xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Ashton Agar and cricket's next generation.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Ashton Agar and cricket's next generation.

The cricket world stands completely in awe of the remarkable test match debut of nineteen year old Ashton Agar. Primarily picked for his left arm off spin bowling, Agar stunned the England test team and sent Australian cricket fans into raptures of delight when, batting at number 11, he scored a brilliant 98 runs in his very first test innings. In doing so he also reversed the direction of the match.

He came to the crease with his team struggling. Australia had collapsed sensationally to be 9 for 117, having lost five batsmen for 9 runs in twenty five minutes. Australia was almost 100 runs behind England and looking very fragile when Agar launched himself into cricket history.

With a sound defensive technique and vast array of sensible attacking strokes, he became the highest scoring Number 11 batsman in test match history. In 136 years of Test Cricket no other batsman had scored more than 40 runs on debut, batting at number 11. Then Agar went on to become the highest scoring Number 11 batsman of all time.

Together with his batting partner, Phil Hughes, Agar scored 163 runs to break the previous record last wicket partnership in test cricket history of 151 runs. When he was dismissed Australia was remarkably 65 runs ahead of England on the first innings. Those at the ground, or watching on television, had seen it but they could hardly believe it.

Ashton Agar is clearly a gifted and talented cricketer who seems destined for a long and successful career. He has two younger brothers who are also keen cricketers. Perhaps the rumours are only partly true that Australia’s new cricket coach, Darren Lehmann, is already arranging net sessions for these younger Agar brothers, with a view to playing them in the second Test.

Ashton Agar’s brilliant batting debut, in contrast to the slack dismissals of most of his team mates, leaves Australian cricket followers wondering what has happened to the batting prowess of the once all powerful Australians. In my view the fault lies entirely with Cricket Australia which has become more interested in making money than nurturing talented cricketers.

Cricket Australia is reaping in billions of dollars from television networks interested in purchasing the broadcast rights to One Day cricket and 20/20 cricket. It has, has in recent years, been more focussed on money and lost interest its primary mission, to develop the game of cricket nationwide and produce talented cricketers.

Former test captain, Ian Chappell, in a column in the Sunday Times on June 1st,
reflected on the decline of Australian cricket. He spoke of the team disharmony, the recent sacking of coach, Mickey Arthur, and “the shortage of exciting young stroke makers and strong leaders in the pipeline.”

Chappell ended his column lamenting that, “The development of exciting young batsmen was once a given in Australian cricket, but that is no longer the case.”

During the recent disastrous Indian tour, four test cricketers were suspended because the did not participate in a team building activity. And rightly so, as Bill Lawry may have said. After the Test side’s drubbing in India, maybe it is time for the executive committee of Cricket Australia to be given its own “test team building” homework assignment.

All board members should be asked to suggest three ways in which Australian Test cricket could be improved. Anyone not providing the appropriate answers should be suspended for life. Of course, the appropriate answers are:- 1. Sheffield Shield.  2. Sheffield Shield. 3. Sheffield Shield.

For most of the 20th Century Australia produced outstanding test teams and a huge number of test cricketers who all displayed skill and aggression on the field and who were repected around the cricketing world. This came about because each cricket season the best Australian cricketers played up to ten games against each other in the tough competition of the Sheffield Shield. Until the 1980s one of the most eagerly awaited games of the season was the Boxing Day Sheffield Shield match between N.S.W. and Victoria, which invariably involved about nine or ten test players competing with or against each other. Very character building.

Because of its pursuit of money, via television contracts, Cricket Australia in recent years has concentrated on 20/20 big bash games and the one day fifty over competitions at international and national levels. Sheffield Shield games are played around these fixtures and test cricketers, at the insistence of Cricket Australia, are usually not involved.

In the 2011/2012 Australian cricket season, once the limited overs games were out of the way and the Sheffield Shield competition resumed, Cricket Australia removed 34 of  its top players from the next round of shield games. Some players were on their way to India, some were listed to play for Australia A in an inconsequential game against a West Indian team.

Cricket Australia does not seem to care about the Sheffield Shield. Why? The answer simply is that it does not make any money. That may be true. However, Sheffield Shield cricket does produce top quality test players and that is something Cricket Australia should be vitally interested in.

Over recent summers very few of our top cricketers have played any Sheffield Shield games at all. Some who could have played were “rested”. Early this year Peter Siddle arrived in Perth with his state team to play in a Sheffield Shield match at the WACA ground. Before the game started Siddle was ordered by Cricket Australia not to participate as they did not want him “over bowled.”

Cricket Australia’s policy of resting its players needs to be revisited. In earlier days all the champion player like Denis Lillee, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and company all played in five tests each summer, plus most of the ten Sheffield Shield games. When they were not playing national or international cricket they played each weekend for their club teams in grade cricket. There was no thought of rotation or resting of players. These days players only play test matches and the shorter forms of the game which has tended to cause their batting techniques to decay.

The lack of experience in hard fought, four day Sheffield Shield contests has resulted in Australia having a test team in which the openers give too many slips catches by swiping wildly at balls outside the off stump or playing lusty pull shots at balls pitched on a good length and headed for their middle or off stumps. The disastrous results of this inept batting is painful for us to watch.

Australia is in the process of playing ten consecutive test matches against England, between July and the first week of January next year. These test will be followed by the slash and bash 20/20 contests and the fifty over one day games. Sheffield Shield matches will be played before the First Test in Brisbane and after the last one day games in February. It is a safe bet that test players will again be rested from Sheffield Shield duties. Another season will pass and our “top” cricketers will again miss out on gaining valuable experience in “test match” conditions in Sheffield Shield games. What is more, our up and coming younger players will be deprived of the valuable experience of playing with and against our very best players.

The outlook for our test players is gloomy. Many of them now lack the technique, or the patience, to construct a major innings in at test match. They will never develop these qualities while playing exclusively in twenty over and fifty over games.

So far young Ashton Agar’s cricketing experiences have chiefly been in the traditional form of the game.We can only hope that his sound batting technique is not ruined in future by his over exposure to the frenetic slash and bash culture of the shorter forms of cricket.The great pity is that young Ashton Agar will probably now play very few Sheffield Shield games. Cricket Australia will play him in test matches, one dayers and 20/20 matches and then rest him from the shield games.

What we really hope for, of course, is that Cricket Australia will resume its role of nurturing our next generation of cricketers by providing them with more and more opportunities in Sheffield Shield matches so they may develop real cricketing skills that will allow them to perform at world class levels in test matches.

Don’t hold your breath.

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