Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Do You Know How To Fix Australia's Team?

Everyone knows how to fix the Australian team. Surprisingly, opinions are varied and many of them offered by those who not only show little knowledge about the game, but for the years when Australia dominated the rest of the cricket playing world, showed little interest. The cab drivers and bar dwellers have always had freely offered opinions but when things are bad, it's the shock jocks and ABC radio listeners who want more Phillip Adams and less Jim Maxwell and who feature among the new experts. It's the smug breakfast TV hosts and their glib but oh so pretty weather girls. Its desperate Prime Ministers and visiting American writers. 

We don't pick on their baseball. Why should we care what they think about our cricket?

Its the man in the street. Perhaps he'd better off avoiding the oncoming bus than offering his uninformed opinion. What's best? Splat or take that? Merv Hughes has said that Australia is blessed with 23 million selectors, all of whom have their say, but only a few get to vote.

However, when advice comes from the enemy, its hard not to consider it facetious and dripping with the irony of sixteen years of failure: that experience of losing from 1989 on, providing an expertise on which Australia can build success. However, when the advisor is of such stature as to being among the best cricketers to play for their country - in fact, among the best cricketers to play for anyone - would it not be wisdom to at least consider the views expressed?

Let's imagine we agree that no harm can come from such consideration. What then would you make of this, from the pen of one of England's greatest players:

"Australian cricket leaders must seriously review their present coaching system. Unless they do, the one-sided struggle we saw in this Test series will be repeated for years. Great players, batsmen of genius, are thrown up all too rarely. Australia cannot hope that another batting master or two will suddenly emerge like mushrooms from the ground."

Some common sense there. 

Who said it? Botham, Gower, Boycott? 

Len Hutton
No, it was Sir Len Hutton, writing after England easily retained the Ashes in 1956. Australia was at a low ebb. After Bradman and then Lindsay Hassett retired, Australia was beset by the dual problem of restocking the shelves and leadership. Great players like Arthur Morris were aging and brilliant players like Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall were shackled by a lack of leadership. The answer, simple in hindsight, was to appoint Miller as captain but the ACB were not fond of flamboyance and had already seen off the loose cannon Sid Barnes for one too many incidents. He was famously successful when suing the ACB for his non-selection "on the grounds of reasons other than cricket." 

Barnes could win a lawsuit but lost out on selection.

Miller craved the captaincy and in the dour, deadly dull five years as Australia slumped - highlighted by the capitulation to Jim Laker in 1956 - his spark was needed as captain but never ignited. Apart from the effect this might have had on his team mates and their performances, it's not a matter of chance as to whether it would have roused the best from the man with the winning smile and the hair swept back by product. Chance be damned when discussing a certainty.

Instead, the conservative choice of an ACB headed by the ultraconservative Bradman, was Ian Johnson. Only once did he rise to the meet anything like the challenge set and only then in the West Indies in 1955, against an exciting but second rate opposition, where reckless shot making against inferior bowling made the five Tests a run feast. He was followed by Ian Craig, only just shaving when he scored his double hundred for NSW at 17 and hardly ready for the job of being Australia's captain not long after. The theory that the best batsman would make the best captain had gone too far and it wasn't until appendicitis forced the selectors hand in the late fifties and Richie Benaud was appointed, that the cricket worm turned and began rising again for Australia.

It was much the same in the 1980's, with a period of experimentation which lasted five years after the retirements of Chappell, Marsh, Lillee and the oft forgotten genius, Doug Walters. South African Rebel tours scooped some of the cream from the top and very few of what was left became greats. The transition didn't happen until Mark Taylor took the reins and the self-doubting, ponderous leadership of Border, with its relience on coach Bob Simpson, was replaced by innovation, creativity and far superior man management. It was Benaud and Chappelli all over again. Some blokes just have the gift.

Faced with wilderness, its not Lazarus who must rise again but another Moses to lead us to the promised land: a verdant land of milk and honey which was no more than playing the best cricket. For the crass, it was enough to be winning all the time but in today's mercenary world, a world dominated by men like James Sutherland with their taste for milk and money, Valhalla has dollar signs.

What to make of Hutton's words and their spooky currency in today's cricket market where Australia's stocks ride low in comparison to most others?

Payback is their bitch
The reality is that quality and supremacy in Australian cricket go in cycles of about thirty years, a fact lost on those who like to pull on the muse of Hanrihan and are all too easily prepared to immerse themselves in muddied pools, wallow about and snort contempt at our current maladies. Their disgust isn't at any low quality of performance of the team per-say, more a discontent that comes from years of handing it out to Poms and Kiwis and grabbing their own throats and pretending to choke when they detect a Sarth Efrikan in the room. With the shoes on other feet, being a cocky Aussie just isn't as much fun when the national side doesn't back you up. Not as much fun and not as credible. Not as much fun, not as credible and just a bit uncomfortable because Poms and Kiwis and Springboks all realise that payback is their bitch.

Patience my dear fellows. Patience and fortitude. In the meantime, how about supporting the current crop, regardless of their standing by comparison to the heroes whose shadows you refuse to step away from? Ponting is gone. Hussey is gone. McGrath, Gilchrist and that leg spinner bloke are all gone. Tugger will only come back if you offer him a distribution deal. Hayden and Langer have gone off into the sunset, holding hands and talking about recipes and Tai Chi. We'll all have to make do with what we have. Complaining about them doesn't seem to make them better. Sacking the selectors certainly didn't help and so far, the main benefit in changing the coach has been to make press conferences more entertaining.

For the time being, we may all just have to put up with second best. Our house is being rebuilt so get used to the tent. 

After all, are you good at your job every day?