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.