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January 21, 1999


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To have, and have not

Harsha Bhogle

One of the things that always fascinates me, and it comes through in the course of conversations with cricketers and cricketing thinkers, is how closely a country’s cricket system mirrors its culture.

I spent a couple of weeks in Australia recently, at a time when betting revelations had caused an uproar, and I was amazed to see the kind of independence that the system there still allowed its cricketers.

The right to speak, and to state an opinion, is one of the fundamentals of an open and equal society. Conversely, to gag a voice and to prevent free exchange of ideas, indicates a lack of faith and a very low opinion of others.

Developed societies encourage independent thought, suspicious societies stifle it. Sadly, in our part of the world at the moment, stifling is very much the norm. I guess that is how it has always been in our feudal, hierarchical systems where the adoloscent and the young man rarely has a voice within a family system.

Australia, on the other hand, inhales the air of freedom every day. Young men there are encouraged to go out and find their way in life; they break free of the system and discover a voice much earlier on the evolutionary cycle -- and while that may not always be the best system, it fosters the culture of independence and openness.

I saw that when I visited their celebrated cricket academy recently and spoke to the key people there. I saw it in the manner in which a three man selection committee picks its players for crucial matches. And I saw it in the ease with which their major cricketers were allowed, and were happy, to speak to the media on cricketing matters.

The head coach of their cricket academy is Rodney Marsh; one of the best wicketkeepers the game has ever had and a man who you associate with naked aggression; someone who was direct, even blunt. His appointment to such an important job, for the academy is virtually a finishing school for young Australian cricketers, is itself reflective of the independence with which the institution was conceived. You would never expect Marsh to cow down and accept whatever was sent his way, and the Australian cricket system deserves applause in overcoming the temptation to appoint a soft yes-man to the job.

The expression “yes-man” is perhaps also reflective of our ethos because I didn’t see too many of those in Australia (during an argument I saw a young Australian point to the MCC tie, a terrible design in itself, and exclaim to his counterpart, “This is Australia mate, we don’t have class systems like those”). And I felt extremely sheepish when I asked Marsh what he would do if the Chairman of the Australian Cricket Board or the Sports Minister of Australia asked for a particular person to be admitted to the academy. He scowled at me, as if to suggest it was an alien thought, and just grunted 'nah’ to me with the tone of voice I thought he reserved for English batsmen.

The tough army sergeant major in him is, I suspect, getting a bit overwhelmed by the slightly greying, paternal figure that he is metamorphosing into. It is a good combination for the head of a centre of excellence, which is what the academy undoubtedly is. Marsh works pretty closely with the national selectors and they identify potential problem areas with the national team over a four or five year period. The intake into the academy then reflects this need.

A couple of years ago, they identified fast bowlers as a concern area and picked 17 young men in search of a solution. If left handed batsmen are seen as a shortcoming, you can be sure that Marsh and his team of coaches, Wayne Phillips and Richard Done, will be scouting for the best 18 or 19 year old lefthanders.

The objective, as each of the three hastens to tell you (in separate interviews !) is not to produce Test cricketers -- and this is what I think is the outstanding aspect of the academy. The objective is to produce very good first class cricketers and in doing so, to raise the standard of the first class game in Australia.

A tough competitive structure would automatically throw up young men who are ready for the highest level. “We are not producing an elite bunch of guys” , I was consistently told. “They have to swim by themselves out there. We only help them swim better. This academy is not a waiting room for the Test side.”

Marsh, Done and Phillips watch the under 17 and under 19 cricketers and draw up a short list more on the basis of what they have seen than on what the scorecard says. Each state association then forwards the names of their best young cricketers and after a dialogue with them, the academy is free to pick the best.

“What” I asked, “if nobody from Tasmania, for example, is considered good enough?” The answer, as you would expect from an Aussie was a pretty direct “Too bad!”

The academy uses a combination of the physical and cricketing aspects of development, for it is based on the premise that a good athlete will always have a better chance of becoming a good cricketer. But while the wannabe cricketers are moulded physically, their cricket style isn’t altered too much. “We will probably try and smoothen his action a little bit so that it can take the strain of bowling fast,” the fast bowling coach Richard Done told me. “If we have a good, wristy young batsman, we will explain to him the importance of playing the cut and the hook but he will still remain, basically, a wristy player,” Marsh said.

The academy and the way it is run consitute one, and admittedly a major, reason why Australian cricket in on such strong feet. There is a similar approach when it comes to picking teams. The easiest, and the most convenient thing, to have done there would have been to pick a representative from each of the six Shield teams and create a committee that would then pick the national team. But that would have been disastrous, as we have discovered, for apart from creating regional pulls, it would have sent a message to the selectors that they are there only because of certain affiliations and not because of innate ability.

They opted for three men and I believe those three have the freedom to pick who they think are the best cricketers. And so, it didn’t matter to them that the nation felt let down by what Mark Waugh and Shane Warne had done. They believed that the case was shut, that the punishment had been borne and that it was in Australia’s best interests to have Warne lead the limited overs team in the absence of Steve Waugh.

Of course it helps that the Australian cricket system is restricted to six teams in first class cricket. That makes it more manageable and is certainly easier than trying to control around 25 federations. It also makes more cricketing sense.

At any given time a nation, whatever its size, cannot have more than 60 or 70 very good cricketers. It is easy to manage a smaller pool and to pick 11 out of those 60. It also means that the overall level of competition goes up. If you have around 300 first class cricketers like in England or India, the 60 good cricketers are joined by 240 mediocre ones, the quality of competition diminishes and with it, the value of the achievement so earned.

England have already created two pools of nine counties in an effort to concentrate talent. It is a move that has been very late in coming but at least the millenium will see a new dawn. It is time we did something we did in India as well, and we could start by knocking out the BCCI culture of satisfying everyone. That way, you will have to award the next Duleep Trophy final to Nalgonda.

Do they have a ground that is good enough? Maybe not, but that is not important is it?

An India cricketer told me recently that the Duleep Trophy should be scrapped because nobody is interested in it. I think he should be allowed to state his point of view even if that means disagreeing with it later. But we won’t allow him to. The cricketer in question is a very intelligent young man but by gagging him, we are telling him what we think of his maturity.

Freedom and independence are great words. We embraced them at great cost fifty years ago, only to lose them completely. Certainly in our cricket.

Harsha Bhogle

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