Let us forget, for a moment, the usual discourses surrounding the performances of the Australian cricket team and instead dig a little deeper. Much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of Steve Smith, which is to be expected. The captain takes the flak in the midst of a crisis, even if there are circumstances beyond his control that are partly to blame for on field performances. These issues often arise at a management or administrative level. The paper pushers, who are parked out of sight and out of mind when the axe is right for the swinging, are more to blame for Australia’s declining form than they might seem. Consider for a moment the scheduling. This is left up to those in positions of power, who devise a plan that will maximise profit. It’s in the hands of those who barely seem to consider the repercussions of their decision making. The players have no input in this process, nor any of the others that have an influence on performance. If they did, their pleas would have been answered, and this South African series would have begun at the GABBA, before moving onto Adelaide and then to either the WACA or Hobart (no great advantage at these last two venues, it seems). But there is more money to be made when these fixtures are manipulated based on a criteria that prioritises crowd numbers over sustained success.
Then, of course, there’s the selection committee who, in my mind, stand at the forefront of this whole dilemma. Let’s consider for a moment the players they’ve brought in over the course of the last three years, a period which hasn’t been as productive in the test arena as one might have hoped. Since the i’ll-fated tour of India some three years ago, Australia have have had 15 test debutants. Seven of those have played less than five games. The issue isn’t so much a lack of faith from selectors though, as these figures might suggest. It is instead the age at which the players have begun their careers, a problem which has been brought about by the selectors themselves, and will be left up to them to rectify. The average debut age, 27 (rounded up), is concerning, not because they haven’t managed to extend their careers beyond a few games – this has been occurring for decades, and is an issue based on ability, not age. The concern here is that their career longevity is reduced with every passing season. Their physical fitness will begin to falter while the natural deterioration of vision will eventually catch up with them, compromising their ability to perform at the level required. There are, of course, some exceptions – Steve Waugh springs to mind – but retiring at age 35 means that a career which began at 27 will last just eight years. And that’s notwithstanding the negative effects a form slump can have in cutting it short, especially when they are approaching an age where greater scrutiny is put on each and every performance. That’s without even considering the young players knocking the door down in the Sheffield Shield, and the pressure they put on the selectors to drop the ageing incumbent.
This is the trend the selectors appear to have adopted for reasons unbeknownst to many, perhaps even to them. But in doing so, they shoot themselves in the foot, over correcting the misdoings of older players by blooding youth at an age where success is often dependent on whether they are prepared mentally for the rigours of international cricket. So often, they are not yet finely tuned to the degree required, and a string of failures can result in an axing from the side, perhaps never to return to the international game (Ashton Agar played two tests aged 19 and hasn’t been on the radar since).
The selectors have made some rash and perhaps unwarranted selections this tour and they’re paying for them through the backlash found in the morning’s papers. I’m not devaluing the worth of a few of these selections, but suggesting that these players (Voges and Ferguson for example) should have been given an opportunity a few years earlier during their pomp. They’ve all got plenty to offer the national team, but their age is a major factor which the selectors will act on swiftly when the public grows weary of their ineptitude.
The Australian selection panel are yet to discover the perfect formula. What age is too young? Is it worth selecting ageing players? How they can get the most out of a player of any age lies in how they are trained and nurtured. Our current Sheffield Shield competition isn’t doing enough to facilitate success, let alone prepare our future Ponting’s, McGrath’s and Warne’s. It has been led astray, multilated and used as an arena to experiment and tamper with different features that will benefit CA’s self interests – the balls, day/ night games etc – at times when its aim should have been to enable ‘first-class’ contests. Its standards have slipped, but not to the point where we are unable to discover talented needles in a generously sized haystack. But how capable is that haystack in comparison to others around the world. The administrators aren’t heading the warnings given off by the Australian test side currently. They continue to treat the players like guinea pigs and the national team are suffering the effects.
There was plenty of time from the end of the tour of Sri Lanka to the beginning of the summer to ensure there were enough shield games scheduled to allow the Australian players time in the middle. But it was once again decided in the halls of power that only the single round was required. It simply wasn’t worth overdoing it in the early stages of the season, primarily because there was a great deal of cricket to be played this year across all forms. We should have suspected that in an era where the lure of t20 cricket is such that much of the summer revolves around it, we wouldn’t see a great deal of time afforded to the staging of shield games.
Steve Smith is expected to take the blame for things which are beyond his control, as are the playing group. But the criticism which has befallen the side should be allocated elsewhere. The administrative big wigs are failing to uphold the systems that benefited the Australian test team during its glory days. It’s impossible to clone the superstars of yesteryear when the Sheffield Shield has witnessed an appreciable fall in interest from those who hold the key to fulfilling this very cause. Please, CA, keep throwing money at this competition, it’s the beating heart of domestic cricket and an essential test player production line that will serve its purpose if treated correctly. It’s essential that changes be made before we’re left to lament the rotting carcass of a competition that once churned out superstar after superstar with greater than reasonable success.