An era of Australian cricket ended today

I’m making the call: an era of Australian cricket ended today.

The era started in 1987, when Australia unexpectedly won the World Cup.

It ends today because the  continuous improvement that started with that win has stopped.

Time to go back to the drawing board.

In 1987 Australian cricket was hungry. A decade of sputtering cricket since the mid-1970s, helped by the World Series circus, meant Australia had not had a cohesive team for a decade. The advent of one-day cricket meant leading players were being asked to play more than ever before. We know now that as late as 1986, Australian players thought drinking Fanta was the best preparation for a day’s play. They figured the sugar was important.

From 1987 onwards, the team started to get more support. Sports scientists and academies became part of the scene.

Our national team soared: we’ve played in all bar one World Cup final since 1987 (and won three we did play in) and swept all before us at test level.

The lineage from Border to Taylor to Waugh to Ponting was always about taking the foundations of the predecessor and building on them. Taylor added tactical sophistication. Waugh played on the edge of the rules as a kind of cricketing thought experiment. Ponting’s job has been to adapt a team, to find a way to dominate without generational genius.

Alas, the great batter (check his numbers, he is a great) has not been able to pull it off.

With a second collapse for under 100 in six months (we were all out for 88 vs. Pakistan) it is clear that the team is in crisis and Australian cricket needs to rebuild?

The signs beyond the performance of the national team? How about these:

  • Sheffield Shield cricket is a shadow of itself: The competition is producing lopsided results with teams bowled out for very little while tailenders rack up centuries.
  • Young players are not achieving: the Shield does not have a cohort of uncapped players pushing the 1000-run or 50-wickets in a season marks. When Australian cricket was on the up, we had the likes of Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn scoring heavily without being able to make the team
  • Players enter the national team with striking flaws. Philip Hughes is vulnerable on leg stump and outside off. Steve Smith is terrible under sustained off-stump pressure and wobbly under short balls. Mitchell Johnson is acutely inconsistent
  • As Peter Robuck points out, young players don’t come up against superior players often. Instead, they play against their peers in tournament play. This produces situations like a retired Glenn McGrath predicting in a festival 20/20 game just how he would get Dave Warner out (straight one, straight one, away cutter) and then doing so. Up and coming players may have great body fat levels, but little nous.

And at the peak of the game, the mens national team, we see a bowling attack without wit or discipline.

Not all is grim. In Hughes and Smith – and others outside the team, no doubt – we have players with raw talent and the spark to succeed.

But they won’t get there, I feel, with the current management and methods.

Ponting must be retained as captain for the World Cup. He won the last two without losing a match.

For the next tour, a new captain must be tried. Off the field, a thorough review is needed. The line and length of Australian cricket is now predictable.

It’s time for a new era.

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Post 22, 2009: It’s not the captain, it’s the system

Damn! Australia lost the Ashes. ūüė¶

There’s been a lot of noise about whether captain Ricky Ponting should take the blame, or if the general inexperience of the team is to blame.

I suspect the problems lie elsewhere.

Australian cricket was fortunate to have an extraordinary generation of players arrive in the 1990s. Importantly, most of the players of this generation demanded inclusion in the national team in their early to mid 20s. Sure, some fell out of the team for a time, but most were worth blooding very early in their cricketing lives.

But a glance at last year’s Sheffield Shield averages shows a different picture: players from their late 20s or even early 30s topping the charts for runs scored and wickets taken. So the young ‘uns don’t even stack up stats that makes it worth blooding them!

I suspect this is the reason our current team is mediocre: there’s not much competition to get into the team!

Whether this is a temporary aberration I don’t know. But I feel like if there were more young players¬† with fifteen years cricket in front of them doing well in domestic cricket, our future prospects would be better. After all, a 28 year old picked for the national side and dumped after a few underwhelming performances has no way back. A 22 year old has time on their side.

It might also help to have a coach with experience of Test cricket.

Post 21: Cricket and the push/pull of the information age

I’m a cricket fan. I adore the longer form of the game.

Part of me understands that a game which spans thirty hours over five days is anachronistic and I see why some say Test cricket is dieing. It’s easy to see the logic that asserts that condensed forms of cricket tailored to the hectic demands of modern life make more sense than a game invented to prevent Victorian men from feeling bored.

Except they don’t, because Twenty/20 cricket still needs a big slab of one’s time to watch. Matches require at least 150 minutes, a long-ish period to devote to a contest that generally lacks the tension that comes with a tactical game in which thrust and counter-thrust are part of the play. Twenty/20, in my experience of the game, has few moods. Things are either going well, or badly. There are few shades of grey.

For me, Test cricket’s ability to provide a finely graded spectrum of states of play is its strength and the reason I appreciate the game. Appreciate, however, may not quite be the word. I’ve long thought of Test cricket as a not-unpleasant anxiety to be endured. Just knowing there is a match in progress makes me ache for information about it. When I can devote my full attention to it, I will do so. At other times, I seek out the less sensorily intensive ¬†ways of covering the game. For me, the sound of an Australian summer is a slight increase in urgency of the sounds emitted by an AM radio, the increased noise being a sign to devote more of my attention to the goings-on in a ¬†game I cannot stop myself being curious about.

I also adore technology and the way it enables communication. Tools like Twitter allow me to immerse myself in my friends and sources of information I value. Myriad other services let me watch or learn or hear what I want to, when I want to.

Today, those tools are applied to cricket following old models. They insist I pull information, rather than anticipating my needs. Test cricket, it seems to me, can thrive if it inverts the pull and instead embraces the fact that while it is hard to immerse oneself in 30 hours of action, it is possible to deliver a variable drip of information that gives those with interest but little capacity for full attention the essential experience of the game by blending short updates, near-relatime video and other ways of presentingthe game.

If cricket can get this right, I believe it will create an experience more compelling than any two-hour hit and giggle.

And I’ll happily pay for this partial-attention experience, ¬†rather than for subscription television. Especially as the latter is giving away summaries for free! But that’s another story.

P.S. I know I owe you all a third way of funding journalism in the future. I’ve also got a fourth. I’m working on them and you can expect a post … eventually.

Post 42:08 I’m clean!

In the last few weeks, I have made some big declarations.

To become a junior soccer team manager, I have had to sign my life away as never, ever, ever having anything to do with child sex offences, offenders, offers or anything. Otherwise I can be carted off to chokey for so much as showing up to training.

To attain a cycling license I have had to declare myself free of performance-enhancing drugs and make it plain that The Authorities can test me for them anytime, anywhere.

Long story short, I am completely, utterly clean on both counts. Always have been. Now it’s official.

Post 29:08 Fired!

I’ve been fired by my only pro bono client, the Newtown Jets.

For the last three years, I have written match previews for ‘The Jet Base Rag,’ a wee magazine the club distributes at home games.

I’ve used it to channel HG and Roy into a torrent of Rugby League cliche. It’s been fun.

But the powers that be in league have decreed that the Jets must buy a certain number of a new publication. That means there’s no point in doing the Jet Base Rag any more, so the Jets no longer require my services.

The Jets were very kind and ran an ad for my business in each issue I wrote for. It never generated a single lead.

Nonetheless, I’m sad. And available for occasional unpaid work for worthy causes, says he with one eye on DHBC.org.au

Post 25:08 Signing my life away

I’ve signed some scary documents lately.

One, which I signed last night, declared that as I am now a Volunteer Under 7 Soccer Team Manager I have not ever been convicted of a child sex offense. If I have lied about this and am found to be a sex offender who comes within a mile of a kids soccer team, I get thrown in jail.

I have also signed, when becoming a member of Cycling NSW, a document that says whoever it is that runs drug tests can come and drug test me any time they want. Now I take a fair bit of pseudo-ephedrine, as I am especially prone to colds for all sorts of dull reasons.

So if I suddenly disappear, you now have a fair idea why!

Post 2:08 My $0.05 on the cricket

I really admire the Australian cricket team: here’s why.

Cricket is a peculiar game in that it largely consists of a contest between individuals. The bowler bowls to the batter and the other 11 players on the field have very little to do with it a lot of the time.

But the Australian team seems to have figured out that as soon as that phase of the match stops, they must work as a team. And they do, quite magnificently, IMHO. Watch them play and you will see more movement, more application and more pressure applied to their opponents than any other team generates. Scarcely a ball passes without aggressive action that shows the opposition they must match Australia for alertness because Australia will always seek every conceivable advantage. And that’s before anyone talks to you.

I don’t have a problem with onfield chatter, sledging or whatever it is you want to call it.

For me, the quest for every possible advantage has come off the rails when it started to include pressure on the umpires, who are hectored by being asked to make more and more decisions when the appeal is dubious. That, to me, is not in the spirit of the game and shows that the fine aggression and application of the Australian cricket team can go too far.

It cannot be too much fun to play such mentally strong, well-drilled opponents. It is also easy to feel that this very modern style cricket somehow goes against the languid spirit the game evolved in earlier years. When it reaches its zenith, it would not be hard to conclude that the team playing in this way is not sporting.

That said, there’s no excuse for racism on the field. And there is no excuse for failing to report racism. Moreover, India have form as bad losers and spoilsports.

So I do not think that Australia is off the rails or damaging cricket. I think the team needs to consider how its hard-edged play creates the potential for offensive behaviour.

I reject out of hand Peter Roebuck’s call for Ponting to be dismissed in order to right the team’s culture. Australia’s playing culture is a wonder to behold. Learning how to make sure that disciplined, controlled, clever play does not sometimes seep out as ugly behaviour is the next step.