How Australia got here

There is something wrong. Your work has lost the plot. They want to know exactly what all the problems are. They appoint an independent commission to get all the facts. You go into the meeting ready to give your full and frank opinion in a safe and anonymous way.

But in the room is your boss. He says, you can ask him to leave if you want.

Would you ask him to leave? And let him know that you are essentially about to badmouth him.

Would you keep him there, but still be as frank and honest as you would be without him being there?

Or would you leave him there, and say the sort of things that would keep your relationship with him super sweet?

In the last eight Tests, this hard-working, infighting, disorganized, magic-seeking Australia team has lost seven times and not won once. They’ve lost three of their last four series. They haven’t made an ICC final in their last two attempts. And the words Australian cricketer no longer mean a monster that will destroy your hopes and dreams, unless you are Australian.

Australia’s Test team has slipped, their ODI side hasn’t made the semi-finals of the last two ICC tournaments and their T20 side is ranked seventh (as laughable as those rankings are). At the end of this Test, Australia will be ranked fifth in the world. If there were to be a World Test Championship, Australia would not invited. That’s not a myth, that’s fact. It’s also not a mistake, it’s well earned.

Jason Gillespie never made it to the revenge Ashes. Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne retired at them. Matthew Hayden stayed on for another couple of years with Adam Gilchrist. Brett Lee couldn’t get through Tests, and ultimately ODIs. Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey went in the same summer. That is ten pretty decent players to leave in seven years.

Players do retire. To be with their families, to take up new positions. Because they’re tired. Because they’re struggling. Because they’re old. Even Sachin isn’t going to be playing until he is 50. Things change.

But Australia lost more than just the big names during that period. The ICL came and claimed some of their most experienced and well-respected Shield players. Names like Ian Harvey, Matthew Elliott, Jimmy Maher, Michael Kasprowicz, Stuart Law, Michael Bevan and even Gillespie, again, were lost. Cricket Australia decided that any players who were part of the ICL were effectively radioactive. There was pressure from the BCCI, but it was CA who made the decision. Those players who were in the Shield, would never play again, instantly weakening it. Those who were coaching candidates would take a few years before they were let back into the ground.

At around the same time, Cricket Australia changed the National 2nd XI competition to the Futures League. The Futures League was not the name of a horrible sci-fi film, but a way of getting more young players into the Shield system. A new rule of this competition meant that a minimum of eight players had to be under 23. Turning what was one of the strongest non-first-class competitions in cricket’s history into an under-23 competition with a few wise heads. They also shortened it to three days, and even more bizarrely had capped overs for innings (96 in the first, 48 in the second). A once proud and important part of Australian cricket had been experimented with the way stoner pizza makers do on the late shift.

The 2nd XI competition was always very important in Australia, as only six teams made up the Shield, so they needed a way to groom and expose new players. It was also a combination of young fresh-faced hopefuls, Shield players who were not regulars and grizzled club cricketers who had been performing well that year. It was brutal and uncaring, the perfect way to prepare for first-class cricket. And if you listen to the many, many, many Shield cricketers who complain about it, Cricket Australia turned it into a friendly crèche for spoiled children.

One way or another, it is certainly the case that Shield cricket went from the best first-class competition on earth to just another first-class competition. And it did so quickly. In the early 2000s David Hussey was averaging 45 for Victoria and 65 for Nottinghamshire. By 2011 his former team-mate Damien Wright was saying that county cricket was stronger than Shield cricket. Now even if he was wrong, the fact that the two could be compared showed how much Shield cricket had slipped.

There are others who aim their guns at the Big Bash League. Now the BBL has many flaws. Instead of being contracted for and developed by one club, you add another that in many ways never needed to be added. At one stage a few years ago, Pat Cummins was getting advice from the national, state and franchise physios depending on what time of the season it was. It also means that a young player can be paid far more by a franchise than they can for being a first-class player. Cricket Australia is telling these players, directly at times, that T20 is more important than Shield cricket.

The BBL is also midway through the Shield season. It stops Shield cricket dead. Shield cricket ceases to exist for just shy of two months next season. That means for a player who is just a first-class specialist, he gets almost two months off with no first-class games to play during the major part of the summer, and also can’t push his name forward for the Test side in that time. If that player does choose to play, it’s also not like they’re playing in a strong competition. It has eight teams not six, spreading the talent further. At that time of the year it is practically impossible for the Australian Test players to play. And generally, the overseas players who do play are not the best players on earth.

Then there are some who will say T20 techniques are changing the way young Australians bat, but what country doesn’t play T20? Alastair Cook has played T20 for Essex, Jonathan Trott has played for England in T20, and KP plays in the IPL. As do Dravid, Kohli, Tendulkar, Kallis, Smith, De Villiers, Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Gayle. Since the IPL started, Chris Gayle’s Test average has gone up four runs. That is despite the fact that he plays in almost every T20 competition on the planet.

The IPL, which does not stop the Ranji Trophy midway through and does have stars from India and the world, is also not to blame. The South African players are in the IPL, Champions League, and they have their own T20 tournament. They seem to handle all this. It doesn’t affect their Test team being the best on earth. Their techniques and behaviour seem unaffected by the big money and constant slogging.

The IPL has even helped Australia in the past. Shane Watson used the first tournament as a celebration of himself as a star. Shaun Marsh showed the selectors he was around. Ryan Harris used it to learn subcontinental bowling. And countless Australian players are given free lessons in playing spin on the subcontinent.

It also means that Aussie Rules football finally has to compete with cricket. Since Aussie Rules went professional, every player who was good at both sports, and since they share a heritage and grounds, it is a lot, chose football. Almost every champion Aussie Rules footballer has a story about how they were equally good at cricket. How they could be in the top order for Australia had they not chosen another sport. Shane Warne partly chose cricket because he was a failed footballer. Brad Hodge tried to play football. Jamie Siddons, Max Walker, Keith Miller and Simon O’Donnell all played both codes.

But there are more than 500 active professional football jobs in Australia every year. There are fewer than 100 cricket jobs. Dan Marsh was in the first 40 cricketers for Australia for a few years, and he probably gets recognised in the street twice a year. A comparable footballer would still be getting VIP nightclub treatment five or ten years after he retired. But now cricket can fight back, with the two devils the IPL and the BBL, kids know there are more jobs, with more pay, that can also make them more famous. Mitchell Marsh, Alex Keath and Meyrick Buchanan all chose cricket over football in the last few years. It isn’t many, and only Marsh has really made it, but with Aussie Rules getting bigger, and more sports being played in Australia than ever before, any kids who choose cricket first is a win.

Especially as Australia’s recent sporting efforts would suggest that they are no longer the powerhouses they once were at sport.

In 2003 an Australian was in a sports bar in New York watching an NBA game. The guys at the bar heard his accent. They treated him like he was an Australian athlete worth of praise, not a pudgy world traveller on the way to the World Cup. They also told him that Australians were, by far, the greatest athletes on the planet. At that stage Australians were known for two things – Steve Irwin and being better than everyone else at sport. The Australian tried to tell them it was a bit of a bubble, and that it wasn’t actually a mythical country. Had they found a court, he would have shown them his jump-shot to disprove the theory for once and all. Instead the legend kept growing.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Australia won no gold medals, and only five medals all together. In Sydney 2000, they won 16 and 58, in 2004 Athens it was 17 and 50. In Montreal, they were the 32nd ranked nation, in Sydney and Athens, they were fourth. How did the world’s 52nd most populous country on earth, with about 20 million people, end up the world’s fourth best sporting nation on earth during consecutive Olympics?

It was helped by the conditions. An active outdoor lifestyle helped. Most suburbs and country towns had sport at their heart. A joint football, cricket, netball and tennis club was where people spent their time, playing, watching, and drinking. The weather helped too. Summer sports can be played almost all year round in many parts of the country. Queensland, as a state on its own, embarrasses whole nations by the number of golds it has won in Olympic pools. Partly, at least, because it’s hot there and you want to be swimming all the time. But other countries have good weather and active lifestyles.

It’s not genetic. Unlike other small countries who have done well, it wasn’t a genetic predisposition to one or two sports; Australians dominated the world in almost everything that could be classed as a sport other than football. They’ve won medals in the summer and winter Olympics. They have been blessed with naturally athletic indigenous athletes, but despite their phenomenal success, they are only less than 2% of the population and aren’t the reason Australia was so successful.

So what was the most important part of Australia’s rise to the top? Money and hard work.

While other countries treated sport as a pastime, Australia looked at it as a business. They found the world’s best coaches and ploughed money into sports science. They created academies, scholarships and institutes while everyone else outside of the American Collegiate system or the very elite end of sport was working a day job and playing a bit of sport when they could. Sports psychologists joined physios, doctors and nutritionists. Their athletes were better trained, equipped and looked after than those of most nations on earth.

This led to phenomenal success. This led to the myth. But recently it has all started falling down. And it isn’t just cricket.

The latest Olympics were very average for Australia. Only seven gold medals, and their worst result since 1988. In tennis, Australia have produced one grand slam winner in ten years. They were beaten at home by the British Lions in rugby. In the latest FINA World Swimming Championships Australia came sixth with three golds. In 2001 they had 13 golds and were the No. 1 team.

There will still be people all around the world who see Australians as these mythical sporting beings who cannot be beaten. But they do get beaten, and they are very much sporting mortals. The rest of the world has simply caught up.

Australian society has changed as well.

People don’t congregate around sporting clubs like they used to. There are simply other things to do. The majority of Australia live in the suburbs, and the suburbs have changed. The suburbs were once an isolating place where sport was virtually the only distraction. Australian suburbs now have never ending shopping centres. They almost all have movie theatres, pubs, gambling, gyms, and late night shopping. Country towns are now just around the corner from a regional centre which will have live bands almost every night, LGBT clubs, and poetry readings at independent book stores.

Even Australian backyards have changed. Once they were sporting meccas where future stars were first shown how to play. And now every new housing development seems to have smaller and smaller land plots, backyards are now entertainment courtyards. With enough room for a BBQ and an outside dining set, but not to kick a footy or shoot some hoops.

Immigration and gentrification have changed Australia. As has its obscene wealth. Australia is third in the world for GDP according to Kevin Rudd election propaganda handed out at Lord’s. What constitutes an Australian is more diverse than ever. A Cosmopolitan-drinking tofu eater is in some parts of Australia as Australian as a plumber wearing a singlet and shorts having a VB watching the cricket.

Many Australian fans hark back to captains like Chappelli, AB and Tugga, but Michael Clarke is a much truer representation of how Australia is right now.

Cricket Australia has changed as well. Their chairman of selectors, John Inverarity, is not an ocker unpaid Aussie cricketer, but a former master of Hale school and professional chairman of the NSP. They are a marketing machine with a Travel lifestyle magazine. Their tour packages of England aren’t for cricket fans, but for wealthy tourists who happen to love cricket. They have slogans and viral campaigns. They have interns and corporate team-building days. They even have an executive general manager of people and culture.

Cricket Australia is many people. Some of their employees are exceptional. Stephanie Beltrame, the General Manager Media Rights, is probably in the top five cricket administrators on the planet. Chief legal counsel Dean Kino is probably the most important person in cricket you’ve never heard of. These two spearheaded Cricket Australia’s rights deal. There are other quality people as well. Most of them love cricket, or at the very least, Australian cricket. They work hard, they spin, they market, they plan and they run cricket as best they can.

But the Australia men’s team is what they are judged on. It’s what funds their big TV deals, it’s what gives them any power. That team is failing, and it’s partly to do with their mistakes.

The Futures League was stupid. The split innings List A games were stupid. Giving Greg Chappell the position of National Talent Manager was stupid. Banning the ICL players was stupid. Extending Tim Nielsen’s contract for three years was stupid. Making Clarke a selector was stupid. Sacking your coach only two weeks before a major series was stupid.

Also stupid was hiring Pat Howard as the man who would be ultimately responsible, and then letting him fire someone else when things got bad. That was an Argus report recommendation. Another was paying the players based on their performance. But the administrators are not paid on their performance.

James Sutherland is paid to be the CEO of Cricket Australia. Because the chairman’s role in Australian cricket is rotated every two years, it means that Sutherland is by far the most important person in Australian cricket. Sutherland has been in charge since 2001. Brad Haddin made his debut that year. Every other current player joined the team later than that.

That makes Sutherland a veteran by anyone’s definition. And this year has been horrible for Australian cricket in every way bar financially. It would take someone of staggering incompetence not to get Cricket Australia a huge amount of TV money, and Sutherland is not incompetent. He’s a very skilled operator who has turned a semi-professional organisation into a professional one. But, other countries are too. And even some who aren’t are just outperforming Australia on the field. If Sutherland had a Howard in charge of him, he would never have lasted this long. And it’s not just this year. For the past five years Australia have been in decline.

Since the 2007 World Cup, the only major or unexpected wins since then are Australia beating South Africa in 2009, winning the Champions Trophy the same year and making one other ICC final in that time. Ricky Ponting stepped down, Nielsen left after being asked to reapply for his job, Andrew Hilditch was replaced, Greg Chappell’s position was downsized and Mickey Arthur was sacked.

The person in charge of the whole show is still in charge. And unless there is a coup in the Jolimont office, it’s hard to see that changing.

During the Argus Review, James Sutherland sat in the room while people gave their testimony. Things that could have been said weren’t said. Things that should have been said more vehemently were watered down. It instantly compromised what was supposed to be an independent commission into problems in cricket.

Two years on from the Argus review, Australian cricket has not progressed. Howard gets more blame, but the performance on the field, and the decisions off the field, continue to be baffling. And Australia continue to lose.

According to the Argus review, the buck has to stop somewhere. Australia have tried stopping it at the captain, chairman of selectors, general manager of team performance and two coaches, but eventually, the buck has to stop with the CEO. And that time is now.

For Australian cricket to progress it needs someone new. It needs James Sutherland to get out of the room.

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6 thoughts on “How Australia got here

  1. Sunil says:

    Some great points you make.. I’d like to add that one of the main difference between the current stature of Shield cricket and Ranji Trophy cricket is the inclusion of a number of old horses that continue to stay in the game and mentor the fresh blood that steps into Indian cricket. Seniors in Aussie cricket are far too few and hold far too little responsibility when it comes to their new batch.

  2. Frank Heaven says:

    You may attach a little too significance to the opportunities other sports offer. Because this isn’t just an Australian problem.

    In the UK, the salary difference between leading footballers and leading cricketers is enormous; in the 80s, it was much closer.

    Also in the 80s, rugby union was amateur; now, not only is it professional, it pays better than cricket. As is also the case in South Africa and New Zealand.

    In the Windies, besides football, there are the US professional sports, notably basketball, which draw away the young cricket talent.

    That said, cricket needs to examine whether T20 can improve players’ earning potential, as it has so dramatically in India, to keep and attract talented young players.

    But the cricketing authorities are poor at judging the paying public. In England, the early success of T20 meant they increased the number of fixtures, and the crowds quickly fell away. In Australia, the decision to switch to a city-based franchise system looks odd. Why not base it on the inter-state rivalry that underpinned the Shield for so many years, and is one major differentiator cricket has over the various football codes?

  3. Todd Slater says:

    The fish rots from the head down. Sutherland is the least scrutinsed or criticised sports ceo in the country & he is charge of our national game ! He recieves none of the heat for example that the football ceo’s get from the media.
    What the media has failed to report is that as soon as we lost the Ashes a few years ago Sutherland immediatley pulled a classic management technique by ordering a review (the Argus) of the sport.
    Which had the twin effects of instantly looking like he was addressing the problem & at the same time absolving himself from any blame for the current predicament. That he chose an ex banker to run the review was even more startling. Pat Howard left rugby with a bad taste & a chip on his shoulder & it seems nothing has changed since.
    I recall an interview on abc radio national a couple of years ago with James Sutherland & Gideon Haigh ( i think ostensibly to plug Gideon’s latest book at the time) They threw the telephone lines open & a woman called in from Toowoomba, bemoaning the scheduling of Shield games to mid week. The woman explained that her & her husband loved following the Queensland team & would often drive down to Brisbane to the ‘Gabba to catch a days play or two over the course of the season. Now that CA had changed the scheduling to mid week it was virtually impossible for them to attend as they ran a working property. When quizzed i recall Sutherland throwing to Gideon in an offhand way & giving a lame excuse for the whole thing. He lost me then & there as he was basically turning people away from the game who were cricket lovers who had to drive a couple of hours just to get to the ground.

    We reap what we sow & Sutherland has sown a decade of decline by weaking the very foundations of what our Test team was founded on. The greatest domestic competition in the world.
    The halcyon days of genuine international superstars playing for the various states in the shield are now seriously ‘old testament’ thanks to Sutherlands determination to take it all down hill. The glory days of when Viv Richards, Joel Garner, Imran Khan, Andy Roberts to name a mere quartet played in our domestic summer are now a long misty memory.
    The fish rots from the head down.

  4. Nick says:

    Jarrod, I think you’ll find that Meyrick Buchanan has gone back to Aussie Rules now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Keath follows him, given what Shield players get paid, although CA did try to butter him up with the scholarship in England over our winter. As for the other player that you mention, Mitchell Marsh looks almost as injury prone as Pat Cummins, so despite being a proud Aussie my tip is that none of the 3 who originally chose cricket over footy will have make any sort of significant contribution in test cricket. Marsh might be a chance of success in the shorter formats but frankly I don’t care.

    • Jrod says:

      Nick, Buchanan went back because he didn’t make it. Counting him as someone who chose footy is like counting Nick Jewell as someone who picked cricket. The first sport is the one you choose, the second one is your back up. Whether any of the three make it or not isn’t the point, the point is that cricket is finally getting their pick of some players first.

  5. The fish may indeed rot from the head down. But you can’t blame the decline in Australian cricket because of midweek scheduling. It’s the same in England, hardly any 4 day cricket is played at weekends.
    You simply have a weaker and smaller pool of players to pick from, kids are taking up other sports (in particular Aussie Rules – which is now your national game) and the kids who are playing are being seduced by T20 and aren’t learning their craft.

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