Sunday, January 9, 2011

What is wrong with Australian Cricket?

It is clear now, hopefully to the hierarchy at Cricket Australia and not just the fans, that Australian cricket is not simply struggling, but in fact is in serious trouble. There are a number of 'Ashes' autopsies going on at the moment, however, that approach fails to correctly identify that this problem has been a number of years in the making and not a phenomenon of just the past three months. Similarly, the blame being aimed at the players does not delve deeply enough into the quagmire that is now besmirching Australian cricket in general. All aspects of the game need to be considered if the national side is to firstly arrest their current slide towards the bottom of the Test playing nations, and to start moving back towards being competitive with the top sides.

Cricket Australia
The problems in Australian cricket start right at the top. Cricket Australia needs to take a serious step back and re-consider their approach to the prioritisation, scheduling and marketing of the game both nationally and internationally. While England was preparing for the Ashes battle, the Australian team was still in India. In the scheme of things, it turned out that the players from the home team were actually less ready for the series than the tourists. While credit for England's planning should by acknowledged, it doesn't change the fact that Australian players should have been home and playing Shield cricket well before they actually did. However, that wasn't the main scheduling issue. Instead, the Australian cricketing public were treated to an isolated and completely useless series of one day internationals against Sri Lanka in November. Spectators responded to this series by largely ignoring it. However, the Australian players were distracted from their Ashes preparation by having to play a sequence of games that no-one cared about at the time, and almost no-one even remembers only a few months later. Why Cricket Australia thought this series was more vital than the Ashes preparation remains unknown to everyone. During the same period, England were preparing diligently for the longer form of the game. The term, JAMODI (Just Another Meaningless One Day International), is gaining traction around the world, as more and more of these pointless and futile matches are scheduled. Cricket Australia, and the ICC for that matter, need to urgently re-consider both when and how many JAMODIs take place.

It is also worth considering the injury that Doug Bollinger experienced during the Indian tour. He went into the Test series against India under-prepared, as Cricket Australia had insisted that both he and Mike Hussey play T20 cricket for a club team. While there are escape clauses in their contracts that mandate for release for national duty, it was his own country that insisted Bollinger not join the national team until his club duties were completed. Bollinger was selected in the ICC's World XI last year, but the injury he picked up in India due to his lack of preparation effectively removed Australia's most dangerous bowler for the summer. While it is impossible to know for certain, it is not too big a jump to assume that Brett Lee or David Warner would have been told to get back for national duty if required while they were playing for provincial sides in New Zealand, but the same standards were not applied with respect to the Indian series.

The big money in cricket is in India; that fact is inescapable. This is also unlikely to change at any time soon, as India has a population more than double all other Test playing nations combined. It is also perceived that the big money has traditionally come from the 50 over game. However, it doesn't mean that Cricket Australia should bankrupt its future for some cheap dollars now. 50 over cricket has lost much of its appeal with the introduction of the T20 format, but the plethora of ODIs doesn't appear to be lessening. Australia and its cricketers have been seen as a valuable commodity in India, however, that is only while they are considered the best. Now that South Africa, Sri Lanka and England have overtaken them, it will be interesting to see if Australia remain attractive to Indian cricket authorities and the wider Indian fan base. The Indian dollars will quickly disappear if Australian cricketers are no longer seen as being desirable. The marketing of the national side needs careful analysis. The debacle we saw prior to the Ashes, in which the selectors named a larger squad of potential players for the First Test than what the entire touring England team had in the country, was a nightmare born of marketing idiocy. Too many more examples of this type of mistake and the lustre of our national side will be tarnished for many years to come.

The Australian selection panel needs to be seriously re-shaped. Any good management team needs to have a balance of perspectives and experience. The current panel are all former top-order batsmen who played in the 1980s. There are no fast bowlers, no swing bowlers, no spinners, no wicket-keepers. While you naturally don't need one from every category, the current group is seriously unbalanced. It has been evident that our batting has been a serious issue for a couple of years now, with a collapse on the cards almost every game. However, the changes to the batting order have been minimal whilst the bowlers are dropped almost on a whim. It would appear, perhaps sub-consciously, that the current panel appear far more sympathetic to the plight of a batsman short of runs than a bowler short of wickets. If there were some former bowlers on the panel, some of these biases may be less likely to occur.

The selection panel's decision making over the past few years has been one of the major factors in the situation facing Australian cricket now. Their inability to make the hard decisions, and their unwillingness to accept their own mistakes, has been disastrous. Many people in the media have commented on the panel's poor timing in their choices, dropping players when in form and then re-instating them when out of form. Poor Phil Hughes is just one example of both ends of this spectrum. The sheer number of spinners they have tried since the retirement of Shane Warne appears indicative of their inability to actually know what makes a good Test bowler. They finally fluked a spinner in Nathan Hauritz who could perform at a reasonable level, and yet they jettison him for a ODI specialist journeyman with a first class bowling average well the wrong side of 40. While Doherty's performances in the first two Tests were, in light of his previous career, not surprising, his failures were then compounded by the selectors who picked Beer instead of admitting they made a mistake in discarding Hauritz. They told Hauritz to go back to Shield cricket and perform. He did this with distinction, recording both his best ever bowling and batting figures, but that still wasn't enough for the selectors.

This selection of an unwanted Victorian finger spinner is perhaps the worst of all their recent ones. Beer had nothing for Western Australia to indicate he would succeed, and was not in anyone's thinking going into Adelaide. However, Shane Warne talked up Beer out of left field, and stunningly, Beer was then named in the Test squad. This was the point at which Andrew Hilditch should have been sacked. There are only two possible scenarios that can have occurred. Either the selection panel blindly picked a player they personally seemed to know nothing about, as evidenced by their own statements after the event, purely on the basis of what Warne had written in a newspaper article. The second option is that the selection panel talked to Warne and asked him to do a big write-up for this player to try and justify why they were going to chose Beer from nowhere. In either case, the sheer desperation underpinning either situation shows that the selection panel have totally lost their direction and must be subject to an immediate shakeup.

The recent development of Haddin's sacking is another sign of desperation, rather than forward planning. The selection panel appear so concerned about the leadership of the current team that they are willing to ditch one of the only decent performers in the past twelve months, in the hope that his replacement will cover the holes in other areas. Hilditch has publicly commented that they want to smooth the transition over between Haddin and Paine, which is a pretty big hint that Haddin is about to be completely gotten rid of. Haddin is only 33. In the normal scheme of things, and taking into account the recent history of Marsh, Healy and Gilchrist, he has around another 3 years of good performances. Why is he being axed now? Who is to say that Paine would be the first choice replacement in three years time anyway, as we have seen other options such as Ronchi and Manou used within the last 3 year period. This change is reminiscent of the inclusion of an allrounder in place of a top order batsmen, in order to fix a problem with the bowling. Rather than fixing the actual issue at hand, they try to put in stop gap measures and then wonder why it doesn't work in the long term.

Hilditch's recent comments that the selectors have done a very good job further underline just how far from reality he is now operating. The conclusion that Hilditch has to go is inescapable; the sooner the better.

Coaching, Planning and Leadership

It is interesting that the coaching staff seem to have escaped most of the criticism aimed at the players. One of the best ways you can determine how a team is being coached is through their performance of the '1 percenters', a concept pushed by a previous Australian coach. In this regard, it is clear that Australia is underperforming, and the coaching staff need to bear a significant proportion of the responsibility. You can tell how a team is going by their ability to do the little things well, such as fielding, bowling no-balls, running between the wickets and so on. In the last series, Australia bowled twice as many no-balls as England, and were run-out four times while affecting no run-outs of their own. Australia were clearly outfielded by England, a concept that is particularly hard to accept in light of the past twenty years of fielding excellence. Neilsen is supposed to be the head coach, and therefore should take responsibility for these failings.

Technically, the coaching staff are failing. The Mitchell Johnson situation is a prime example of this problem. He has technical issues with his action that are obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of cricket. Surely the remediation of problems such as this are the main reason for having a coaching staff. His issues have been evident, not just recently, but for a number of years. Why have the coaching staff not fixed them? Early in the series, Damien Fleming was interviewed on the ABC radio and asked why Johnson couldn't resolve the basic flaws in his action and release position. There was a long pause, before Fleming just said "I don't know". Getting Johnson to bowl with his wrist into the correct position behind the ball isn't rocket science, but it took him being dropped after Adelaide until we saw an improvement. Then, magically, he started swinging the ball again. Why did this transformation take years to affect? There are three possible reasons for this. Firstly, the coaching staff simply don't know what they are doing, which is unlikely. Secondly, Johnson is not willing to do the work necessary to improve and the coaching staff lack the authority to discipline him. Or finally, the players simply do not respect the coaching staff enough to listen when they are being advised of their problems. In any case, the current coaching setup is not working and Neilsen needs to take the rap for this.

It is hard to identify exactly what Neilsen brings to the table as a coach. It certainly can't be planning. Australia have been comprehensively out-thought by their opposition in recent years. This is exemplified by the confusion demonstrated by Ricky Ponting in setting fields. Why does he need to talk to his bowlers for five minutes at the start of first over of the day? What are they doing off the field? Surely the team would have the basic plan of attack for each batsmen in place, and only need to have further discussions if things are going wrong? Australia does not seem to have any concrete method of attack, and quickly disintegrate into panic tactics in the hope of getting a wicket, rather than working towards a plan. All of the long discussions only further diminish Australia's already poor over-rate, and lead to pressures in later stages. This then results in ridiculous situations like Mike Hussey bowling to tailenders in India, purely to increase the over-rate rather than as part of a plan to win the game.

It is particularly galling to read comments from Neilsen that basically put all the blame for the poor performances in the Ashes onto the players. That is just gutless. It is hard to come up with any reasons why Nielsen should remain in what is arguably the most prestigious coaching job in Australia.

The Australian media also must take a long hard look at their role in this problem. It is beyond belief that we are still hearing commentators saying 'no-one saw it coming'. If you read the myriad of message boards around the world, genuine cricket lovers with a strong understanding of the game have been predicting this precise problem for the past three years. So how can the media claim that this recent thumping was a surprise? Rather than admitting that the occasional victory over the past few years was merely papering over the ever widening cracks, the media instead would talk about resurgence of the side. It is understandable that journalists have pressure from above to produce positive articles, however, they have failed to realistically portray the weaknesses that were rapidly emerging.

If the media had done their job and actually reported more accurately about the slide of the team, more pressure may have been placed upon Cricket Australia to actually try and fix the problems. Instead, there is a now a huge crisis that could have been averted with proper planning. It is possible that the media is now too close the players and hierarchy, and are therefore afraid to be publically critical. One possible problem is the inundation of the media with former cricketers, rather than trained journalists. There is an old tactic used by many cricket viewers, in which the television broadcast picture is watched with the radio commentary. Why is the radio commentary considered so superior? Fundamentally, the entire television commentary team is composed of ex-players with little or no media training, while the radio has actual journalists supplemented by expert comments. It is no coincidence that Richie Benaud, noted as the Doyen of Cricket Commentators, is actually a trained journalist who did the crime beat during his training. However, the main issue with the media having so many former players is that they are often afraid to be openly critical of people they know well and are friendly with. There can be an advantage in having the 'inside' perspective from a former player who has been there, however, this needs to be complemented by appropriately analytical comment.

Prior to the Fifth Test, a number of Australian fans uttered the sacrilegious words - 'We hope that England win'. The rationale behind these statements were that, if Australia won and the Ashes were tied at 2-2, the media would accept Cricket Australia's positive spin on a drawn series, and no pressure would be placed onto the hierarchy to actually make the changes that are needed. It was only with another humiliating loss by an innings that the media has really started to make noises about the need for change.

The Fans
It was amusing to read comments from current and former players, as well as support staff and Cricket Australia, criticizing the fans' reaction to Australia's poor performances. Evidently, the fans are meant to never voice their disapproval when things are going wrong. Instead, they are just meant to blindly support the national side, regardless of how they are going. While supporters should remain loyal to their side, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't recognise obvious problems. True supporters of Australian cricket need to make sure that they continue to loudly voice their disapproval of the current system that needs overhauling. Otherwise, no changes will be made, the slide down the rankings will continue, and Cricket Australia will ultimately face ever more problems in attracting the 'fair weather fans' away from the rival football codes.

There has been enough criticism of the actual players. Such discussion simply deflects the attention away from the deficiencies evident in the larger structure of cricket in Australia. It is clear that the current squad of players is not at the desired standard, and cannot successfully compete against the top world sides in 2011, let alone bear comparison with their predecessors in recent years. However, unless the support structures are fixed as a matter of priority, the team will continue to stagnate near the middle of the field of Test playing nations.