“A “frustrated” Arthur says he’s “sick and tired” of comments in the press that are “naive”.”
If Mickey Arthur reckons Ian Chappell is naive, then he must think the rest of the cricket fraternity is positively brainless. And if commentators the calibre of Chappell and his Channel Nine colleagues Michael Slater and Brett Lee – men with 75, 74 and 76 Test matches and a combined three decades in the baggy green cap between them – can’t wrap their head around the decisions made by a man who averaged 33.45 in South African domestic cricket, then something doesn’t compute. Arthur’s “player management” policy isn’t working.
It’s never a good look when officials bristle at the media. Arthur and chief selector John Inverarity both barked at the assembled press yesterday when the topic of “rotation”, “player management”, or whichever slick PR label you care to use, was broached. Inverarity’s calm schoolteacher demeanour made way for the tense manner of a substitute who had just suffered through a period seven maths class where the students were intent on turning their exercise books into a fleet of paper aeroplanes. His sensitivity to criticism implies a lack of confidence, an anxiety, an insecurity in his own actions. And rubbishing the opinions of revered former players who broadcast their thoughts to millions of Nine viewers every weekend is as silly a policy as the controversial rotation system itself.
Arthur and Inverarity insist they know the makeup of Australia’s strongest XI, but they’re certainly keeping their cards close to their chest, because the naive punters that fork out good money to see Kane Richardson represent the national team aren’t so certain. The treatment of players like Rob Quiney, John Hastings and Aaron Finch suggests the panel has reverted to the sink-or-swim doctrine that made the previous NSP so unpopular (remember Peter George, Bryce McGain, or Beau Casson?). I suspect, in reality, the members of Inverarity’s strongest side are simply the last eleven blokes standing, the squad members that aren’t permanent residents of the physio’s room, a kind of Hunger Games or Steven Bradbury XI, Michael Clarke’s attrition Australians.
Injuries aren’t entirely the selectors fault, of course. And it’s a lot easier to have a clear understanding of your best team when you’re calling upon Gilchrist, Waugh and Ponting rather than Hughes, Khawaja and Cowan. But I don’t think the current NSP is harnessing their available options effectively. Resting players judiciously is clearly a prudent policy in an era of year-round cricket – when Cricket Australia’s (thankful) commitment to the Test format is balanced with a necessary obligation to feed the limited overs cash cows – but the current system is faulty. I reckon the emphasis on nursing players with short breaks, rather than building up strength and tackling long periods of cricket, is misguided.
The two best examples of this are Australia’s two great fast bowlers: Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee, who both enjoyed 14-year careers at the top despite early injury worries. Lillee famously followed an intense physiotherapy regime to correct stress fractures in his back in 1973, while McGrath – as discussed on The Cricket Show this summer amidst the spate of fast-bowling injuries – undertook a similar strength and conditioning program early in his career. Both men built a core of strength that laid the foundation for long stints in the national team that rarely, if ever, needed a Test match or two to put the feet up (I can’t imagine a selector telling Lillee to sit out a Boxing Day Test, a la Mitchell Starc).
In general, players were less susceptible to breaking down when they were afforded long breaks in between long periods of cricket. In the past, a summer of cricket might have lasted from late October to early March, April and May for a rest, June to mid-August on tour overseas, then another break until the new Australian season gets going. In those rest periods, players could throw the steel around in the gym or run sandhills in preparation for long spells without a break. Modern players might not necessarily play more cricket, but I suspect they have much less time totally away from cricket when they can mentally freshen up, or prepare themselves physically.
There’s hardly a speck of white on Australia’s Future Tours Programme in the upcoming 12 months, and for a lot of the team’s high rollers, that space will be filled by lucrative trips to India for a T20 hit and giggle. That form of cricket isn’t especially strenuous – you’d hardly break a sweat bowling four overs before spending the night at the Mumbai Hilton – but every hour spent away from home is an hour that would otherwise be better invested sitting on a beach with a pina colada to recharge the batteries, or putting some miles into the legs on a treadmill.
The current system of constantly touring and taking short breaks when a niggle emerges presents a twofold problem. Firstly, the player is prevented from building up a core foundation of physical strength. And secondly, the player is precluded from acclimatising their body to long, demanding periods of cricket. That Mitchell Johnson strained his side after nine overs at the MCG on Friday evening, or Mitchell Starc needed resting from the biggest Test of the year, is evidence that the prevailing approach does not work because it fails to condition the players’ bodies appropriately.
My solution would be to completely rest key quickies from limited overs tournaments. Peter Siddle hasn’t played an ODI since 2010 and it’s done him a power of good. The value of a one-day cap could hardly be debased any more than it already has, so the selectors ought to consider resting their top-drawer options from entire series (e.g. the arduous eight games in India this October shoehorned in between our two Ashes series). If Siddle, Pattinson and Hilfenhaus are our first choice seamers, as soon as the away Ashes finishes at the Oval in August, stick them in the pointy end of a Qantas jet to return home for some genuine rest, rather than being dragged around the English countryside for an ODI tournament most cricket fans won’t bother setting their 3.00am alarm for.
The selectors are spoiled with an abundance of fast-bowling stocks; Siddle, Pattinson, Bird, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Cummins, Starc and Johnson are all genuine frontline options. But if John Inverarity actually knows who his preferred pace trio is – if his comments at yesterday’s press conference weren’t just an adverse reaction to some media criticism – then he should do a better job of physically preparing them for the rigours of Test cricket with long, valuable rests and sustained periods of play, rather than forcing his charges to tread water in an endless cycle of meaningless games and short-term breaks.