Cricket Down Under has been torn asunder: Once proud Australia now on a tricky wicket

Has the dream that held cricket in Australia together for so many decades now been shattered? What could possibly explain Cricket Australia's fall from a once indomitable position?

Austin Coutinho November 27, 2016 09:51:31 IST
Cricket Down Under has been torn asunder: Once proud Australia now on a tricky wicket

Cricket Down Under has been torn asunder!

Cricket Australia (CA) — once thought of as the epitome of sporting excellence — has had to press the panic button. The proud cricketing nation is on a tricky wicket, and probably on its knees, for the first time in its history; the tribulations of the ‘Bodyline Series’ and the troubled times against the mighty West Indies of the 1980s notwithstanding.

Iron Gloves, Rod Marsh chose to resign from the post of chairman of selectors a few days before the third Test against the rampaging Proteans. The significance of this move shouldn’t be lost on the cricket aficionado. Marsh has been one of Australia’s greatest performers, a coach with the Australian Cricket Academy for long years and has been its director during the 1990s. CA, therefore, does not seem to be in good health.

Australia’s only away victories in the last couple of years have come against the hapless West Indies and a weakened New Zealand. In the same period, they have lost an Ashes series in England, have been beaten by a troubled Pakistan in the UAE and then have been outplayed by Sri Lanka, in Sri Lanka. Dubbed the ‘home-ground bullies’, the present lot have won an Ashes series at home, besides beating India, New Zealand and the West Indies on bouncy, home tracks.

Cricket Down Under has been torn asunder Once proud Australia now on a tricky wicket

Steve Smith and David Warner. Illustration © Austin Coutinho

Where is the pride? The passion?

It is said that when a player is selected to the Australian squad, he tattoos his allocated number on his backside. That is the pride and the passion that an Australian cricketer carries to the ground.

Steve Waugh, who exemplified all that is great about cricket Down Under, wore the Baggy Green (No. 335) that he received for the first time in 1985 till the time that he retired from active cricket in 2004. If that ‘cap’ was dirty or soaked with beer after an Aussie victory, he would sit at the basin and wash it with a lot of care, dry it, and then wear it the next day on the field. Geoff Marsh says about his former captain, “Steve was a traditionalist. He is passionate about the game and all the traditions that go with it.”

Once after Michael Slater lost his wicket early, he was so annoyed with himself that he is rumoured to have tried to flush his gloves, box etc. down the toilet.

These and hundreds of other stories help Australian teams excel. And it is these stories that have facilitated the selling of the dream to the Australian people by CA. Unlike the BCCI, CA believes that every Australian citizen is a shareholder in the country’s cricketing system.

Story-telling, excellence in mentoring talent from the junior level to the senior ranks, the involvement of inspirational players and legends in counseling roles and the constant challenges thrown at players to better themselves have held Australian cricket in good stead over the years.

But has the dream that held cricket in Australia together for so many decades now been shattered? Darren Lehmann (coach) along with selectors, Trevor Hohns (chairman), Mark Waugh, Andy Bichel and Greg Chappell certainly have work to do if Australia don’t want to lose their way, like the West Indies did a couple of decades ago.

Cricketing pundits have viewed Hohn’s appointment cynically. They believe that he has been responsible for ‘ruining’ a few potentially great careers. They would therefore have liked to see Mark Waugh in that pivotal position.

The decision has now been taken and only time, and history, will tell if Hohn’s was the right choice for the chairman of selectors’ post.

Where’s the talent?

 Sir Donald Bradman once gave three reasons for Australia’s dominance of world cricket. He said, “It is our mental approach, our excellent climatic conditions and most important of all, the opportunity to play, for everyone, that keeps us ahead.” Not surprisingly, therefore, Australian cricket relies heavily on club cricket for its supply line.

There are more than 5,500 clubs and around 13,000 schools in Australia that encourage young boys and girls to play the game. The general manager (Development), CA, through hundreds of development officers across the country, picks exceptionally talented players for specialized training at the Academy. CA uses past players to inspire the young aspirants but sees to it that development officers and coaches have a teaching background in order to deal with children in the appropriate manner.

The CA has a staircase approach, with talent kept tag of right from the backyard to the Baggy Green.

When Steve Smith first made an impression as a leg-spinner, at the elite level, Steve Waugh had said that he would one day be a legend. He had then batted at number 8 but five years later he is one of the best batsmen in the world. Did CA know about Smith’s batting talent at all?

In the ongoing series against South Africa, Callum Ferguson (32) and Joe Mennie (27) have been dumped after failing in their debut Test. If they weren’t good enough to play Tests, what were they doing in the Australian eleven in the first place? Joe Burns, who has three hundreds and four fifties in 13 Tests and 37-year-old Adam Voges, who averages nearly 62 runs per inning over 20 Tests , have both been sent back to play Sheffield Shield matches. The latter, trying to get back to form was sadly hit on the head from a bouncer and concussed.

England-born opener Matt Renshaw, middle-order batsmen Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson, wicket-keeper Matthew Wade and fast-medium bowler Jackson Bird, all on the other side of their late twenties, have made it to the Australian squad for the dead-rubber Test in Adelaide.  What probably will happen, in the third Test, is that tried and tested players like Smith, Khawaja and Warner along with pacers, Starc and Hazelwood will have to carry the Australian team on their shoulders.

Australian selectors’ knee-jerk reaction, to five consecutive Test losses, won’t help the squad recover quickly. It will have, on the contrary, created self-doubt among the best. Moreover, the question remains: If CA’s grassroots programme is robust and its development officers are doing an honest job, where has all the talent gone.

Somewhere down the line, while Australians were celebrating their dominance in the world of cricket - including their triumphs in the shorter version of the game — CA probably seems to have become complacent and forgot to work on its ‘prime mission’: that of winning every international cricket match! The supply line of talent has therefore ebbed to a trickle and CA seems devoid of fresh thinking.

Can cricket Down Under be thunder, again?

 CA can’t afford to be sanctimonious anymore. It can’t alienate its ‘share-holders’ — the Australian people — and as a result, give away its pole position to other sports. It therefore has to rewrite its script and adapt it to suit modern cricket.

International cricketers now have advisers for every aspect of the game. Fitness trainers, video-analysts, nutritionists, masseurs, mental trainers and what-have-you, besides bowling, batting and fielding coaches. With so much unwarranted attention, players have got used to being spoon-fed. The result: injuries and loss-of-form with the players not being able to find their way back!

These advisers have got to get off the players’ backs; the earlier the better. The captain needs to lead the team with the help of his team of advisers; not the other way round.

What CA would do well, in the short run, is to place their trust in their best players and give them the assurance of a place in the squad. Let them play for ‘pride’ and for the ‘Baggy Green’. There can be no better motivation for players who possess even a little class.

In short, a captain who believes in himself and his boys, players who play for pride and the ‘Baggy Green’ and a team of advisers who realise that it is the players rather than them who can win matches for Australia, will get the Australian team back on top again.

C’mon Aussie, c’mon!

The author is a former fast bowler who was in Mumbai’s Ranji probables’ squad in the ‘80s, a coach and mental trainer, besides being a writer and cartoonist.

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