Virtually since its inception, T20 cricket has been blamed for the woes of the Australian men’s Test team.
Indeed, a steady decline in our Test performance has corresponded with the rise of the shortest format, albeit likely more coincidence than direct link, perhaps until the last couple of years.
The players who are trying to make their way in Test cricket at the moment are the first generation truly brought up on T20, and accordingly, the technical and mental weaknesses we see are often linked to the newest format.
We hear that constant changing between formats is affecting batsmen’s abilities to build a Test innings by confusing their mindset when tough periods of pure survival with minimal scoring are required. Apparently it is also preventing bowlers from learning the art of the long spell, where they set up wickets over a battle of several overs, luring a false stroke after denying a batsman opportunities to score or plugging away at a known weakness until the dam wall bursts.
All of this is likely a negative influence on Test performance, but another factor is not on display at the Gabba, MCG, or even Manuka.
It is best witnessed every Saturday morning on the junior cricket ovals that so beautifully dot the nation’s landscape. The desire to give everyone a go, to keep kids interested in playing cricket and participating, is simply not producing Test cricketers.
Moreover, it is not achieving the desired result.
Here are the examples witnessed in my own local association, which is very well run, and as far as I am aware, is replicating the system employed across the rest of NSW and Australia.
Cricketers at under 14 level are limited to only five overs when bowling. Batsmen must retire on reaching a certain score. Two simple examples, two major issues immediately.
Batsmen are being taught every single week, at quite a senior age in the junior system, that they must simply get to a certain point to achieve the maximum result. Yes, they may return once all other wickets have fallen, but this is generally to have a slog and score a few more runs.
They are not being trained to bat through the tough period when they are already 55 but the runs have dried up. By this stage, they are generally sitting on the sideline.
Bowlers know that they will get five overs at best, and usually less. They are not learning how to bowl long spells with consistent accuracy. It is observed every week that as the end of the allotted overs nears, those who haven’t taken a wicket start trying too hard, losing technique and accuracy, and producing all manner of rubbish.
What’s more, the batter at the other end knows that even if there is a red-hot bowler in the other side, he or she doesn’t have to face them for an hour on end, or worry about them returning later in the morning. Rather, the batter will have to try to develop their skill against a series of half-trackers, no balls, and gifts that the rest of the team offers.
How does the bowler develop the mindset for a long battle, and learn consistency over a longer period?
How does the batter come to endure tough periods by putting the big shots away?
Sadly but inevitably, we are seeing some of the foibles of this approach start to resonate on the biggest stage.
Go further down the age groups and it becomes quite ghastly. Batters can only face 17 balls, and if they get out, they stay in!
In rugby league, we have seen the outcome of the infamous vest, where the dummy half and first receiver must pass or score a try, rather than be tackled, to prevent a turnover. The goal was to ensure more kids had the opportunity to run the ball. The outcome was a generation or more of halves who struggle with ad-lib football, having little idea how to spot opportunities and capitalise by running at holes.
Rather, their football has become formulaic and often these so-called playmakers began to reach the elite level as nothing more than simply a fit catch-and-pass merchant, as taught to them from under sixes.
While the vests remain at the modified level, we now see the push-back, with the emergence of playmaker academies, and the coaching phrase of ‘eyes-up football’. Shouldn’t all football be ‘eyes up’?
These rules in both sports were designed to encourage participation and produce more talent, lest we lose potential stars who may develop a little later than others, disillusioned by a lack of involvement. Great intentions, to be sure.
Here’s the rub: in cricket, this system is not actually doing what it’s meant to.
As the teen years come on, no amount of batting or bowling as a youngster will keep kids in cricket. The lure of the beach or the shopping centre or the opposite sex or whatever it may be, is strong.
The kids who are more attracted to these things than they are to hot training sessions and sacrificed Saturday mornings are still giving up cricket at 13 or 14.
The fact they got a couple of overs in each game of under 12s is not a factor they weigh up when they decide whether to continue with cricket or hang out at the beach. The memory of getting out twice in their 17 balls in the same season but being allowed to continue batting is similarly irrelevant to the teen mind.
So what are we left with? The kids who have had success and may have made representative teams, and the kids who have not reached this level of success yet, but are determined enough to train hard and obtain these opportunities in the future.
A sprinkling of kids who simply play because their mates are playing complements these groups to form the typical under 16 and under 14 team.
In essence, this is the same group of continuing cricketers into the senior-youth age groups that we had before this system, when kids were learning how to play big innings and bowl long spells.
The talented kids who remain playing reach 14 or 15 having been fed a cricket diet of minimal, limited overs to bowl. They have learned that it doesn’t matter if you get out, as long as you swing hard and maximise your runs, you can have another go. They have been shown that if you last one or two overs against that really good bowler, maybe even by shielding yourself from the strike, you can hit a 50 and retire, and feel like a hero who is going to play Test cricket.
The same applies to the kids who are still physically developing and will emerge as stars at 15, 16 or 17 years of age – they are not being schooled in the mental skills of the longer form at all, and their development is being hampered.
These lessons are hard to unlearn. We are seeing this in Shield cricket, where we lament the lack of high scores and general quality.
With respect to the shorter formats – of course kids want the opportunity to emulate their heroes, many of whom are hitting multiple sixes in a 20-ball stay wearing black pads or magenta strides. This is available to those running junior cricket, as an exciting element of the overall season.
In my youth, we played two-day games throughout the season, with two ‘special event’one-day matches the last game before the Christmas break, and the first game back after mince pies. These events were marked on the calendar and were something every kid looked forward to.
Like the international players, we were playing ‘all the formats’, and swinging the bat hard and often was encouraged in these fixtures. Occasionally, a new talent emerged in these special event games, when their furious swinging paid dividends in a short stay and it became evident that they could be honed in to something more well-rounded.
More often than not, it simply mixed up our cricket and gave us an opportunity to have more fun doing something different, and feel like our heroes. This was part of an overall development.
If Australia is truly focused on Test success, a complete overhaul of the junior cricket system is required.
The international stage now calls for the development of cricketers who can succeed across three diverse formats, the most prestigious being Tests.
Currently the junior system does little to prepare players for the longer game. We tried something, and we failed. We must abort immediately and change the junior system to start producing more cricketers who are prepared for success in the Test arena.