Australia’s insane summer of cricket got just a little bit weirder yesterday as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced the state was going into a five-day snap lockdown.
While the T20 team is already in New Zealand, domestically, players were gearing up for the resumption of the domestic season with a near full-strength Sheffield Shield and one-day cup to be played.
After a tough summer, losing to India at home before the cancellation of the tour to South Africa, Australia’s top players, and the next tier for that matter, desperately need domestic cricket at a high level.
A high level is exactly what the truncated remainder of the season had in store.
But that is all up in the air now. Borders have been shut and Victoria, who are supposed to kick things off against New South Wales in a handful of days, may not be able to travel or play at all.
Exemptions will be sought and, sure, as of Friday night, the matches are still set to go ahead as planned. But in these crazy COVID times, we all know that could well change in the course of a few hours.
Whatever the case, Cricket Australia must have a plan B ready to go, no matter the cost.
This domestic season finale had the potential to give Australia something of an edge going into a home Ashes series next year, followed by what is likely to be an extremely busy period of cricket as series are caught up and World Cups are held.
That is, of course, all COVID permitting. But provided the vaccine works over the next 12 months, there is no reason to think we can’t be back to an almost normal cricket calendar by this time next year.
That all being said, this domestic season – pitting experienced Australian campaigners up against the Test starts of tomorrow and players on the fringe of selection – could be the most pivotal period in Australia’s recent cricketing history.
The national team is teetering. Sure, they retained the Ashes, but losing at home, losing in Brisbane and falling to India hurts. Big time.
It may well be time to hit the reset button by the time next summer comes around, and the only way that is going to be possible is with a solid form line from the end of this summer.
Just think of the plaudits that come with scoring runs against a New South Wales attack featuring Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood.
That is a Test match level attack playing domestic cricket, and any batsman who scores runs against them will get a careful eye from the selectors.
That is just one of the mountain of story lines ready to play out over the remainder of the resumed Sheffield Shield season. But without it, Australian cricket’s hole that has been dug this summer grows even more.
You see, while England play a mountain of Tests between now and the Ashes, Australia have none scheduled. With series to be caught up, that isn’t to say it won’t change, and if it at all can, Cricket Australia must do so. But every red-ball game between now and the Ashes is critical, domestic or international.
That being said, Cricket Australia must spare no expense to ensure the Sheffield Shield and one-day cup get played out in full, even if that means putting the players in a bubble or hub for a short period of time to get things done, as they did at the start of the season when a stack of matches were played in South Australia.
Based on available grounds and COVID data at the moment, New South Wales would look like the best option to host such a festival of cricket.
Of course, the preference is to have proper home-and-away cricket so players gain experience against the top opposition in all conditions. But if that can’t happen, then every option must be explored, no matter how crazy or financially unworkable it seems on the surface.
While Cricket Australia could take a financial hit from moving every player, team, coach and member of support stuff into a hub, they will take a bigger one from the continued detriment of the Test team.
Of course, that path may have already been sown thanks to the crazy changes to junior cricket formats, requiring players to not play on a proper-sized cricket pitch until they are at under-14 level, but that’s another article for another day. Or, you know, when Australia’s long slide down the Test rankings is in full force about ten years from now.
But back to the main point. For now, Australia still have an opportunity to be the best team in the world. They have stars, fringe players pushing for spots and still a high-quality domestic competition.
The remainder of this summer is almost as crucial as the recent Test series.
It’s vital to the fortunes of Australian cricket going forward, whether the authorities believe so or not.
This is an opportunity to have a prolonged, high-quality two months of cricket. Waste it, and cricket in Australia will just take another slip down the already greasy pole.
If a hub is what it takes, then a hub it must be.
It’s just that important.