Australia has been gifted in being able to produce great Test teams across the 140 odd years these games have been played. There were some great teams in the 1800’s – perhaps culminating in the 1902 side that toured England in what has been termed the ‘Golden Age’ of cricket.
More impressive sides emerged after the Great War then again during the Great Depression. Donald Bradman’s team in 1948 was rightly dubbed the ‘invincibles’, the teams Richie Benaud captained in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s played in some of the most amazing Tests ever seen while the Chappell brothers were leaders of some great teams in the late 70’s.
Allan Border – also known as Captain Grumpy – led a team in ’89 that was going to give world cricket a taste of what was to come for the next 20 years, an era that produced some of the finest cricketers to ever pull on a boot for Australia.
So how do this current lot stack up?
It might surprise some to realise that England are fourth and Australia fifth on the ICC team Test rankings. Even with South Africa on the slide at Test level, it’s safe to say neither side deserves to be rated any higher.
Yes there’s been some wonderfully exciting cricket in this series, but the standard of batting and some of the catching has not been particularly good. In fact it’s been very poor on occasion, which suggests this is certainly not a great Australian Test side.
The obvious question is whether Australian Test cricket can once again become great – but as it stands the simple answer is probably not.
Australian first class players are being torn in different directions with the way the game is currently structured. They all desperately want to wear the baggy green – which demands a certain skill set and discipline – while being tempted by the huge money on offer to become great T20 players – which demands a completely different skill and mindset.
The Australian public has also been sold a three card trick with the pitches that have been the norm for first class cricket in recent seasons. The Tests have mostly been played on ‘roads’ that have allowed guys with limited technique to prosper, so we have been gulled into thinking these players really are Test quality.
This has been the case at Sheffield Shield level as well, where last season’s highest run scorers – Marcus Harris and Matthew Wade – have had their techniques absolutely mauled in the current series by quality bowlers on pitches that are a little helpful.
They are not on their own with Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, David Warner and Travis Head all failing to impress against the moving ball.
Spin bowling is the other casualty of the current cricket era. Australian pitches hardly allow for any turn, with curators forced to try and create surfaces that will last four or five days but help both bowlers and batsmen. They are also expected to produce the type of pitch that allows lots of sixes to be hit. Rather than do both, they’ve erred on the side of flat tracks which don’t break up – meaning spinners hardly get a look in.
Nathan Lyon is not only the GOAT – he’s also currently our only Test quality spinner. Others like Jon Holland and Steve O’Keefe have been tried but found wanting for a variety of reasons, while others like Adam Zampa are seen as options in short form cricket but not at Test level.
More to the point there are very few spinners coming through, mostly because no young person would want to take up a skill where they spend much of their bowling stint waiting for someone in the crowd to throw the ball back.
Australian Test cricket is at a crossroads. Our current batting line-up – with two exceptions – has been shown up, which on paper opens the door for others to step in. The problem is, they’re not considered as good as the current guys otherwise they’d be in the side already. Our spin stocks are virtually bare because there’s been little investment or encouragement for players to take on this craft.
Cricket Australia has to come up with a way of helping potential Test players hone their techniques. The first two steps are to use Duke balls throughout the Shield season and play Shield cricket on pitches that allow for some movement.
If curators can’t come up with pitches that suit both four day games and short form, move the four day games to other venues and instruct those curators to create pitches that will allow a contest between bat and ball.
Selectors need to stop choosing guys who are very good short form players for Test spots, because – with rare exception – their techniques do not translate to Test cricket. This Ashes series has clearly highlighted this point.
Players may also need to make a choice about what form of the game they will play and selectors need to be brutally honest about where they see a person fitting into an Australian side. There’s little point in players such as D’arcy Short or Chris Lynn trying their guts out to play Test cricket if they don’t have the techniques to make a real fist of it.
Great Test teams and players are not built on mediocrity and the Australian public, the administrators, selectors and above all the players need to understand that.
Australian cricket is going through a period where being mediocre is becoming acceptable but this cycle of acceptance needs to be broken now. If this becomes entrenched in Australian cricket – which is likely with so few genuine Test quality players – any chance we have of hosting another great Test cricketing era in this country is gone. Perhaps forever.