Ranting from the sidelines

Look away now if it’s not your thing, for I want to expound at length on the state of Australian cricket.

On the scoreboard, at this moment Australia is level with India 1-1, but on the verge of losing the third test. More broadly, there are substantial issues that go far beyond the disgraces of earlier this year that must be addressed.

It’s an Australian pastime to bang on about Australian cricket selectors and their capricious choices – though I think it’s something common to many sports. Certainly, I have been vocal in these pages many times, and am about to be once more. The difference, this time, is that I’m about to sheet it home to Australian cricket administration.

Firstly this test match. There’s been a bit of comment about abject batting failures in this game, and in the games preceding – there’s only been one Australian centurion since last summer. You take your two best players out of the team, and another very promising, and it’s disappointing but not entirely unexpected.

In this match, there are some mitigating factors. India is well on top but was greatly advantaged by winning the toss and compiling a bunch of runs on a flat first-day wicket. That was the matchwinning score, with the pitch deteriorating thereafter. They made 440 odd, we followed up with a miserable 150 before India declared eight down for just over a hundred. As it stands it’s the fifth morning of the test with Australia 140 runs off victory, and India just two wickets away.

It will take a cricketing miracle to win this match, or divine intervention to save it. There are showers about – thunder has cracked this morning, rain has fallen – but India will need no more than a session to wrap this up, and likely much less.

So, you can make excuses, but the fact is there have been too many poor performances to accept. You look at the batting, which is the real culprit, and there have been repeated failures in application and technique. Some players aren’t up to it, pure and simple, and wouldn’t have got a game if not for the bans – but you have to question some of the decisions made.

Look at Aaron Finch, for example. I’m an admirer of his character, and in the shorter games he’s a brute – but this is test cricket. Watching him open the batting is enough to give you an ulcer. His discomfort and confusion are palpable. He just can’t cope with the moving ball and it’s only a matter of time before he departs. He averages sixteen this series and was out the second innings steering the ball directly to second slip the ball after surviving a DRS review. If he’s to be in the team then it should be down the order, but his shot selection – doubtless the result of a muddled mind – doesn’t aid his case. He might survive to play in Sydney, but really he shouldn’t.

Shot selection is an issue in general, as is technique. Throughout the series, the tailenders have often outshone the top order, this innings no exception. The difference generally is in application and concentration. A player like Head – who I think has a future – is let down repeatedly but poor shot selection and failures in technique.

Shot selection comes down to maturity and concentration. Some players have it, some never do. You want to select players who have it, or can learn it. Technique, by comparison, is something learned.

When I was a kid I was coached a few years by a former Australian test cricketer. The cornerstone of what I learned was the forward and backward defensive shots, from which all else flowed. I was an attacking batsman, but it came from a defensive foundation – the forward defense became a flowing drive, the back foot defence became a back foot drive (my shot), or perhaps a pull through midwicket. You learnt the fundamentals until they became second nature. On the few occasions, I play social cricket these days I find my feet moving automatically as I learnt.

These are test cricketers, they have more talent than anyone else in the country, but sometimes I wonder if my technique is not better than theirs. Head has been dismissed when well set at least half of his innings this series playing extravagant shots with the bat well away from the body. I learned: foot to the pitch of the ball when going forward, and back and across when the ball was short. You knew to play straight, and from a side-on position. Sure, there are some funky techniques these days, but at what cost.

So many batsmen play by the eye these days and you can’t help but believe that’s because of T20 cricket, where the emphasis is on expansive, attacking shots. In bash and crash technique becomes redundant – but in test cricket, with top bowling attacks and attacking fields, when the emphasis should be on building an innings, the absence of technique becomes telling. This is one reason our bowlers bat more surely than our batsmen – because they play within their limitations and know that technique is their friend.

Cricket administration in Australia has been complicit in this deterioration. Shield cricket has been weakened with the advent of officially sanctioned batting strips, an emphasis on youth over performance, and rotten scheduling. There isn’t the fierce competition there once was which crafted tough Australian test players for generations. The emphasis on crowd-pleasing, commercially rewarding hit and giggle fixtures have pushed four-day cricket to the margins while encouraging the spectacular over the proficient.

To highlight this, and against all advice, the ACB extended the wildly successful BBL this season, to the detriment of other forms of cricket – there’s a gap of nearly two months between shield games. There’s a risk of over-saturating the public with this form of the game – I’ll watch occasionally, without really caring – while it further undermines the production of test quality cricketers.

It’s easy to be critical of the selectors, but in truth, there’s a shallow pool to select from these days. Still, they manage to fuck it up. As noted, Finch should never have been selected as an opener, if at all. Young, virtually unknown cricketers get called up to wear the baggy green while others, less favoured by the selectors, are dropped without good cause (i.e. Maxwell).

It seems likely come the Sydney test next week we’ll be down 2-1 in the series, and with serious questions to answer. What do the selectors do? If it was me both Finch and Mitch Marsh would be gone, and maybe Sean too. I’d probably push Khawaja to open and replace Mitch Marsh with Stoinis or Maxwell, though there’s a push for Labuschagne given his leg-spinning in the UAE.

Longer term we need to straighten up. The banned players become available soon, and we need them. Any talk of Smith returning to the captaincy eventually should be quashed – he was never a good leader, and after what he allowed should never be in a position of authority again. Let him bat though, and Warner too (who, strangely, I respect more than Smith – because he is at least true to himself). I think Bancroft will find a spot also.

We have a great captain now in Paine, with a worthy understudy in Cummins – probably the most admired Australian cricketer at the present time. There’s a lot to love about Cummins – talent certainly, but great application and unyielding effort, and cricket smarts rare in this team. If Starc played with as much heart as Cummins then he’d be a great bowler, rather than just teasing us with it.

On the field, these have to be our building blocks – Paine, Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc, Lyon, the banned players, and Khawaja. The other spots will sort themselves out.

Off the field, the challenge is greater. We need to fix the game here in Oz. There needs to be better coaching at every level, with an emphasis on technique. And we need to re-prioritise good, tough domestic cricket with players selected and rewarded on merit. Fundamentally a big part of that means shifting or amending the BBL, and I can’t see that happening.

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