open to negotiations to find ways to make it viable. If one doesn’t ask, one doesn’t get! Hubs may be currently de rigueur but, going forward, one would hope for more normal times.
The other innovation that I would like to see is an extra team brought into the competition. This would ensure that more emerging talent would get opportunities. That team could either be an ACT/Country team or better still, an Australian U23 team.
The advantage of an Australian U23 team playing in the competition is that emerging players would get an opportunity to play with other talented players, and shoulder more responsibility in key roles. They would also be able to assume leadership roles sooner than they otherwise would, with their state teams.
The coach of that team would get the opportunity to make a compelling case to be the next Australian coach. It would also be a chance for assistant coaches from the national team to pass on some of the lessons from their international experiences while advancing their professional development.
Further, an Australia ‘A’ team could play games against other ‘A’ teams such as New Zealand, the England Lions or similar after the Big Bash is completed. This will enable advancement of their red ball development.
I envisage the progression to be Premier cricket, Australia U19, Shield cricket, Australia U23 and Australia A, leading to Test honours for all our aspirational cricketers. This is the pathway that we should adopt to prepare battle-hardened players.
If we don’t focus on and invest in our next generation of elite players, we will continue to slide backwards as other countries take up the mantle as leaders in player development that we relinquished a couple of years ago. Ironically these countries have studied our ideas, finessed them to their advantage and have invested successfully in their own ‘A’ team programs.
We simply cannot afford to stand still whilst others improve in leaps and bounds.
All stakeholders need to be concerned about this situation. Every job in cricket in Australia depends on the health and success of the men’s Test team. If we begin to lose regularly against India and England, jobs will be lost and the states will not have the funds to develop the game inside their borders, which will lead to a death spiral as the value of media rights decline.
CA, the states and the Players Association (ACA) all have a vested interest in the success of Australian cricket. The relationship between the two peak bodies, CA and the ACA, has often been fraught with suspicion on both sides. With the appointment of Todd Greenberg as CEO of the ACA, everyone has the chance to reset relationships in the interests of the game.
Greenberg, along with Shane Watson as President of the ACA, needs to become part of the solution. They have the chance to leave a lasting legacy to the game. Watson and his playing cohort inherited a wonderful endowment from the players who had gone before them. Now is the chance for Watson to take the lead and work in concert with CA, to ensure a bright future for men’s and women’s cricket in Australia.
If this opportunity to redesign Australian cricket goes abegging, when will the next opportunity present itself? This will need everyone involved to view the problems differently than before, or we risk getting dismal results.
As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.