Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver: Aussies made a first class error

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The problem with cricket these days is (insert your own clause here) the proliferation of T20 leagues/ player power/ DRS/ visible tattoos and ... no, please stop me before I take a bath with a live toaster.

Cricket has many and varied problems, macro and micro, most of them evident in the recently completed and thoroughly disappointing Ashes, but they cannot be neatly bundled into file marked 'Things were better in my day'.

Let's try to explode some myths: Australia did not lose the Ashes because of the Decision Review System; they have not dropped three straight Ashes series because of the Big Bash League; it's utterly improbable the root cause of their loss was the players' reluctance to accept previous coach Mickey Arthur (who, incidentally, New Zealand Cricket once coveted); and they did not lose because Michael Clarke has a tattoo of a guardian angel on his right arm.

They lost because they're pretty hopeless and England, even when they're only at half-cock, know how to win and, even more importantly, how not to lose. But England's efficiency is only mildly interesting. Australia's conflagration is a far better story. If their downfall doesn't resonate with New Zealand administrators, it should.

Australia once had a first-class competition that was the envy of the world but the Sheffield Shield has been in decline for a long time. A trio of NZ journalists, including this one, traipsed to St Kilda Junction Oval for a couple of hours in the days prior to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and were let down by the sheer ordinariness of the cricket between Victoria and, if memory serves, Queensland.

Evidently, it has got a whole lot worse since then.

Shield cricket was once strong because the state second XI competition was strong, and that was strong because club (or "grade" as they call it) cricket was strong.

Young players fought like hell to make their club 1st XIs; they fought harder to make the state 2nd XI; only the cream rose to Sheffield Shield.

In their wisdom, Cricket Australia scrapped the second XI competition in favour of a Futures League, where eight of the playing XI had to be under 23. Instead of a mixture of pimple-faced talent, gnarled veterans and first-class cricketers currently out of favour, you were left with the acne - or, as Jarrod Kimber summed it up in a piece for Cricinfo, "a friendly crche for spoiled children".

This is where Australia stuffed up and this is where New Zealand should learn. We had a flirtation with youth above all else as recently as the Bracewell years, alienating most of our best cricketers in the process. Insecure coaches love young players because they are pliable and nod their heads dutifully when spoken to.

Mercifully, the youth obsession seems to have passed; the likes of Bruce Martin and Two-metre Peter have benefited from this meritocracy.

Yes, T20 has contributed to Australia and New Zealand's malaise, but not because of the reasons popularly attributed to it. Great players can adjust their technique and temperament to suit different forms of cricket. Those who can't were never likely to be "greats". (As an aside, the two countries who most enthusiastically embraced T20 cricket, South Africa and India, and the country where it all began, England, are ranked numbers one, three and two in the world in test cricket respectively. So much for it being the root of all evil.)

The problem with T20 is Cricket Australia and NZC's insistence on stopping all first-class cricket to accommodate it. The problem is not tattooed oafs who can't distinguish between a red and white ball, but tattooed oafs who don't get to see a red ball for two months every summer.

Australians are now learning what New Zealanders have known for a long time - without at least 12 talented and mostly experienced players, test cricket is bloody hard.

The quickest way to dilute your talent is to stuff about with the levels below. That's where you'll find your answers.

- Herald on Sunday

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