Australia is about to commence its winter tours of the West Indies and Bangladesh later this month.
The purely limited-over format fixtures are set in place to give the side some much needed practice ahead of the upcoming T20 World Cup.
The tournament was scheduled to take place in India but with the recent issues with COVID-19 the World Cup is set to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Oman, with the new dates set to run from October 17 through to November 14.
The T20 World Cup is the only ICC trophy that has eluded the Australians with the exception of the new World Test Championship and things looked set for a real crack at raising the trophy come November.
However, the Australians’ preparation has been thrown into disarray with a number of key players making themselves unavailable.
Pat Cummins, Glenn Maxwell, David Warner, Steve Smith, Marcus Stoinis, Jhye Richardson and Kane Richardson have all made themselves unavailable for the winter tours through various reasons.
Smith is nursing an injury that looks to keep him out of the World Cup itself. Cummins’ fiancé is pregnant and he has ruled himself out of any cricket in the short term. The remainder seem set to be passing up the opportunity to represent their country to return to the second phase of the IPL.
This has got to be upsetting for coach Justin Langer and captain Aaron Finch as they would have loved a running start at the tournament and would have relished the opportunity to have the team running smoothly heading into the World Cup.
Part of Australia’s issues with their limited-overs sides are that the lack a true death bowler unless Mitchell Starc is in form and his form has been patchy at best for the last 18 months. Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have been tried in various instances with varying success, however it remains a definite deficiency in the Aussie side’s make-up.
Another glaring flaw is the balance of their batting line-up. Many of their key players do their best work at the top of the order and there is no real noted finisher to come in at five, six, and seven to close off an innings. Glenn Maxwell tends to be the man most used but the Australians have liked using him at four to allow him to play a longer innings.
Players like Alex Carey, Marcus Stoinis and Ben McDermott have been tried in the middle order but have done their best work in the BBL batting at the top of the order.
These games would have been a perfect opportunity to answer some of these questions and find the right player suited to the role the team needs.
There is no question that playing in the IPL is fantastic preparation for the individuals. Many pundits would say that the IPL is the highest form of T20 competition, surpassing the Word Cup. So individually the players taking part in the IPL will be prepared for the rigours of a World Cup.
But the Australian side will suffer for it. We have seen what these players can do. What is more important at the moment is finding the right balance for the side rather than sharpening up individuals’ skills.
Australian team officials, including Aaron Finch, remain sceptical of the players returning to the IPL. Finch said: “I think they would find it hard to justify going back and playing that second half of the IPL. Just purely based on the workload with a T20 World Cup and a huge home summer. It’s really tough.”
He followed up those sentiments expressing surprise at the players missing the tour and that there is a very realistic chance that those players could miss out on a World Cup spot.
“Yeah, very realistic. You have to go on current form and you pick guys who are playing well. Playing cricket for Australia and doing well is the ultimate, in my opinion. So for the guys to be on this tour, to get the first opportunity to really put their hand up and take a spot is what it’s about. It’s tough to ignore really good international performances.”
There is a definite message coming from the Australian camp that players that have remained in the squad will be looked at more favourably than those that have left.
This is why I find some of the absences surprising. I can understand Cummins and Warner going to the IPL. They were set to be rested for the tours anyway. Glenn Maxwell is a lock for any Australian limited-overs side. But players like Richardson and Stoinis, their decision to leave the squad is confusing.
The positions that Australia have surplus of are fast bowlers and seam-bowling all-rounders.
Mitchell Starc, Hazlewood, Jason Behrendorff, Riley Meredith, Andrew Tye and the uncapped Wes Agar are currently in the squad with Pat Cummins assured a spot when he returns, not to mention the conditions in the UAE will likely lend themselves to carrying an extra spinner, making competition for the fast-bowling spots quite fierce.
The all-rounder spot is quite competitive as well. Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques and Dan Christian are currently in the squad with Ashton Agar as a spin-bowling all-rounder and Glenn Maxwell is also able to play as an all-rounder.
The all-rounder spot is a particularly tough one as these players are likely to bat in the middle order and Stoinis is most comfortable batting in the top three. Australian selectors have even passed on him for squad selections in the past due to considering him as a top-order batsman and they were already too top-heavy.
This seems to be a perfect opportunity to practise playing that middle-order finisher role. At the moment I personally would be inclined to take Dan Christian as the all-rounder as it stands. He’s proven to be more suited to a lower-order hitting role and arguably offers more with the ball. His extensive franchise cricket experience will prove invaluable.
Outside of Cummins, Warner and Maxwell, none of the other Australian IPL players are definitively better than the players remaining on tour, so their trip to the IPL could end up costing them a World Cup start if Finch’s words regarding international games would be given preference.
This particular transgression at worst is an inconvenience to the Australian side. It also gives them an opportunity to have a look at a host of new players and the players playing in the IPL are playing against the highest standard competition in the world.
However, this could be quite a problematic precipice that national teams could find themselves on. We already have to accept that franchise T20 cricket has eclipsed international cricket as the elite level for the format.
International boards have already conceded ground to the IPL and no longer schedule games during the period as to not clash and allow their players to get their massive pay day playing in the lucrative tournament. But why should the boards have to deal with the players having two bites of the cherry.
Obviously, they are special circumstances that meant the IPL needed a second start time, but as franchise cricket becomes more popular and gets more backing, what’s going to stop players leaving to take part in the PSL, the T20 Blast, the Hundred, BBL or even the proposed American T20 league, which has the potential to be infused with a great deal of cash.
International cricket could potentially face players picking and choosing which tours they intend to play. Lower profile tours will be disregarded in favour of the quick-cash franchise cricket offers.
National boards face the real problem of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, with many nations not having enough resources at their disposal to adequately combat the lavish salaries franchise cricket can offer.
We have already seen England players prepared to miss Test matches because the originally scheduled finish of the IPL clashed with the first Test against New Zealand. That is truly a worrying trend that is being set.
But should that be something players from wealthy nations like England and Australia really worry about?
Those players are already making a lucrative living and their boards have already made the concession of staying out of the IPL’s way. Is it the respective boards’ fault that India couldn’t read the writing on the wall and move the IPL to a safer location and avoid the spiking COVID-19 numbers?
The ECB and Cricket Australia have every right to be leaning towards a policy of favouring players prepared to give their blood and sweat for the inconsequential series as well as the marquee ones.
With the ever-expanding popularity and monetary injection that T20 tournaments offer, it’s naïve to think the status quo will remain the same. The ECB are already trying to go further down the rabbit hole with their take on the shortest format with a re-invention in the form of the Hundred.
Franchise cricket is here to stay and is likely on the increase. Unfortunately the calendar doesn’t get any longer and with various travel restrictions around COVID-19 making overseas tour in the vicinity of a month longer than normal depending on quarantine times, it will be an ever increasing juggling act for international cricket to fit everything in its schedule.
In the battle for relevancy, it’s not unreasonable for the wealthier boards who renumerate its players quite well to draw a line in the sand. If that line is the IPL, then so be it, but the IPL shouldn’t be able to reschedule itself at its leisure.
Banning players from franchise cricket is not the way to go. All athletes have the right to earn as much money as they can in their careers. In some cases, a season or two of IPL could be more than they’d earn in their whole careers for their nation.
But to protect international cricket’s standing as the pinnacle of the game, some measures need to be taken. Or else we face the real possibility that players will pick and choose when and where they want to represent their country, making international cricket potentially a second-tier competition until a major tournament comes along.
It seems on the face of it almost greedy that players can be earning substantial amounts of money playing for Australia only to turn around and rule themselves unavailable for parts of the year to play cricket elsewhere. The message has to be something like ‘it’s fine if you go but don’t expect us to keep your seat warm for you’.
There is no surer way to lose your spot in a national side than to willingly hand it over to someone else.
Presently this problem is still a way off, but it would be naive to think with the popularity of T20 format that this is a realistic path the game can go down. The game needs to start to consider safe guards if its plan is to ensure the prestige of international cricket, otherwise the game could end up being something akin to football.
The landscape will be dominated by uber-rich leagues and international matches being glorified friendlies with understrength sides until a prestigious tournament comes around.