Amid the usual sea of opinions leading into this series, Andrew Strauss cut to the core of Australian cricket’s troubles with an observation he made about the last Ashes tour down under. While the Test matches of 2010-11 and their margins were clear, Strauss noticed something a little more far-reaching and disturbing on his travels. The standard of the players and teams his side faced in their tour matches was nowhere near the level that England tourists had come to expect. Where once the visitors expected a serious fight no matter where they played, now they were surprised to feel unthreatened.
Three years on, and a very public execution at Lord’shas confirmed the decline Strauss witnessed. First evident among the grassroots, it has now enveloped the shop front of the Australian game. The bewilderment experienced by a succession of batsmen as they trudged off with inadequate scores for the fourth consecutive Ashes innings was mirrored on the faces of the Sunday spectators, Australian television viewers and Cricket Australia staff on both sides of the world. How had it come to this?
Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Phillip Hughes, Michael Clarke, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith fell in manners familiar and unfamiliar, technical or mental, to pace or spin. There was no underlying pattern. But the death dive of the national team’s recent performances, including a sixth Test match defeat in succession, is the ugliest and most visible symptom of a collective malaise that has been creeping ever wider for some time, hurried along by band-aid solutions and rampant market thinking that has helped to rot the teeth of the domestic game.
Among the most troubling elements of Australia’s current state of poverty is that there is no single person in the team nor around it who has the capacity to provide a remedy. Not the captain Clarke, nor the coach Darren Lehmann, the selectors Rod Marsh and John Inverarity, nor even the high-powered general manager of team performance, Pat Howard. Had he still been employed, the estranged former coach Mickey Arthur would have been equally powerless.
They all have had influential roles within Australian cricket over the past three years, and all have a genuine desire to see the team winning matches. All are doing their best to prepare players for tasks such as England. But none have complete control over the areas of Cricket Australia to where the game’s decline can be traced. Perhaps not surprisingly, all are often heard to say the words “not ideal”. All should be speaking earnestly to their chief executive, James Sutherland, who despite much financial prosperity has presided over the aforementioned rot.
Several issues stand out as causes of the problems on display at Lord’s. The first is the marginalisation of the grade and Sheffield Shield competitions, for so long regarded as the best proving grounds of their kind in the world. In 2013 they sit at the fringes of CA’s thinking. Grade cricket has fallen behind the much vaunted “pathway” of under-age competitions and Centre of Excellence training as the primary providers of players bound for international duty. The Shield, meanwhile, is now played disjointedly and unhappily around the edges of the Australian season, having ceded the prime months of December and January to the Twenty20 Big Bash League.
This scheduling stands in marked contrast to the fixtures now produced in England and India, Australia’s two most recent tormentors. For all the buzz and hype around the IPL and the Champions League, neither competition cuts across the first-class Ranji Trophy, which remains a tournament fought in an environment of continuity and cohesion. Similarly, the English county season offers domestic players a greater chance for building up form and confidence in the format most representative of Test matches. Plenty of battles have been fought within England to keep it so, and next summer its primacy will be further embossed by the spreading of T20 fixtures more evenly through the season.
Even if the Shield were to be granted a place of greater centrality to the Australian summer, the matter of pitches is also a source of problems. Australia’s glaring lack of batsmen capable of playing long innings can be related directly to the emergence of a succession of sporting or worse surfaces, as state teams chase the outright results required to reach the Shield final. Queensland and Tasmania have been among the most notable preparers of green surfaces, often for reasons of weather as much as strategy, but their approaches have become increasingly popular across the country. This has resulted in a litany of low-scoring matches and bowlers celebrating far more often than they did during the relatively run-laden 1990s. Batsmen are thus lacking in confidence and technique, while bowlers are similarly less used to striving for wickets on unresponsive surfaces so often prepared in Tests, as administrators eye fifth-day gate receipts.
Money is never far from anyone’s motivation, of course, and the financial modelling of Australian player payments must also be examined. This much was pointed out by Arthur himself when the BBL was unveiled in 2011, accompanied by the news that state contracts would be reduced on the presumption that every player would also play T20. Arthur’s words should be ringing in the ears of CA’s decision makers almost as much as his anguished complaints now about the loss of his job.
“Your biggest salary cap should be your state contracts with the smaller salary cap being your Big Bash,” Arthur had said when coach of Western Australia. “If we’re really serious in Australia about getting Australia to the No. 1 Test-playing side in the world, we should be reflecting that in our salary caps and budgets. You can feel the squeeze just through the salary caps that we have to work with. You’re getting a bigger salary cap for six weeks’ work over the holiday period than you are for trying to make yourself a Test cricketer. I think that’s the wrong way round.”
The wrong way round and the wrong way to maintain a strong Test team. The pain of Australia’s players at Lord’s, not least their clearly upset captain Michael Clarke, was patently clear. But having almost conjured miracles at Trent Bridge, St John’s Wood has provided a much more realistic picture of where the team has slipped to, and why. There can be few more humiliating places at which to be defined as second rate than the home of cricket, for so long the home away from home for Australia’s cricketers. In a moment of hubris after their win at the ground in 2005, Ricky Ponting’s team held uproarious court in the home dressing rooms. This time around any visit to the England side of the pavilion will be made far more humbly.