Requiem for a Dream – Australian Cricket on the Second Anniversary of the Argus Review

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the much anticipated Argus Review of Australian cricket.

Written in the aftermath of successive Ashes defeats, both at home and away, it was heralded as a roadmap back to success for the national team in light of:

  • the Test team only winning 5 of its last 11 series, the majority of which came against lower ranked sides;
  • the ICC Test ranking of the team slipping from first to fifth;
  • the failure of the top 6 batsmen to consistently perform;
  • substandard bowling returns against leading teams with few bowlers beating a benchmark of 30 runs per wicket; and
  • the elimination of the ODI team in the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup, the worst result since 1992.[i]

The panel identified several factors as central to this decline, namely:

  • poor performances by leading players;
  • poor basic skills of the players;
  • confusing selections;
  • inadequate succession planning;
  • format and scheduling of pathway competitions;
  • a need to retain experienced players in Grade cricket;
  • poor team culture; and
  • a lack of structural accountability for such issues and team performance in general[ii]

Two years on it is clear that, at least for now, the review has been an abject failure with the majority of key indicators and causes showing little by way of improvement:

  • the Test team is currently ranked fourth on the ICC Rankings and will fall to fifth should they be defeated at The Oval;
  • Australia have won 4 of 8 series , none against a higher ranked opponent at the time, while winning 12 of 28 Tests and losing 10;
  • the Test team have not tasted victory in its past 8 Tests, including 7 defeats;
  • only 5 of the 11 batsmen used average greater than 35 during this period;
  • the batting unit has failed to reach 250 in 13 separate completed innings;
  • the team is now on its third coach in less than 3 years;
  • the captain has withdrawn from his role as selector, recognising that, as was obvious at the time, such responsibility ran counter to his role in maintaining sustainable and trusting relationships with his players;
  • the ODI team were eliminated without winning a match at the Champions Trophy tournament and have won just 21 of 43 matches; and
  • 49 different players have represented Australia across all 3 formats of the game, including 30 in Tests.

In many ways the past two years remind me of the cult indie movie Requiem for a Dream where a motley collection of flawed and lonely characters fall into various forms of addiction which lead to them being imprisoned in a world of delusion and reckless desperation that is subsequently overtaken by their harsh reality.

Certainly there can be little doubt of the bleak reality currently facing Australian cricket, with a pervading stench of inevitable defeat hovering around it reminiscent of the dire days of the mid-1980s.

What follows is an attempt to break down some of the commonly held theories in an attempt to find discover who or what is to blame and whether there is any way to fix these matters.

Selection & Rotation

In the two years since the Argus Review, Australia have used 30 players in 28 Tests, a number higher than  all other full member nations (excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh from the analysis).

A number of commentators have argued that this selection merry-go-round has been a significant factor behind Australia’s decline. However, an examination of results for all nations over this two year period does not show a strong correlation between selection consistency and success:

Nation Tests Played Players Used Loss % Ave Changes Per Test
New Zealand

20

26

55.00%

0.79

Sri Lanka

21

25

42.86%

0.70

Australia

28

30

35.71%

0.70

India

17

25

35.29%

0.88

West Indies

17

23

35.29%

0.75

England

24

21

29.17%

0.43

Pakistan

15

23

26.67%

0.86

South Africa

19

19

10.53%

0.44

Table 1 – Correlation between Team Success & Number of Players Used [iii]

Perhaps more interesting are the statistics before and after Australia’s epic draw against South Africa in Adelaide just 9 short months ago:

Performance   Category

Pre   Adelaide Nov 2012

Post   Adelaide Nov 2012

Matches

16

12

Wins

9

3

Losses

2

8

Draws

5

1

Batting – ave/wkt

36.76

30.30

Bowling – ave/wkt

27.08

33.93

Centuries scored

22

5

5WI taken

11

9

Sub 200 batting totals

3

4

200-250 batting totals

1

5

Table 2 – Comparison of Team Performance Indicators Pre & Post Adelaide Test Nov 2012[iv]

Coming into the Perth Test match Australia were just a solitary victory away from claiming the ICC number one Test Ranking and had enjoyed the better of both the earlier drawn contests. Amazingly, in Ricky Ponting’s final Test, and with the prospect of far easier assignments ahead against Sri Lanka, Australia’s selectors chose an entirely different seam bowling attack from the previous Test and were rewarded by South Africa romping to a comprehensive victory.

It was the first significant manifestation of the infamous ‘informed player management’ policy and marked a significant departure in building a strong team performance culture.

Indeed it would not be too harsh to say that it was the day that Australia went to a gun fight and forgot to bring any bullets.

Since that watershed moment the team’s performance both on and off the field has gone into freefall barring a brief respite at home against the hopelessly outgunned Sri Lankans. The happenings at Perth sent a message that performance was not the sole criteria for selection – indeed excellence could be rewarded by a match on the sideline, while no performance of note was needed to force one’s way into the line up.

If you think this is too strong a critique consider for a moment the following examples.

Mitchell Starc captured five wickets in the second innings at Hobart against Sri Lanka only to be rewarded by having a childhood dream of playing in a Boxing Day Test ripped away under the spurious guise ‘injury prevention’. Nathan Lyon also captured career best figures of 7/94 against India in the final Test of that disastrous tour only to miss selection for Australia’s next two Tests in favour of a young man with just 10 FC matches to his credit.

Then there is the astonishing case of Rob Quiney who, despite his moderate Shield performances that summer, was selected to bat at number 3 against the might of the South Africans. Although he made perhaps the greatest 9 on debut in the history of the game, he was passed over for the better credentialed Phil Hughes for the Tests against the Sri Lankans. It emerged later that he was used as a crash test dummy  to insulate Hughes’ fragile confidence and technique from Steyn and co with the hope of parachuting him into a successful third coming as a Test batsman.

The stunning coup de grace came with the unfathomable selections of Glenn Maxwell and Xavier Doherty for the tour of India despite their lowly FC bowling records. Even more astonishingly they were actually preferred over the incumbent Nathan Lyon for a Test, despite his generally solid record and recent performances.

Is it any wonder then that the past nine months, in which Australia have added nine new players via the selection chocolate wheel, have seen a series of careworn and undisciplined performances on the field, particularly among the batsmen, and increasingly scandalous happenings off it?

A once successful culture has been broken and it will take time and steadfast resolve to fix it.

Thankfully Darren Lehmann has started talking a language and walking a talk in recent Tests that all players and supporters can understand, which is that runs and wickets are the only currency that matters, and that opportunities when granted must be taken.

The 4 P’s – Participation, Player Talent, Pitches and Pathways

Ed Smith, a far better writer than your humble correspondent, wrote of suggesting prior to the 2010/11 Ashes series that:

“the pillars of Australian excellence – club cricket, state cricket, and a hard-bitten unified cricketing culture that ran through their game at all levels – had crumbled. One firm push and the citadel might fall.”[v]

Russell Marks adopted a similar line in a recent Cricinfo piece examining the structural reasons behind Michael Clarke being the only world class batsman Australia has produced who was born after 1980.

At the heart of his theory is a belief that the pathways of Australian cricket, with their emphasis on early talent identification in age teams and bunches of players marching as one through these development groups, has created a soft underbelly and sense of entitlement that has been detrimental to maintaining high standards in FC and Test cricket.[vi]

Using as a reference point the 100 players selected in Australian U19 squads for the biennial World Cup tournament since 2000, let’s examine the success rate in turning these talented youngsters into hardened Test and FC cricketers:

U19 World Cup Player Conversion Rates

Chart 1 – Historical Conversion Rates of U19 World Cup Players to International & FC Cricket [vii]

Overall 20% of this group has played Test cricket, however with each passing year the conversion rate to International and FC cricket is declining.

It is not just a natural lag factor. Given that historically most of these players will make their FC debut within two years of this event, the following chart demonstrates declining quality as measured by an annualised average number of matches per player (across the total population):

Annualised FC & International Appearance by U19 Reps

Chart 2 – Annualised International & FC Appearances for U19 World Cup Representatives by year of Representation[viii]

A full list of representatives and statistics appears here (Australian U19 World Cup Teams Analysis).

The declining standard of players emerging from established pathways is also impacting on the overall quality of FC cricket in Australia, especially when coupled with a spectacular own-goal by CA’s administrators in creating the Futures League in 2009.

For the uninitiated, The Futures League was created to replace the old 2nd XI state format. Driven largely by a belief that the current structure was inhibiting the development and pathways for talented 19 to 23 year olds, it introduced shortened 3 day matches with a maximum of 96 overs for each first innings and 48 overs for each second innings.

Following the Argus Review and the negative opinions expressed during its consultation process[ix], Cricket Australia made significant changes to the format of the competition in 2011 by reverting to a four day format, removing the overs restrictions, and increasing the number of players aged over 23 from three to six.

Nonetheless, as former FC players Dirk Nannes and Theo Doropoulos have argued in recent articles, with vocal support from many current players on Twitter, the damage was, and continues to be done.

The creation of the Futures League has caused a significant deterioration in the standard of the Sheffield Shield as preparation for Test cricket by creating an artificial experience gap as younger players are expected to develop in a cosseted microcosm bearing little resemblance to the furnace of FC and International cricket without the hardened wisdom of senior players or dog-eat-dog competition for their place.[x]

All you proof you need is found in the dramatic deterioration in key performance metrics across the Sheffield Shield since the introduction of the Futures League in the 2009/10 season:

Shield Stats

Chart 3 – Key Sheffield Shield Performance Metrics by Season[xi]

It is all very well to identify talented youngsters and create pathways for their coaching and development, however history demonstrates that the greatest success comes when this is coupled with rigorous competition for places at every level.

CA should start the long road back to rebuilding the cricketing fabric and culture by immediately scrapping the Futures League and reverting back to a genuine 2nd XI competition where performances in Grade cricket dictate selection rather than a spurious quota system that the evidence shows has little impact in assisting the truly talented and determined find their way to the top echelons of the sport.

Pathways remain important however, especially as overall senior participation remains an issue for the game and its future success.

Recent CA Annual Reports [xii] loudly proclaim the success of their participation programmes, supported by their annual Census that demonstrate a growth in participation from 436,325 in 2002/03 to 880,291 participants in 2011/12.

They are impressive numbers but beneath the surface lies more sobering news for the future, at least for the senior men’s team, because the data shows that much of this growth is inflated by the inclusion of indoor cricket competitions, coupled with significant increases in the number of women and junior players.

No doubt this is welcome news for the suits and accountants at CA who trumpet such figures as barometers of success and tools in negotiating media rights and sponsorships via such insights as cricket participants are 8X more likely to attend a cricket match, and 4X more likely to watch a cricket match on television.[xiii]

However, analysis of the participation data over the past four years suggests that although great commercial success might be likely as a result, there is a gap between increased junior participation, fuelled by successful modified formats and timings, and declining senior and club numbers.

2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12
Type of Participation
Total Participants 604933 804100 850155 880291
Total Outdoor 604933 651871 662364 682109
Male 532348 564284 560019 560485
Female 72585 87587 102345 121624
11 a side club comps 309080 326813 317309 304085
Modified club comps 8434 10723 7608 9451
11 a side school comps 131511 133434 121174 106048
Modified school comps 85551 83545 88993 99196
in2CRICKET 70357 97356 127279 163329
Cricket clubs 4085 4010 3990 3820
Club & school teams 39151 41403 39441 38700
Indoor cricket N/A 152229 187791 198182
Senior N/A 113399 128771 136549
13 to 18 N/A 8954 26839 38445
5 to 12 N/A 8019 32181 23188

Table 3 – Cricket Participation Rates 2008 to 2012[xiv]

While CA have made excellent progress in boosting junior numbers these programmes will take some years to reach fruition and will require careful management because only by translating to senior participation can they ever viewed a success in pure cricketing, rather than commercial terms.

Before closing this examination of the 4P’s it is worth examining the role and impact of pitches on the decline in FC performance metrics. As Chart 3 above demonstrates, there has been only a marginal increase in draws in the Sheffield Shield over the past 3 years, so perhaps a generic condemnation of the standard of FC pitches is a little too simplistic cause of the decline.

Although they might not be greatly impacting the number of results in Sheffield Shield cricket, most would agree that pitches in Australia are changing in their character. Gone is the traditional pace and bounce of Perth, and the renowned turn of Adelaide and Sydney. Perhaps this is an unintended outcome of the amount of AFL played at major venues which allow reduced time for pitch preparation and lead to a greater preponderance of ‘drop-in’ wickets, as well as increased use of Grade standard pitches, especially in NSW.

As a result perhaps the performances of Cape Town and in India could be seen through the prism of younger players having little exposure to even moderately similar conditions at home.

It might perhaps be beneficial for CA to consider increasing the number of purpose-designed cricket venues, especially during the early months of the season to allow proper time to prepare more characteristic wickets at the major venues.

Accountability

At the end of the day it is inescapable, based on the empirical and anecdotal evidence, that Australian cricket has been in decline for many years and that the early results following the Argus Review sadly show no signs of this being reversed in the near future.

Some of the causes could have been avoided with better and more forward-thinking management, and indeed some were entirely self-inflicted as a result of decisions made by the CEO and the Board. Surprisingly few have yet called into question and demanded accountability from the CEO who has presided throughout the period and made many of the decisions or recommendations for change.

James Sutherland has done brilliantly in growing the game’s finances, both for its development and to better reward the players. Revenue from continuing operations (including gates, media rights and sponsors) has grown to $260m, cash reserves to fund future initiatives are growing, and junior participation is increasing strongly. The new domestic broadcast rights deal signed this year will add a further $43m per annum to this pot.

Yet, as Ricky Ponting simply states:

“… we must remember that the success of this business will be measured by the success of the national team.”[xv]

Surely should the unthinkable occur and Australia fail to regain the Ashes at home, the time must come for James Sutherland to resign, or be forced aside, from the post he has held since July 2001.

It would also provide an opportune moment to review the role and performance of Pat Howard as High Performance Manager. As the man in charge of the coach, captain, Chairman of the NSP, and Centre of Excellence Manager, he wields significant influence, and while some issues pre-date his tenure the recent examples of poor team behaviour, insipid performance, reported fractures within the team environment and culture have occurred on his watch.

One of the cornerstones of the Argus Report was the need for clear objectives and performance metrics for people to be held to account against. On any objective measure, Howard should be nervously anticipating a day of reckoning that must surely come and which might actually result in a well qualified cricket person such as Belinda Clark to assume his role.

Of course such apocalyptic measures will mean that Australia has lost the Ashes again. I desperately hope that this horror does not eventuate however given  the side  has not recorded a single International victory in any format since February, there is a very real prospect that by Sydney in 2014 Australia will not have tasted victory in 31 successive matches against full member nations.

In the movie that gives rise to the title of this piece, Requiem for a Dream, each character at the end of the movie curls into the foetal position and imagines their dream coming true. The movie ends with their successful selves reuniting on a television studio floor to the cheers of the crowd under the bright stage lights.

Unfortunately their reality was wretchedly different, much the same as our post-Argus present.

Anyway, happy second anniversary to you Don and your esteemed panel.

Until next time that is stumps.


[i] Australian Team Performance Review Summary Report (aka The Argus Review) p. 6

[ii] Australian Team Performance Review Summary Report (aka The Argus Review) pp. 8, 29

[iii] Data sourced from various Cricinfo statistics queries

[iv] Data sourced from various Cricinfo statistics queries

[v] Ed Smith – “Australia : hubris, despair, panic” – http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/654535.html

[vi] Russell Marks – “What Ails the Clarke Generation?” – http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/story/654727.html

[vii] Data sourced from various Cricinfo statistics queries and articles

[viii] Data sourced from various Cricinfo statistics queries and articles

[ix] Australian Team Performance Review Summary Report (aka The Argus Review) p. 28

[x] Australian Team Performance Review Summary Report (aka The Argus Review) pp. 28,29; Dirk Nannes – “The Experience Gap” – http://www.alloutcricket.com/blogs/comment/nannes-the-experience-gap ; Theo Doropoulos – http://theodrop.tumblr.com/

[xi] Data sourced from various Cricinfo statistics queries

[xii] CA Annual Reports 2010-2012

[xiii] Australian Cricket Roadshow – slide 20 (contained in 2011/12 CA Annual Report)

[xiv] National Cricket Census 2011/12 pp. 7-10; www.cricket.com.au/useful-links/australian-cricket-census

[xv] Daniel Brettig – “Ponting attacks CA’s BBL hype” – http://www.espncricinfo.com/the-ashes-2013/content/story/654537.html

One thought on “Requiem for a Dream – Australian Cricket on the Second Anniversary of the Argus Review

  1. Pingback: The Fall of an Empire | The Dugout

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