Can Cricket Australia reverse team's current slide? Much depends on how it rises to new challenges

A pitiable fifth position for Australia in the latest Test rankings, with India, England, New Zealand and South Africa preceding it, tells the story of how the once dominant cricketing nation’s fortunes have declined over the last decade or so.

Austin Coutinho, Jan 12, 2019 10:25:13 IST

There is an air of despondency and anger in Australian cricket right now. In Oz, the game is owned by the people of Australia, and Cricket Australia (CA) — its governing body — is only said to operate a fiduciary responsibility on their behalf. Questions are therefore being asked by CA’s ‘stakeholders’ if Australia’s unexceptional performances over the last decade or so, especially in Tests, have been because of systemic failures.

After India’s historic Test series win against the Australians this summer, most Australian cricket pundits have hailed India’s cricket setup for throwing up some great fast-bowling talent besides outstanding batsmen like Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Mayank Agarwal etc. Yet, at the turn of the millennium, CA — or its predecessor, the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) — was regarded as one of the most outstanding sporting organisations in the world.

Surprisingly, at the moment, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is an insentient body being run under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India by a committee of administrators. Mired in charges of corruption and monopolistic practices, despite running the best professional T20 league in the world, BCCI doesn’t look like becoming fully functional very soon.

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Australia, as a Test-playing nation, has been a dominant force in world cricket for over 142 years, winning a whopping 47 percent of its matches; it has lost only 27 percent of the Tests it has played and the rest have been drawn. India has won only 28 percent of the Test matches it has played in 86 years. Only South Africa, with a winning percentage of 37, and England, with 36, come anywhere close to Australia’s hegemonic position in Test cricket. However, a pitiable fifth position for the dominant cricketing nation in the latest Test rankings, with India, England, New Zealand and South Africa preceding it, tells the story of how Australia’s fortunes have declined over the last decade or so.

Not many seasons ago when BCCI and some of its state associations were looking for a coaching blueprint, talent hunting and grassroots programme, and a training-the-coaches plan, they just had to look at what Australia was doing. Even the National Cricket Academy (NCA) at Bengaluru, if I am not wrong, was set up on the lines of the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy in Australia. Dennis Lillee’s and others’ involvement in the MRF Pace Foundation and Frank Tyson’s help in setting up the Mafatlal Scheme in Mumbai along with the introduction of coaching examinations in India have made a huge difference to the way BCCI now looks at player-development.

There are no two ways about the fact that Australia has had a strong cricketing structure for many decades. CA, and ACB before that, successfully melded the culture and tradition of cricket with hard-nosed, unsentimental decision-making. The country’s cricketing structure is built on federalism — representatives of local clubs making up the state bodies, which in turn elect the national board.

In order to ensure that the spirit of the game is protected and preserved, and that the message of excellence percolates down to the grassroots level, CA’s chief executive officer meets the state chiefs regularly. CA generates income, formulates policy and assists the states to implement the policy. The states then help the clubs to implement CA’s policies locally, in coaching, talent hunting and in marketing the game. There are general managers in commercial, marketing, operations and public affairs reporting to the CEO, and looking after different aspects of the game.

Rodney Marsh, legendary wicket-keeper, former director of the Commonwealth Bank academy and former chairman of selectors, says that club cricket is the very essence of the game in Australia. “Club cricket is a reflection of life. Just because you’re the Australian captain, you can’t sit on your arse in the dressing room and do nothing. On a Saturday afternoon, if it starts to rain, he helps the rest of the mob put on the canvas. Your teammates won’t let you get away with it anyway. And you always want to be at the club training, because that’s where it all started, and you never miss a club game if you can help it. People from the local area play at the club, people who you went to school with. The strength of the ACB had to be club cricket, because ultimately, through the states, that is where the delegates come from,” he opines. (From 'Peak Performance' by Clive Gilson, Mike Pratt, Kevin Roberts, Ed Weymes)

Given Australia’s rich cricketing tradition and culture, who better than the l’il genius, Sir Donald Bradman as role model for up-and-coming cricketers? A Test match batting average of 99.94, a man of impeccable character and manners, and someone who has contributed significantly to the modernisation of the game, he has led from the front in making cricket the most loved sport Down Under.

Bradman believed that cricket in the country thrived because every Australian was given the opportunity to play. The opportunity to play for Australia therefore begins with Kanga Cricket at school level, the Super 8s and the Have-a-Go programme. CA’s development programmes are the bridge between schools and clubs, leading to national school championships and age-group matches. The very talented are chosen for intensive training at the national academy and are provided the opportunity to play for Australia ‘A’.

With its systems in place, is Australia’s lack of outstanding talent, as of now, only a temporary aberration? One would think so. I won’t be surprised if a couple of Steve Smiths and David Warners emerge in the next couple of years.

For most Australians, losing to India in a Test series isn’t such a big deal; losing to England is. During the last decade, Australia has won two out of the six Ashes series played – both at home. England has won four, including one in Australia. Therefore, after the series loss in 2010-11, a five-man committee headed by Don Argus was setup to study the reasons for the decline of the Australian cricket team. Former skipper, Steve Waugh too was a member of the group that recommended sweeping changes to coaching systems, the management structure of CA and the Australian team. Other suggestions were, having a five-man selection committee, and revamp of the Sheffield Shield, club and schools cricket, besides studying how private ownership of BBL could jeopardise Australia’s aim of becoming the number one Test team in the world again.

Despite CA’s acceptance of some of the committee’s suggestions and some being held in abeyance, cricket in Australia doesn’t seem to be in the mood to get up and fight back. The ball-tampering incident involving Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft has pushed Australians’ morale — that of cricketers, administrators and fans — further back to the ropes. The new code of ethics — wanting to tone down the aggression that Australian cricketers are known for — also hasn’t helped.

Desperate times perhaps call for desperate measures. But that isn’t the way excellent organisations face adversity and change. In Australian cricket, the pull of the past — history, tradition, culture, aggression etc — is so strong that trying to break that pull through organisational revolution can leave people disoriented and cut off from the past, but unprepared to enter the future. It is therefore better for the stakeholders to build on the foundations of the past and realise that old strategic frames, processes, relationships and values need to be recast to meet new challenges.

Cricket Australia doesn’t really need to carry out radical changes to be back at the top. And Australians cricketers don’t need to behave like ‘good boys’ either, as long as they don’t break the law.

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.

Updated Date: Jan 12, 2019 10:25:13 IST

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