Fascination with age is hurting Australian cricket

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The Urn is long gone and the creams have made way for the colours. The Ashes series post-mortems continue, and everyone is having their say. I’ve deliberately held off on my two cents worth, partly because of a rapid reintroduction to reality with my Ashes Tour now done.

    But also to take a step back and let some of the emotions die down.

    My premise stems from a dinner conversation with my Dad in a Melbourne Docklands restaurant during the Boxing Day Test, during which, sadly, we saw plenty of supporting evidence.

    And that is, that this increasing fascination Cricket Australia has developed with the age of players, particularly young players, is having the exact opposite effect than was hoped.

    Whether it has stemmed from a concern that talented young players are choosing AFL over cricket is probably for another discussion, but the belief is certainly there in cricket circles.

    Either way, Cricket Australia and the states have become a lot more active in promoting talented young players in the last few years. It’s my opinion (and my Dad’s) that this move is forcing out the wrong players, and in the process is weakening the quality of First Class cricketers.

    A few seasons back now, we saw the old state Second XI competition rebadged the Futures League, and while three “over age” players are permitted, it has essentially become an under-23 comp.

    It’s a great theory, that giving young state players an easier path from the age championships into the senior ranks will produce better cricketers quicker, but the reality seems to be that players coming through this new system aren’t as ready for higher honours as they once might have been.

    And this “line in the sand” of 23 years of age is significant. We’re essentially now telling young players that if they can’t progress from 19-20 year-old rookie player to cementing a Sheffield Shield berth by the time they turn 23, then there will be very limited opportunity to progress as a cricketer.

    Don’t quite believe this is the case?

    I’ll give an example I know personally.

    Two young guys from my club here in Canberra, one who I saw first come into grade aged 15, went down to Tasmania on rookie contracts in successive years. My former teammate was rookie-listed for three seasons, the second just two.

    Both were (and still are) well performed in Hobart 1st Grade and the Futures League, indeed the second of the two captained the Futures League side last season.

    Both were clearly on the fringe of higher honours, and by the end of the 2009/10 season one had played a couple of Ford Ranger Cup one-dayers and was picked in two Shield squads, while the other played a handful of Big Bash Twenty20s and made his Shield debut late in the season.

    However, with the guys no longer qualifying as under-23, both were delisted for the 2010/11 season. While the guys themselves were obviously gutted, for those of us that had been keeping tabs on their careers, the move made little or no sense, given they were obviously among the top 14 or 15 players in the state squad last season.

    This seems to a common tale around the country too, with young rookies coming up through the age teams or recruited from interstate, while fringe players are delisted once they hit 23.

    Essentially, players in their mid-20s, who in the pre-Futures League days might be just starting to make their mark, are now being lost to the state squads, rather than the stalwarts well beyond 30.

    And this is where it becomes a double-edged sword. Because that group of players in their mid-20s are being moved on earlier, it means that older players need to be retained longer so that some “old heads” are there to bring the kids through.

    So Australian cricket recognises that it needs to bring the kids through to replace the old heads, but the old heads aren’t the ones that they’re replacing.

    It gets worse, too.

    With those mid-20s players gone, the kids are promoted into the senior state sides well before they’re ready, and without having really demanded the promotion via performance. This kind of flow-on can only result in a drop of the quality within the Sheffield Shield competition, which has already been widely acknowledged all the way up to James Sutherland.

    In turn, a weaker Shield comp can only mean a weaker Test side, too.

    The performances of some Australian players during the Ashes might suggest that weakening is already happening now, but the promotions this summer of Phillip Hughes, Steven Smith, Usman Khawaja, and Michael Beer hardly came by smashing down the selectors’ door.

    Khawaja’s numbers this season had been reasonable, but he still really had only one big score of note for NSW this season. His Shield figures were a long way removed from the days when Matthew Hayden peeled off countless thousand-run seasons before he could even get a mention.

    Smith can only have been picked with an eye on the future, Beer seems to have been picked because Shane Warne mentioned him en route to (ahem) Liz Hurley, and I’ll just plain confess I don’t know why Hughes was given another opportunity.

    Young players around the country just aren’t coming through as well prepared as they once were, and this can only be because of the structure they play under. In the meantime, the leading run-scorers in Shield ranks in recent seasons have been the very old heads that are supposed to be on their way out.

    This makes the much-publicised (but yet to be defined) post-Ashes review even more interesting. The old saying goes that you don’t conduct a review unless you already know the outcome, but I don’t know that Cricket Australia will be fully expecting what might – or should – be uncovered.

    Worryingly, Sutherland told a press conference in Sydney at the conclusion of the Fifth Test that he was in “no doubt” that the Futures League was better serving the Shield ranks and Test team than was ever the case with the old Second XI set-up.

    His reasoning, that the new structure fixed a system that was “clogged up by older players”, failed to acknowledge that it’s the players most needed to be developed – the players aged 23-28 – that are being lost from the state squads.

    So what can be done?

    Well, I’ve suggested that the Futures League is one (but not the only) area of concern currently, and I believe that just a slight tweak can see some benefits in the immediate future.

    Instead of the current under-23 focus, I’d revert the competition back to open age, but with a playing condition where state sides field at least say, three players under 21.

    This changes the focus from promoting young players ahead of their time, to one that develops cricketers regardless of age. It would also see a return to the old adage where “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” with young players learning the game among older professionals and less of their own peer group.

    Would a 20-year-old rookie bowler learn more from a 27-year-old state squad member, or another 20-year-old?

    It would also bring an element of “tougher” cricket to the next tier above the Grade ranks, and not just yet another level of age championships. Ultimately, it would have to mean that by the time a young player earns his First Class or even Test debut, they are immeasurably better prepared than the current system is giving us.

    It would tighten up loose techniques and dodgy lines-and-lengths in a flash – because they just couldn’t survive the tougher environment – and mean that by the time a young player earns his stripes, he’s less Hughes or Johnson and more Langer or McGrath.

    And this is just one suggestion to just one problem.

    There’s plenty more out there; we’ve all seen them, and we’ve commented on plenty of them. However, maybe this is one where we can see the results before our eyes.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (62)

    • Roar Guru

      January 18th 2011 @ 4:29am
      Vinay Verma said | January 18th 2011 @ 4:29am | ! Report

      Brett,a very thoughtful analysis. Let me share a few thoughts with you as I have my first cup of coffee and think aloud.

      Australian talent is fast tracked through the under 16’s and under 19’s. Most of the time these players are playing amongst their own age group. Then they go to the academies and again mostly play with their own age groups. A lot of the time they have skipped the “hard” heads that abound in district and grade. Mark Taylor played with me at Lindfield as a 16 yesr old in First Grade in the Shires competition. At 17 he went to a grade club and learnt the “facts” of life. He had the talent at a young age but playing with older players he kept learning.

      Take someone like Mitch marsh. He led Australia to a win in the U-19 WC and is now playing with the big boys. it will take him a few more years to mature as a first class cricketer. he has an advantage in that his father played at the highest level so he won’t get ahead of himself.

      This happens in Tennis. You can win junior Wimbledon or the US Open. But the transition to the pro tour is a different ball game. A champion junior does not automatically become a champion in the seniors. It is the big fish in a little pond syndrome. When you go from the pond to the ocean there are a few “bigger” fish and dare I say predators out there.

      Good fruit does not go from seed to bloom overnight.

      • Columnist

        January 18th 2011 @ 5:20am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 5:20am | ! Report

        And this is my exact point Vinay, these guys then go from the 19s to the state squad to play Futures League, but it has essentially become another age level of rep cricket. You’re quite right, they often have limited time in the grade ranks, and so there players are still having to develop among their peer group.

        My tweek of this comp would at least remove the under-age element, which means that they would be playing against older state players. This does happen to a degree now, but with only three players over 23 allowed, it’s not as tough as it could be..

        • Roar Guru

          January 18th 2011 @ 5:30am
          Vinay Verma said | January 18th 2011 @ 5:30am | ! Report

          Brett,the worrying bit here is that most of the State CEO’s..Gilbert,Dodemaide,Wood…have all played FC or higher and should know better…they have all taken their eyes off the ball…they are obsessed with surveys and bringing in more money. Money is important but I believe there is enough to go around and it is not being utilised to the best effect. At least we are not as bad as Pakistan..there was a time when the PCB had over 300 staff.

          • Columnist

            January 18th 2011 @ 5:59am
            Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 5:59am | ! Report

            as did Sutherland, of course..

            • Roar Guru

              January 18th 2011 @ 5:03pm
              Vinay Verma said | January 18th 2011 @ 5:03pm | ! Report

              Talking of Sutherland,read gideon’s piece in Cricinfo today….a drunk holding onto a lamppost…and other choice phrases.

              • January 19th 2011 @ 8:41am
                Brett McKay said | January 19th 2011 @ 8:41am | ! Report

                Vinay, thanks for putting me onto it, it is Gideon Haigh at his very best..

                Roarers, I’d storngly encourage you to check it out: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/497175.html

                Some gems:
                Players attending a breakfast is a “supreme error of judgement”? Come again? It’s not like they launched a line of lingerie or read the weather on Sunrise wearing a tutu. Was Sutherland seriously contending that the performances of either Clarke or Hughes were compromised by attending a function raising money for charity? If so, if their games are so sensitive that they can be derailed by having their vegemite in the wrong place, then arguably neither player should be in the side.

                and,
                McKenna recently suggested that the objective of the Big Bash League was to “enable us to make a hero out of Shaun Tait or David Warner, two great cricketers currently not playing for Australia [in Test cricket].” If a “supreme error of judgement” has been perpetrated in Australian circles lately, it’s been the promotion of such permanently stunted mediocrities as Shaun Tait and David Warner as “great cricketers”.

              • October 2nd 2011 @ 11:43am
                David Siddall said | October 2nd 2011 @ 11:43am | ! Report

                There is also a good interview with Gideon Haigh in which issues in the CricInfo piece are discussed, the future of Australian cricket and wider issues facing international cricket as a whole.

                http://worldcricketwatch.com/podcasts/gideon-haigh-interview-on-the-future-of-cricket/

    • January 18th 2011 @ 7:08am
      sledgeross said | January 18th 2011 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      Nice work Brett. I liken it to the way Rugby League has gone as well. With no reserve grade anymore, there is a vacuum in the talent between Toyota Cup and First grade. Alot of blokes with decent talent now find themselves just playing local A Grade, in fact, some A Grade matches are better than the Toyota Cup.
      Gone are the days when we have a Jamie Siddons or Boof Lehman, or even a Mike Hussey, blokes who dont get their shot until its nearly “too late”. The prevailing attitude now is if you havent got the baggy green by age 25, you aint never gonna get it! Youth for youths sake isnt always the best course of action. I think we should pick blokes who can fulfill roles, similar to the team Simpson and Border cobbled together in the mid 80’s. Find a solid 3 bat, find an opening bowler who can land it on a dime, have blokes who field on the edge of fury and throw themselves around.
      And another thing, that Gatorade ad with Mitchell Johnson sh*ts me to tears. If he “works” so hard bowling 180 times a day (with all his no balls and wides, more like 220!) in 40 degree heat, why cant he land the ball consistently! Its a bloody disgrace!

      • January 18th 2011 @ 8:43am
        Fivehole said | January 18th 2011 @ 8:43am | ! Report

        Spot on Ross – i hate that ad too. He’s sitting in the dressing room waiting to bat for half the days as well, although maybe not so much now with the current fragile batting lineup – if he concentrated on getting his line right rather than getting tattoos and making #$%^& ads over the offseason, things may have been different

      • January 18th 2011 @ 8:51am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 8:51am | ! Report

        Cheers Sledgie. In my notes for this column, I had mentioned the Toyota Cup, and had every intention of including it here, because you are quite right, we’re seeing exactly the same scenario playing out in the NRL. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive my editing for what is already a longer piece than I normally turn out..

        Completely agree on your Lehmann/Siddons examples too, and they could just as easily have been included in there alongside Hayden.

        “Youth for youths sake isnt always the best course of action.” Again, I wholeheartedly concur…

      • January 18th 2011 @ 9:29am
        soapit said | January 18th 2011 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        wasnt much fun watching them clown around smashing grannies for six for vodafone in the ad break while they were getting smashed when up against men their own size when we returned to the live action.

      • January 18th 2011 @ 12:53pm
        jmac said | January 18th 2011 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

        and how’s the part at the end of that ad where mitch’s great triumph is to dismiss a batsman playing with a broken hand on a 5th afternoon minefield. yeah you earned that gatorade.

    • Roar Guru

      January 18th 2011 @ 7:14am
      Rickety Knees said | January 18th 2011 @ 7:14am | ! Report

      Great post Brett – a potent piece.

      • January 18th 2011 @ 10:35am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 10:35am | ! Report

        cheers Rickety, it was great to be able to pull it all together, considering the conversation that led to this column happened over three weeks ago!!

    • January 18th 2011 @ 7:18am
      Hooplah said | January 18th 2011 @ 7:18am | ! Report

      If the selectors actually picked the best 11 we would start winning again.

      They seem to be picking a marketeers 11, so they can sell men’s fragrances, cereals, phones, alcoholic drinks etc.. on the back of certain personalities. eg: Brett Lee, Michael Clarke, Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger.

      Just pick the best and I am sure we will come good. Does not matter what age they are.

      • January 18th 2011 @ 9:48am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        But Hooplah, “just pick the best” doesn’t address the real problem here, particularly if the best are still the best well into their 30s…

    • January 18th 2011 @ 7:46am
      sheek said | January 18th 2011 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      We have a saying at work that whenever someone gets promoted to officer or manager, they undergo a minor lobotomy.

      The higher they progress, the more of their brain is removed. Too often the people running organisations have no idea of what they’re doing.

      It seems no matter the business or sport, this saying remains true in most cases.

      A lot of rugby league’s problems can be said to have begun when they replaced 3rd grade with U/23. The system had been working quite well until then. Quality players cut their teeth with Colts district clubs (say Bondi Utd, Paddington, etc), thus earning a club district contract (say Easts Roosters). They then worked their way through the grades, playing with & against the old hard-heads.

      You would think these guys running Australian cricket knew better, but obviously not…..

      Rugby union is also going down the same stupid path.

      BTW – cheers to Norman Gordon, ex-South African fast bowler (1938/39) who at 99 is the oldest surviving test cricketer, & 200 odd days from becoming test cricket’s first centurion. Still as spritely as ever, apparently!

      • January 18th 2011 @ 8:46am
        Fivehole said | January 18th 2011 @ 8:46am | ! Report

        I think you are referring to the peter principle – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle

        • January 18th 2011 @ 10:24am
          sheek said | January 18th 2011 @ 10:24am | ! Report

          Fivehole,

          Yes, that’s another way to describe it – “everyone eventually rises to their level of incompetence”, or similar.

          • January 18th 2011 @ 10:34am
            Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 10:34am | ! Report

            Sheek, I don’t think I want to apply that to cricket, I’m scared about how well it might fit…

      • January 18th 2011 @ 9:31am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Sheek, Sledgie above raised the NRL’s Toyota cup, which is U20s, and it’s already apparent that similar events that I’ve noted here are also happening to NRL sides. SImply put, their 21yo props and backrowers and centres are nowhere near ready for first grade football. So then what? These kids hve to ply their trade in QLD Cup for a few seasons and hope for the best…

        • January 18th 2011 @ 8:30pm
          GaryGnu said | January 18th 2011 @ 8:30pm | ! Report

          Brett,

          Interesting you mention the QLD Cup. Young players between the youth comps and the top level go there to develop their games. It is no accident that QLD have dominated State of Origin recently with a steady stream of young talented players coming through in most positions.

          Dare I say it, but is it possible that the equivalent in cricket may turn out to be The English County Competition?

          Over the summer I heard that Warne suggested that the best thing a young cricketer could do was spend some time in the England developing their game. Could England end up being as dominant as QLD with a constant supply of well developed cricketers ready to play test cricket?

          ……meanwhile Australia just continues to be outplayed…….

          • January 19th 2011 @ 6:57am
            Brett McKay said | January 19th 2011 @ 6:57am | ! Report

            Gary, it’s a very good point. Young players will go where they can work on their game and where the opportunities are. Be that the Qld Cup, or the English County scene, the players won’t really care if the end result is a First Class cricket or NRL contract…

    • January 18th 2011 @ 7:57am
      Fivehole said | January 18th 2011 @ 7:57am | ! Report

      Spot on Brett. Although we want to avoid the situation we have in the test side, where te likes of Michael Clarke are untouchable just because they are older, have been around a while and there is other agendas clouding the decision making

      • January 18th 2011 @ 9:35am
        Brett McKay said | January 18th 2011 @ 9:35am | ! Report

        Fiver, that’s also coming from that double edged sword I mention though. These older guys (and we can probably include Clarke) need to be kept, because there isn’t a “next Michael Clarke” in the wings. There’s plenty of talented kids, but none of them are taking the wickets or making the runs needed to put the pressure on the First XI.

        It’s quite likely that Ponting will come back in somewhere when fit, but that’s hardly Ponting’s fault he’s still one of the best six batsmen in the country. Ponting was knocking on the door at 21 himself, but it was with performance..

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