There is a video on YouTube from the 1994 quadrangular one-day series between Australia, Australia A, England and Zimbabwe that shows Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath pushing each other mid-pitch after the burly left-hander smashes the Australian fast bowler for a boundary. Hayden is representing ‘Australia A’, the second XI which has players like Damien Martyn, Ricky Ponting, Justin Langer and Merv Hughes. Some have already played for the first XI and others are trying to make an impact.
So strong is the second Australian team that it brushes aside both the international teams and qualifies for the finals against their own senior statesmen. Nearly 25 years on, times have changed, and while there are still some fine cricketers who have been developed through the system, the bench strength is weak, as evident from Australia’s 5-0 whitewash in the ODI series.
The game and the structures have undoubtedly changed drastically — the introduction of T20 cricket and the hectic international schedule means elite players rarely play domestic cricket — but the fact that Cameron White and Moises Henriques are the most prolific batsmen in the 50-over format in domestic cricket, but fail to succeed at the international level is a cause of concern.
Players such as D’Arcy Short, Marcus Stoinis and Travis Head are seen as the new generation, but all of them failed to match the expectations against the top-ranked England team. Perhaps it is the lack of competitive environment in the state competition that hinders players from preparing for the standard of international cricket.
Absurdly, to ensure emerging cricketers get a taste of competing against the state teams, CA introduced the concept of a ‘CA XI’, a team consisting of best youth players around Australia, and pitted them up against the six states in the domestic 50-over format. In the last three years, the CA XI has only managed to win three matches, but experts in the Cricket Australia system believe it is still the best way to introduce the budding cricketers into the big league.
While the CA XI has struggled, experienced state players have boosted their averages against it. In a way instead of stiffening the competition, the quality has been degraded and despite the ‘CA XI’ concept, Australia is yet to discover 21- or 22-year-old batsmen that are capable of standing up to international bowlers and handling the pressures that come along with it.
In the past, the bench strength has been developed on the back of a List A competition that stretched over three months and ran in conjunction with first class cricket. Now all the matches are squeezed into a window of three weeks at the start of the season, a time the selection panel is focused on finding red ball aspirants rather than 50-over cricketers.
Such is the situation that Australia are currently picking their one-day team for 12 months on the back of a 21-day competition that is acting more as a curtain-raiser for the summer of cricket rather than a competition that enables state players fighting furiously for a spot in the ODI team.
Australia’s annihilation at the hands of England is a sign of how far behind the ODI setup has fallen. There is the argument that Australia were missing David Warner, Steve Smith, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, but in reality that is the modern game where elite players will be rested, injured and rotated, so the onus is on countries to develop bench strength.
Missing the top five players will have an impact on any team, but looking back to that golden era of Australian cricket, there seemed to be a ready-made replacement for nearly each individual. It is fair to say Australia are struggling to fill the void at the moment. Such are the demands of the game that Australia could well find themselves in a similar situation in 12 months’ time where a Starc or a Cummins or a Smith might be injured before or during the World Cup and a player outside the playing XI is asked to do a job.
The whitewash inflicted on Australia has proved there needs to more focus on developing bench strength in 50-over cricket. There needs to be a pool of 20 players who are capable of meeting world standards, only then will we see Australia return to the glory days of the 90s and early 2000s.