What is Australia's future?

Certain pressmen Down Under have hailed Australia's win in the first Test in South Africa as a sign that the team is back to its dynamic best. But this is far from the truth. In fact, as a fervent Aussie, I am concerned about the future of our cricket. Over a long period we have rightly been lauded as a superb team. We have had numerous great players and still have. However, they may have now reached the age and position in their careers, when while they might perform fine deeds, there is little or no chance they will improve their game.

With the Test opposition generally of a very ordinary standard, they will obviously still win a high percentage of their matches. Whether the team will produce the greatness of the last decade, I doubt. History has shown that once a great team loses key players and the rest get older, there are few, if any, ready replacements in the domestic competition.

This is just about where Australian cricket hovers right now. The final 2-0 result to Australia against South Africa earlier this year seems to indicate that they dominated the Test series. But, was this so? No, for in two of the Tests, a very mundane South African team were in a dominating position to win. Australia were really struggling and it took superb performances by several Aussies and some very inept cricket by South Africa to achieve the final results.

The Australian selectors expressed their concern about our cricket by adopting a safety first policy for the South African tour. They were forced into this situation by the worrying realisation that there is a shortage of younger players with the skill and application to bridge the gap between the first class and Test levels.

Unfortunately for the Pura Milk Cup players, the overall standard has slipped with the Test players playing so few domestic matches. This has prevented the young, promising players from testing their mettle against their tough heroes. They have also lost the benefit of watching and playing with them. As a result many players, particularly the batsmen, achieve impressive averages playing against those who probably would not have gained first class status in other times. It is just not Australia who is suffering in this area, for it is the same worldwide with the Test players more often than not being unavailable or resting. Here lies the crux of the matter over Australia's future.

Talking of the future, what about the one-day game? Many of our "learned" critics are writing that the final one-day match between Australia and South Africa was the greatest ever. Certainly more runs were scored in this match than ever before, but is batting alone the final arbitrator in deciding these matters? I hope not, for surely the thrilling ups and downs of a match is what makes our game so fascinating.

Quite frankly, I am just as bored with a slow-scoring match as when batsmen totally dominate a game such as in Johannesburg. I have been very concerned for some time about the declining standard of bowling, both in the short and long forms of the game. The ODIs have for some years been silently declared a batsman's game. Boundaries have been shortened in a ridiculous way with many barely 50 yards from the batsman. This was compounded in Johannesburg with the light air at an altitude of over 5,000 feet there allowing the ball to travel further than at sea level.

The short boundaries have created a situation where mishits — which were at one time caught on the boundary — sail 20 or 30 yards into the crowd. Whether this is the reason for so little variation I am not sure. I suspect so and the worrying tactics we see — supported by so many commentators — of trying to bowl endless yorkers, particularly in the death overs, totally confuse me. To my mind a yorker is only possible when a batsman makes a mistake and hits over the top of the ball. It can't be bowled at will and nine times out of ten it is tried the batsman hits it on the full by playing forward. It is just plain crazy and in the so-called more professional era, I would have thought and hoped that statistics would have disclosed the folly of such tactics.

A little research would show that most matches in one-day cricket are won by bowling the opposition out. Somehow, somewhere along the line, our professional coaches have missed this and containment is the fashion of the day. As shown in the Jo'burg match and in many other games, including all scores over 300, just trying to contain seldom works. I must admit I got little joy out of the Jo'burg game as I was embarrassed that international bowlers could go for so many runs without trying to change their tactics. I was also distressed that international bowlers could not direct the ball even near to where they were aiming at. Full tosses, short, wide deliveries and freebies on the leg side seemed to be the fare of the day. Variety, except for (poor) line and length and width, was certainly not on the menu for either team. There is nothing easier for a batsman than receiving similar deliveries almost every ball. It was a dream come true as the batsmen found out in Jo'burg.

I am usually a very passive observer of sport, preferring to digest and enjoy what I am viewing. The Jo'burg match really got to me and I found myself, much to the bemusement of my wife, shouting instructions to the TV set. They were of course to no avail, but I hope every coach in the world looks at the bowling tactics of this match and learns from it.

I don't know whether Australian coach John Buchanan's game plan was slipped under the door of someone other than the team and this has happened in the past, but both teams seemed to be following the same script. On second thoughts this shouldn't really surprise me as there is definitely a sameness about teams these days.

I would like to see the administration extend the boundaries again to the traditional length and width. It is claimed that modern batsmen hit the ball harder than in the past and I won't dispute this. So they should be able to clear longer boundaries.

Bowlers must again experiment with a variety of slower balls to continually change the pace. A fast bowler, even in the slog overs, should not be afraid to bowl a bouncer or a slower ball, for the best way to slow the scoring down is to take wickets. Captains and selectors are already planning for the next World Cup. The team that wins the cup will invariably be the one with the most variety in their attack.