Higher work ethics required

Dennis Lille has called for Ricky Ponting's sacking.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

There may be many suggestions to improve, but there is nothing like getting back to the basics.

WHILE there have been numerous suggestions by countless critics, many of whom should know better about what should be done about the decline of the Australian team and individuals, the truth of the matter is very few of them have looked at the overall picture of Australian cricket and in some cases the responsibility it has to own for the present state of the game in the country.

Dennis Lillee has stridently called for Ricky Ponting to be sacked and replaced by Shane Warne. Hasn't Lillee appreciated that a captain is only as good as his team and it is the team that makes the captain and not vice-versa?

Is it a coincidence that the "great" captains have just been lucky enough to be around when their countries had great players and teams? It was said when the West Indies was demolishing its opponents with its great fast bowlers all that Clive Lloyd had to do was throw the ball in the air and whichever bowler caught it would bowl the team to victory. This might be an exaggeration, but not much and as Ricky Ponting found out in England, if the bowlers can't consistently bowl the ball in the right spot it is impossible to set a field or bowl out the opposition for a reasonable score. It then leads to the demise of a once great team.

Retirements, loss of form, laziness, complacency, age, injury, ambition, and in recent times a lack of direction. Perhaps also the payment system where players may have also become too comfortable on a system that rewards them by purely being in the side rather on performances.

Australia has been on an even plane before the slide down. Poor opposition and some miracle recoveries from near impossible situations have tended to gloss over the decline. Three vital retirements — Steve and Mark Waugh and Ian Healy have certainly affected the balance and consistency of the team and dramatically weakened the fielding. Australian cricket must also share the blame, for its recent programming has shown little foresight. The Australian Players Association's strident call for less cricket and more money must also be looked alongside the overall coaching structure in Australian cricket. The selectors' role must also be examined.

I have long been worried about tours which virtually contain only Tests and ODI's. Australia still takes sixteen players on tours of England when it knows there is little likelihood that quite a few of the non-Test players will be lucky to get one or two matches.

The English tour was once a vital ingredient in developing young players. Even those who did not play in the Test would get more chance on English tour than three years cricket in Australia. Many reserve batsmen would score over 1,000 runs while the present reserve batsmen would be lucky to get one or two hundreds.

In their examination, Cricket Australia should also look at ways for its players competing more in the Sheffield Shield. For a strong Sheffield Shield was always the prime ingredient of building a strong team. Nowadays, some teams with a lot of players in Test cricket, virtually are playing Second XI combination.

I don't know whether it still is the case, but when I was an Australian selector I found it difficult to judge how good youngsters were if they only had success when the Test players weren't players.

We often took a tough line and seldom considered players unless they showed us they could do well against the big guns in the opposition. We also had dubious views about Australian players' success in the weak English county system.

I am all for Australian cricketers being well paid, but it shouldn't be gratuitously paid and should be performance based. The cricket union will be up in arms about this, but with the decline of the Australian team every aspect must be examined. For instance, even in Sheffield Shield players are staying on much longer and youngsters are being introduced into first class cricket at a much later age.

It was once said in NSW if you didn't make the state team by the time you were 20 you wouldn't make it at all. The average age for debutants today in NSW is mid-twenties. Australia's much vaunted coaching systems must carefully be examined. While Dennis Lillee has called for Ponting's sacking, when he was removed from the Pace Australia programme he didn't go quietly.

Dennis Lillee headed this programme for over a decade and his brief was to develop and prepare young promising new ball bowlers to replace injured or ageing Test and Sheffield Shield bowlers.

By the look of the bare cupboard around the states, Pace Australia has hardly been a raging success. In fact the very title "Pace Australia" may well have derailed the search for new ball bowlers before it began.

In those days pace was the only thing considered. With Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and the West Indies, the ability to have new ball success any other way was virtually ignored. Dennis Lillee was a great fast bowler who had enormous success.

Unfortunately trying to copy a great cricketer's personal style is not always the best way. I think this is one of the reasons we don't have swing bowlers around today. I often wonder how many potential medium pacers have been destroyed/lost due to Australia's insane drive for pace alone.

Perhaps under Damien Fleming, a genuine swing bowler, we will see a more balanced new ball approach. While the Australian Cricket Academy has received credit for the development of young cricketers, how successful has it really been?

Whenever a youngster reaches a higher level and has been to the Academy he is claimed as being a product of the Academy. Conveniently forgotten is that he has probably only been to the Australian Academy for three months and that his success is probably due more to the state programme and the efforts of numerous unpaid coaches who guided him until his graduation. It is interesting to note that while millions of dollars have been poured into the Academy the number of players going from the Under-19 team to the full Australian team is about the same now as before the Academy was established.

It is also interesting to note that most Australian State Cricket Associations have established Academies of their own, many because they were unhappy with what was being taught at the Australian Academy. One other area I would like Australian cricket to investigate is why youngsters of today are taking so long to come through the ranks. The teenager in State cricket is almost extinct and many youngsters are winning a position in the Australian Under-19 team before they have even played first grade for their clubs. My gut feeling is that emphasis being placed on youth cricket may well be backfiring and holding back the talented. At present, youngsters can win state and Australian selection at the under-15, 17 and 19 levels.

The very talented invariably hold back in their age group rather than push the highly talented up to the group above their age or even into higher cricket. Remember I wrote in these pages some time ago that a series of interviews with Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud, Brian Booth, Peter Philpot, Alan Davidson and myself for the archives of the NSW Cricket Association revealed that all of us virtually played youth cricket at school. We all played men's cricket by the age of 12. And interestingly, we all played state cricket in our teens.

The Australian Academy's inaugural brief to establish a system to fast track talented youths to higher honours hasn't been achieved. While I am all for science & biomechanics being part of coaching, I think it has now gone too far and we must get back to the basics.

After all, the basics were established by the best cricketers of their generation for over 100 years through trial and error. At present too many untried and fanciful theories, fads and fashions have found their way into coaching without them being established as the best. Right now we seem to be in a cloning era with nearly everyone being pushed into following the latest trend.

The role of the Australian coach John Buchanan must also be looked at. John is a clip-board or computer coach who is inclined to preach theory rather than substance. Corrective coaching is not his strength and his running of practice sessions, particularly fielding leaves much to be desired. Almost, if not all top players and teams achieve top ranking by hard work and mastering the fundamentals of the game.

They achieve their results by spending a lot of time practising what they have to do in matches. Australia, unfortunately has gone away from this and if we are to get back to the top we have to work on taking more catches, stopping runs, securing run outs, scoring more runs and taking more wickets and restricting the opposition from making runs.

In some ways the situation in Australian cricket reminds me a lot of the time when I took over the Australian team in 1985. We were in the middle of a losing streak and had too many players who were lazy, didn't want to practise and only did enough to keep their place in the team. Many were physically unfit and mentally lazy. Many enjoyed the good life and didn't appreciate the great honour of playing for Australia. They were all given an equal opportunity to change their ways and those who didn't fell by the wayside. The rest accepted the challenge and while they might not have been the most naturally gifted players, they worked their guts out and became tough physically and mentally to win the World Cup in India.

There were no short cuts then and there won't be now. The two areas we concentrated on in those days were fielding and running between wickets. We were easily the best fielding side in the world and no one beat us for pinching extra runs or saving them. At nets, everyone from the wicket-keeper to the coach bowled to create team spirit and lessen the physical burden of the bowlers. Bowlers more often than not were batting first at nets to ensure they got some practice and prove their batting importance.

In the early days we seldom sought outside help at nets to take the load off the bowlers. We wanted our bowlers to be tough, fit and to learn how to keep bowling tight and get wickets even when they felt tired. It was pretty tough, but the players responded magnificently.

Above all they enjoyed what they were doing and appreciated the improvement in skills that the intensive training was bringing. Right now the Australian team must get back to the sensible and simplistic values of the basics, and reintroduce a higher work ethic if they wish to compete at the highest level successfully.