Thursday, February 16, 2012

The National Selection Panel - Still Work To Do

This week's announcement by the National Selection Panel regarding the team for the next group of ODIs left more than a few cricket followers scratching their heads, and inspired a number of esteemed cricket figures and current players to make public comment about the team, about the leadership of the team, and the current state of Australian cricket in general.

There's no doubt that, despite the aberration in Hobart, that Australia, so far, have had a very successful summer of cricket. Defeating the Indians 4-0 with a growing dominance over their opponents and an effective leadership of the team by Michael Clarke restored confidence in our national side. And while the resurrected tri-series has continued Australia's winning ways, Clarke's hamstring injury and the treatment of wicketkeeper and fill-in vice-captain Brad Haddin has again raised questions about the group selecting the teams.

Now, no one outside the playing group would suggest that Haddin had a good summer, or that is form clearly warranted a spot in the ODI side. However, the selection panel, in initially leaving Haddin out of the ODI squad in favour of Matthew Wade, stated that Haddin was being rested, rather than being dropped. This is a characterisation with which Haddin, to some extend, disagreed.

Well, Haddin has had some rest, but it seems now the selectors have forgotten about him. He's still not in the side, and there is now an additional reason to have him in the side.

With Michael Clarke to miss Friday's game against Sri Lanka, someone needs to captain the team. Ricky Ponting's presence in the side is clearly warranted on this year's form, but having a former captain in the side is territory Australia has not traversed in a very long time, bar Greg Chappell's swansong in 1983-84.

Brad Haddin was Michael Clarke's vice captain through the test series against New Zealand and India this summer, in the absence of Shane Watson. It is fair to assume that if Haddin was in the side on Friday, he would be leading it. But we won't, and he won't.

For some reason Michael Hussey is not considered for such a role, and the selectors have stated that David Warner, who was vice captain for the first three ODIs in the tri-series, is not ready to lead the side. So they have gone back to Ricky Ponting for at least one match. It appears now vice captain is some sort of honorific title, rather than an actual designation that if the captain is off the ground or not playing, you will lead the team.

In addition to all this, for this season at least, there seems to be a lack of planning towards the end of the ODI cycle, which is the 2015 World Cup. Preparations should clearly have begun to construct the 15 man squad who will play in that tournament. There is plenty that will happen in the next three years, to be sure, but players should be being tried and tested in international cricket now. And players who are clearly not going to be playing in three years time should be transitioned out of the side.

Yet we see an ODI side with Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Michael Hussey who, while probably all being in Australia's all time ODI team, will not play at the 2015 World Cup. While Ponting and Hussey may not be keeping any players who are currently demanding selection out, selectors in the past have taken punts on playing players before their records demand such a selection. And Alisdair McDermott is certainly putting together a record that demands selection, while Peter Siddle is rested and bowling superbly. Yet the selectors have gone with Brett Lee and Ben Hilfenhaus.

All this shows that despite the changes to the National Selection Panel, and the obvious progress that has been made during the summer, they haven't got everything figured out just yet.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The 4th Test - An opportunity

Hands up who had Australia leading 3-0 after three Tests against India while batting only four times in those three Tests? OK, so nobody.

Despite Michael Clarke's protestations yesterday after the Australian bowlers finished off the Indian batsmen for the second time in just over two days, the final Test match against India won't hold the same importance with regards to the final result as the first three have had.

Normally it would be a steady as she goes approach, but the changes instituted by Cricket Australia with regards to coaching and and team selection since the release of the Argus Review mean that the upcoming Test match in Adelaide may be a little different.

After he was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his foot, James Pattinson was apparently due for a rest in the Perth Test match so that his workload could be managed. According to the Australian's team's physiotherapist, this means that Pattinson would not have played even if he had been deemed fit to play.

This completely changes the threshold for playing Test cricket for Australia. According to the new ethos, not all Test matches are created equal and players will be managed for the long term even if they are available in the short term.

Of course, this only recognises a reality of the global cricket landscape. And now with a "dead rubber" coming up, it gives the Australian team an opportunity to try some new things in Adelaide.

First of all, some changes to the side. While the side has been successful, some cylinders are sputtering, while others are not firing at all.

Shaun Marsh did very well in Sri Lanka, but he is past 30 years old and has a first class over 36. In fact, his century on Test debut was only his 7th First Class century.

With Shane Watson still recovering from his latest injury, let's get Usman Khawaja back in the side, batting at number 3 against a depleted attack on a friendly Adelaide pitch. Hopefully he would get that maiden big score and his career would be off, and we may have found our long term replacement for Ricky Ponting at first drop.

With Adelaide a much more friendly deck for spinners than the one at the WACA Ground, Nathan Lyon comes in. There has been some talk that Ben Hilfenhaus would be the one to get a rest in Adelaide considering his ordinary First Class record there, but he deserves the opportunity to improve on his 23 wickets at 16 so far in this series. Hilfenhaus is also unlikely to play in the T20 or ODI matches which will round out the Australian international summer.

The man who deserves a rest, if the decision is to be made on that basis rather than form, is Peter Siddle. It would leave the Australian tail a little long, but in fairness, that's not much of a concern for a team that has won its last two matches by an innings. Siddle may feature in the shorter forms of the game in February and March, so better to give him a rest now. He'll be needed in the West Indies.

The final change is one that needs to happen, and it's the completion of Brad Haddin's international career. Neither aspect of his game is where it neeeds to be, and one struggles to see any circumstances arising where he'd be in the side for either Ashes series next year. Get Matthew Wade into the side while the stakes are low.

So onto Adelaide, where a couple of youngsters can be blooded, a tired body can be given some rest, and hopefully, for us true cricket lovers, we may see our first Day 5 of the Test season.

Friday, December 23, 2011

To Test Cricket, with love

There's a thin volume on my bookcase, among the other books about cricket, and it has been there for about 20 years. The book is penned by Ian Brayshaw and is about the Chappell brothers, but the opening pages of the book contain just about the best description of the first morning of a Test match one could hope to read.

It describes the walk down King William St over the River Torrens to the Adelaide Oval. But is also describes the feeling of anticipation and excitement that surrounds the hours before the commencement of that longest of sporting contests.

There is the weather to consider. Early humidity and cloud cover can affect the shiny, red sphere of leather differently than a blazing Australian sun accompanied by a spotless blue sky. There are the teams, and anyone who thinks that this is not much of a consideration should look back to Australia's most recent Test match, when Daniel Vettori pulled up hurt during pre-game warm-ups and was replaced by a pace bowler, which despite Vettori's auspicious record, probably benefited the New Zealanders.

And finally, there is the pitch. So much that happens over 30 hours of cricket depends on the horticultural conditions of 22 yards of rolled turf. Is there moisture? How long will the moisture keep the pitch “lively”? Is there a green tinge? Is there rolled-in grass cuttings? Will the ball start to turn and spin on the latter days as the pitch wears and dries out? These are the sort of things that make this gardening philistine think wistfully about dropping everything to become a country cricket ground curator.

And then, when the game begins, among the excitement, the seemingly infinite possibilities (look at the India/West Indies Test from last month for an example of those possibilities), there is the space. The space to think, the space to breathe, the space to share, the space to talk. This space does not exist in the other forms of the game. If T20 cricket is Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, then Test cricket is the music produced by George Martin; sparse in places, action filled in others, always interesting, never the same twice.

According to their coach, the newborn Melbourne Renegades of the T20 Big Bash lost Thursday's game in 21 balls. No Test match can be decided in 21 balls. This is a decidedly good thing.

At a Test match, one can discuss many things while never dismissing what is happening on the field. Batsmen can get through good spells of bowling with patience, resilience and nous. Bowlers can think a batsman out, taking time to craft a plan in their head and implement it. Not all cricketers were born as naturally instinctive and wise for the game as Shane Warne.

One of my favourite hours of Test cricket was Ishant Sharma's spell to Ricky Ponting in 2008. Ponting fought bravely against a viciously moving ball for 50 minutes, while Sharma probed the Australian captain's defences. Eventually Sharma got his man, and the wicket was well earned.

This enthralling episode would simply not happen in the shorter forms of the game. The pace of the game, the pressing need to set a target rather than survive, would have meant that Ponting would have probably surrendered his wicket quickly and foolishly. His shot would not have been worthy of the delivery.

Many lament the state the longer form of the game is in. Only in England and Australia is Test cricket consistently well attended, and even in Australia it only demands good crowds from the three oldest venues, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

I make no such lament. So much can happen in five days, so many changes in the complexion of a match, whether they be small or significant, so much can be speculated and chewed over with a quiet ale or roast chicken sandwich, that the gift of Test cricket keeps giving right through the duration of a match.

This is what makes Test cricket the most unique sporting contest in the world. To compare it to any other single sporting contest in the world would be inaccurate: it plays out more like a NBA playoff series or an entire tennis tournament.

The fact that the best attended Test match every year occurs in my home town only deepens my love for the game. I'm pretty sure I know what will happen Christmas morning. But I don't know what will happen Boxing Day morning, or over the next five days. And I love it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An unenviable (20)11

Ed Cowan will make his debut for the Australian cricket team on Boxing Day at the MCG. He'll join such illustrious names as Brett Lee, Steve Waugh and Craig McDermott, among others, who have made their debut for Australia in our most iconic annual Test Match.

Dan Christian may also make his Test debut, and if that happens, Australia would have had 11 debutants in Test Cricket in 2011.

Recently, I compared the cricketers Australia has debuted since Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Glenn McGrath retired to the ones that debuted immediately after the retirements of Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Greg Chappell.

The period of rebuilding Australia is currently undertaking has also regularly been compared to the rebuilding that Australian cricket undertook in the mid 1980s under the stewardship of Allan Border and Bob Simpson.

However, never was a single year in the 1980s as tumultuous as 2011 where debutants are concerned. The largest number of debutants for a single year of the 1980s was 7 in 1985, and that included Geoff Marsh, Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid and Steve Waugh.

No, one has to go back to the bad old days for establishment cricket; the birth of World Series Cricket and the Packer split to recall a year where so many fresh faces toiled under the baggy green. For the last time at least 10 players debuted for the Australian Test Team in a single year was 1977.

From David Hookes famous debut in the Centenary Test, through six debuts in the doomed Ashes Tour of England in 1977, and finished with another eight debuts, replacing the Packer defectors, in the exciting series against the Indians back in Australia, 15 debutants were blooded in 1977.

Now, 1977 was a disaster for Establishment Australian cricket by any measure. Thirty of the nations best cricketers turned their backs on first class cricket, leaving such household names as Clark, Hibbert, Ogilvie and Gannon to officially represent their country.

When another nine players debuted for the official Test team in 1978, the calibre was much more powerful. That year's debutants included Graeme Wood, Bruce Yardley, Jim Higgs, Rodney Hogg, and of course, Allan Border.

Fast forward to 2011, and of the nine players who have already debuted for Australia this year, two may have already played their last Test match for Australia. Michael Beer has been replaced by the able Nathan Lyon, while Trent Copeland is now not even in the best eight pace bowlers in the country, according to the selectors (behind current squad members Siddle, Pattinson, Starc and Hilfenhaus, and injured bowlers Harris, Cummins, Cutting and Johnson). Don't expect either of them back in the side any time soon.

While the wraps on Usman Khawaja have been huge, his inability to show concentration for long periods of time have seen him dropped from the Test side for the second time in his debut year. I can't think of another specialist batsman who's had that rather unenviable honour bestowed upon him.

While gold appears to have been struck with Lyon, Pattinson and Cummins, and Dave Warner's underrated innings in Hobart shows a clear ability to take instructions and work on deficiencies, one would have hoped for a better strike rate with debutants than is currently being shown.

The upside is that in 1985, the selectors went through Rob Kerr before getting to Geoff Marsh, Simon O'Donnell before getting to Steve Waugh, Dave Gilbert before getting to Merv Hughes and Bruce Reid.

In more recent times, selectors also picked Wayne Phillips (the second one) before getting to Justin Langer and Michael Slater, they picked Michael Kasprowicz before picking Jason Gillespie, they picked Simon Muller before picking Brett Lee, and they picked Clint McKay before picking Ryan Harris. So here's hoping the Christmas present our Test team has been waiting for is a Cowan, and perhaps a Christian.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Don't do me no favours

While some members of his team, namely the bowlers, may have thought differently, I'm sure Michael Clarke wasn't happy with the colour of the pitch when he first ventured into the middle at Bellerive Oval last week.

Australia's bowling is looking dangerous and youthful at the moment, and as such, could be relied upon to deliver a robust performance without any extra assistance from the pitch.

Australia's batting is another matter. The top three are inexperienced, the number four is playing for his career every time he bats, or so it seems, and the wicketkeeper is also trying to delay the inevitable. Only the captain really looks confident and in form at the moment.

So the curator at Bellerive was really doing the home team no favours with his preparation of the pitch.

So what's new?

If there has been a theme common to Australian Test Cricket and foreign to other countries over the last 20 years, other than regular dominance, it has been producing pitches so fair as to almost render a disadvantage to the home team. This is pretty much in direct comparison to the pitches prepared everywhere else in the world, where producing a pitch that will advantage the home team's strengths is common practice.

Last year on Boxing Day, a juicy pitch met both teams. Despite a lack of heavy rain in Melbourne before the match (it has been cool and humid in the weeks preceeding the match), a green tinge rendered the toss of vital importance. England won the toss, inserted the Australians, and the Aussies failed to make triple figures. After lunch the pitch flattened out, and the game was effectively over.

To say the Aussies needed a flat deck would be like saying the Wallabies need a better performance from the forward pack.

Once upon a time, visitors cringed at the thought of playing on the bounciest pitch in the world in Perth. While Australian cricketers were used to the bounce of the WACA strip, visiting teams, especially those from the sub-continent, struggled to adapt as they were used to the low bounce of the pitches from home.

But the WACA hasn't played like that in 20 years. A replacement of the grass wicket area after the debacle in 1993 against the West Indies has meant that the WACA pitch has become docile and has maintained a lesser, consistent bounce for all five days. While England continue to struggle there, losing six straight test matches, India and South Africa have both won in Perth in previous years.

Contrast this to what happens in other areas of the world. Pitches in India are either roads, to suit their batsmen, or dustbowls, to suit their spin attack. In England, pitches can vary, either to suit their pace attack led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad, or their world class off-spinner, Graeme Swan. In the final test of 2009, England spun to victory behind Swan's bowling effort on a vicious turner.

No pitch is ever prepared to play to Australia's advantages. With Shane Warne closing in on 700 Test wickets on Boxing Day 2006, the MCG curator produced a slow, damp pitch. Only Warne's brilliance gave him five wickets, including his 700th.

Brisbane is generally considered one of the best cricket wickets in the world, and the Aussies haven't lost there since 1988. But England made 1/510 there last year.

The truth is a little bit of assistance wouldn't go astray, and the Aussie players who need the assistance now are the batsmen. The drop in wicket at the MCG will hold no promises, but has been playing very consistently through four days at Shield level so far this season. It'll play fair, because that's what we Aussies do. We produce pitches that give everyone a fair go. It may be time to give our own players a little leg up. Everyone else does it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cummins Early Arrival a Good Sign

If any one event suggests that Australian cricket may be heading back to days of glory, it was Pat Cummins six-wicket haul in Johannesburg yesterday.

No, not because he took six wickets in an innings, but for the very fact he is playing as a precocious eighteen year old.

Australian cricket history is littered with many recurring themes, such as tough, uncompromising batsmen, enterprising captaincy, hopeless attempts to chase small totals in fourth innings,  and the occasional heartbreaking loss by a small margin.

Another is the young talent included in the side seemingly before his time. In the last 30 years, celebrated fast bowlers Craig McDermott and Glen McGrath entered the Australian Test Team earlier rather than later, and while they may have struggled at times early in their career, with McDermott having an extended two year stay out of the team, both eventually developed into stalwarts of the Australian bowling line-up, with McGrath becoming one of the best fast bowlers of all time.

McGrath, in particular, resembled a baby giraffe when he first played for Australia back in 1993. But after two Australian summers around the Australian team, he performed superbly when called on to lead a depleted Australian attack in the West Indies in 1995, after injuries to McDermott and Damien Fleming. McGrath was integral to Australia's first series win against the West Indies in nearly 20 years.

McDermott had more instant success and then regressed, but came back a better bowler in 1991 when he destroyed England in Perth in his comeback test. From them on he was Australia's spearhead, and won two International Cricketer of the Year awards.

The other Australian bowler who debuted before he was probably ready was Shane Warne. In his first two tests, both against India, he was hit all around the SCG and Adelaide Oval, but within 12 months he had bowled Australia to victory in the 1992 Boxing Day Test against the West Indies, and was about to embark on his famous 1993 Ashes Tour of England, when he would bowl the ball of the century on his way to one of the most dominant displays of bowling ever seen on a tour of England. The rest is history.

Compare that to someone like Mitchell Johnson, who had to wait until he was 26 years old to play Test Cricket, while McGrath, Stuart Clark and Brett Lee led the Australian attack. Perhaps Johnson would not have been so mentally fragile if he had been thrown in the deep end at a younger age? We'll never know, but we do know that it has been a while since we've seen consistent success from Johnson.

There is already plenty of talk about managing Cummins workload, and history also suggests that he'll find himself out of the test side at some stage in his career. Now, Cummins is very young, but if his form and fitness permit, he should stay in the side. Use the shorter forms of the game to manage his workload, and also control the amount of cricket he plays when not representing Australia, but Cummins should play Test Cricket whenever he has the chance. With all the other cricket played nowadays, there should be no shortage of non-Test opportunities to give his young body some rest.

Now, if only the Australian selectors can find a young batsman to blood in the side. Khawaja and Hughes have shown glimpes in the current Test Match. Is there another waiting for an opportunity before his time?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rebuilding the Test Team - A comparison

Four and a half years ago, Australia completed a five-nil sweep of The Ashes, and greats Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Shane Warne retired.

Twenty eight and a half years ago, Australia completed a ho-hum series victory against Pakistan, and greats Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell retired.

The immediate period after these two generational changes went on different paths: the 1980s Australians would run into the might of the West Indies and not win another Test Series for another three and a half years, while the 2000s Australians were in the midst of a record-equalling sixteen consecutive wins.

But while Australian cricket suffered in the 1980s, the team was rebuilt effectively.

Post Lillee/Marsh/Chappell, the next twenty five players to debut in the Australian Test Team were Steve Smith, Dean Jones, David Boon, Bob Holland, Murray Bennett, Craig McDermott, Simon O'Donnell, Dave Gilbert, Robbie Kerr, Merv Hughes, Geoff Marsh, Bruce Reid, Steve Waugh, Simon Davis, Tim Zoehrer, Chris Matthews, Greg Dyer, Peter Taylor, Mike Veletta, Tim May, Tony Dodemaide, Ian Healy, Trevor Hohns, Mark Taylor and Greg Campbell.

Post McGrath/Langer/Warne, the next twenty five players to debut were Mitchell Johnson, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Peter Siddle, Jason Krejza, Doug Bollinger, Andrew McDonald, Ben Hilfenhaus, Philip Hughes, Marcus North, Bryce McGain, Graham Manou, Clint McKay, Ryan Harris, Tim Paine, Steven Smith, Peter George, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer, Usman Khawaja, Trent Copeland, Nathan Lyon and Shaun Marsh.

Which groups looks more compelling? In the first group, only Smith, Kerr and Davis played in only one Test Series. In the second group, Rogers, Casson, White, McGain, Manou, McKay, George, Doherty, Beer and Copeland have played in only one Test Series, although Beer and Copeland are currently with the Test Squad in South Africa.

Although the keeping spot has been more settled in the later years, both groups include three wicketkeepers. Also, both include a number of spinners. And as with any cricketing group, bowlers are churned through more quickly than batsmen.

And here lies the problem with our current state of cricket. Whether through a lack of genuine quality coming through the ranks, or a desire on the part of selectors to persist with older guys at the expense of younger guys, the really good batsmen have not materialised. Any XI created out of the most recent XXV would have to include someone like Cameron White, Andrew McDonald or Steven Smith batting in the top six, or both Brad Haddin and Tim Paine playing.

On the other hand, from the first XXV, and XI would boast a top five of Marsh, M Taylor, Boon, Jones and S Waugh. Sticking in Mike Veletta as the other specialist bat then seems less problematic, especially considering how outstanding a fieldsman he was.

The courageousness of selectors to move older batsmen on has not been evident. While it would be folly to compare Michael Hussey with Greg Ritchie, the fact is Ritchie was moved on when he was performing reasonably well, and his spot was taken by other, younger batsmen, like Steve Waugh.

In the final analysis, there would be at least 12 out of the latest 25 who would have next to no chance of every playing another Test Match. All 25 have debuted in the last four years. Think about that.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Democracy the Smokescreen

It's official. According to representatives of both sides of the political spectrum, democracy is dead. Or at least woefully lacking in our current society.

According to the "Occupy (insert metropolis here)", they are part of a large proportion of the population not being heard or represented. What they need is more democracy.

On the other side of the divide, it is obvious that democracy doesn't need a doctor, it needs a priest. The passage of the carbon reduction scheme is proof positive that, in Australia at least, democracy is no longer alive.

Now read those first few paragraphs again and try to suspend your disbelief. Done?

This is clearly hogwash, but claiming a lack of democracy is a wonderful and effective tool for advocating for a policy position, and criticising those who don't agree with you.

Those who occupied city centres across the world are critical of the current capitalist system that operates in many successful nations. That is their policy position.

Their problem is the democratic process hasn't worked for them, or they're just not very good at it. In fact, what many anti-capitalist policy positions have in common is they've been adopted by nations at roughly the same time as they've abandoned democracy. So pluralism isn't one of the anti-capitalist's strong suits, but don't let that get in the way of a really good demonstration and sit-in, followed by the inevitable removal and scuffle with law enforcement officers.

On the other hand, does the passage of the carbon tax really signal the death of democracy, such as those who participated in the "convoy of no-confidence" suggested? Of course not.

In fact, the whole damn saga related to the Gillard Government's efforts to introduce a scheme to reduce the amount of carbon Australia collectively emits has been a clear demonstration of democracy at work, for all its successes and failures. Australia, pluralist and tolerant, with her government expressing a compromise between mainstream and minority opinion, arriving at a policy position developed by representatives as wide ranging as the land it comes from; the laneways and townhouses of inner Melbourne, and the wide expanses of the frontier of north-western New South Wales.

What we see in this debate is not another fatal blow for democracy, but a mere policy disagreement, albeit on a area of policy which may or may not be the most important to human kind since the Cold War.

It is important that a wide range of views are represented in a vibrant democracy, but this clearly is happening. Bob Brown and Barnaby Joyce share the same house of our parliament. And both are having a meaningful effect on our national discourse, and the legislation our democratically elected parliament is passing. 

So, for now, save the obituaries for democracy. It's quite clearly alive and well.

And let's consign the lack of democracy talk to the archives of overblown political hyperbole.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Depth is Vital

After the disappointment of a humiliating Ashes defeat, it hasn't taken long for the Australian One-Day team to restore a little pride. They have done so by re-establishing a key aspect to Australia's success for many years over the 1990s and 2000s: depth.

Both teams were missing large chunks of their best line-ups yesterday at the SCG, and rather than bemoan the demise of the 50-over-a-side game, it would be better to put the blame for an uninspiring game at the feet of injuries. Regardless of this, the Australians performed admirably with a side that is well below full strength.

For the English, Pietersen, Swann, Anderson, Broad & Bresnan were missing. This is their entire first string bowling attack, and perhaps their best ODI batsman.

However, the Aussies were missing Ponting, Michael Hussey, Johnson & Hauritz to short-to-medium term maladies, and Clint McKay and Ryan Harris are both nursing stress fractures in their feet. McKay and Harris were Australia's best performed fast bowlers in ODIs through 2009 and 2010.

Replacing these men for Australia have been David Hussey and Shaun Marsh, who have both made match winning contributions with the bat, a rejuvenated Brett Lee, clever Victorian all-rounder John Hastings, Xavier Doherty (who has been recalled from cricketing Coventry) and Doug Bollinger. All have played well and had a hand in at least one of Australia's impressive three wins so far against the English.

Brett Lee has reminded everyone why he has a place in Australia's all-time ODI side ahead of such greats as Dennis Lillee. He has always been a great ODI bowler, and having missed out on the 2007 World Cup win due to an ankle injury, he is energised and excited about what will be his last chance to play in a World Cup winning side.

The selectors also took a punt on David Hussey, considering it had been 18 months since he had played an ODI, but Hussey's knock last night was full of intelligence. The situation called for calm, and he provided it. It helps that he plays his state cricket for Victoria, who have made an impressive habit out of winning cricket matches. Having said that, Cameron White could use some runs, as well as the man he deputises for, Michael Clarke.

Clarke is doing a great job with his captaincy, but when Ponting returns, he may not be playing well enough with the bat to sustain his spot in the side, especially with David Hussey doing so well. Remember Hussey's brother also needs to come back into the side if fit.

One should also be reminded that a place for Callum Ferguson and Usman Khawaja cannot be found in this side at the moment. While Australia are not favourites to win their fourth consecutive World Cup, to count them out would be folly.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Protecting the Sheffield Shield

The review of the state of Australian cricket in the media has been a little over the top, but this amateur pundit thinks that it is starting to identify the causes of some of the problems that have resulted in our poor performance in recent times.

In Sunday's Herald-Sun, former South African opening batsman Barry Richards spoke of the need for Cricket Australia to retain the Sheffield Shield in its current form or strengthen it, and not to sacrifice it to the Gods of the shortest form of the game. He contends that the 10-match format must be retained despite pressure to find room for the proposed eight-franchise Twenty20 competition planned to start next summer.

Then today in The Australian, Ricky Ponting has spoken of the need of review of the lower levels of Australian cricket and how it affects the quality of the representative teams that have lost so many games in 2010.

Well, they're both right. It has been the strength and consistency of the Sheffield Shield first class cricket competition that has provided the cornerstone of quality on which the success of the test team has been built on for all those years. Ten matches, home and away against everyone, in all conditions in all states, four days of 100 overs each.

The only problem with this competition is it loses money, hand over fist. Twenty20 cricket, however, even at a non-international level, does make money and therefore Cricket Australia wants to expand it.

However, the Sheffield Shield must be defended. Try to get along to a day or two of it between now and the end of the season if you love cricket, because it clearly needs our support.

The solution is simple: play the Shield (and a truncated 45 over competition) between the middle of October and the end of January. This would also coincide with the international itinerary, to be played from November to the end of January.

The Shield would be played with two matches every three weeks, with one 45-over match during that time. The entire competition would take 15 weeks, players would regularly be playing quality, tough, first-class cricket and would benefit greatly. If you could organise it that the test players were available for the first couple of games, even better.

Then, in February, with all international cricketers available, play the Twenty20 Big Bash. All the attention would then go to this competition, and the schedule would be free (except if the Australians needed to tour New Zealand, South Africa or the West Indies). Then play the Shield final in the first or second week of March.

This would open up stadia like the MCG, the SCG and the Gabba for mid-March footy. And let's face it: Aussie Rules pays the bills at those three grounds; not cricket. The Adelaide Oval will soon be used for footy too, so all the more reason to get cricket season over and done with by the second weekend in March.

The 45/50 over form of the game is already suffering from Twenty20 cricket. The reason Twenty20 cricket was invented was because ODIs were becoming predictable and boring. But there is no reason to see Test Cricket suffer.

It is quite clear from the media reaction of the Ashes loss that Test Cricket is still the most important form of the game to Australians. Time to protect it by protecting the Sheffield Shield.