Paul Lewis: Australian cricket team's fall a cautionary tale for All Blacks

By Paul Lewis

Dejected New Zealand players look on following their team's 40-29 defeat against Ireland. Photo / Getty Images
Dejected New Zealand players look on following their team's 40-29 defeat against Ireland. Photo / Getty Images

Inherent in the steep drop in the competence of the Australian cricket team, (stop laughing!) are warnings for the All Blacks.

As Australians search for reasons for the lack of confidence and form that has seen the world's premier cricket team plunge into abject territory (losing five tests and five ODIs in a row), the subject of the Sheffield Shield's failings has been raised.

Once regarded as the world's most exacting non-test cricket competition, the Shield has attracted criticism from perhaps the toughest Australian captain ever, Allan Border.

"I'm a bit critical of the powers that be that let the Sheffield Shield become almost a glorified practice match in some instances," he said. "We are pulling players out of those games to rest and rotate and all those sort of scenarios and it just sort of takes the gloss off what is a great competition - and that's a competition that feeds the Australian cricket team. I mean, if you weren't averaging 50, then you didn't get a look in as far as playing cricket for Australia - with the bat - and obviously a similar scenario with the ball."

Ring a bell? The ITM Cup has already become a third-tier competition, pushing club rugby further down the pipe. Super Rugby, to this point, has done a super job of identifying players for All Blacks jerseys and fits hand-in-glove with New Zealand Rugby's centralised contracts and focus on the All Blacks, avoiding the club v country syndrome affecting other rugby nations.

You'd also have to say, after a world record 18 All Black test victories in a row, the system is working pretty well. But as Australian and Sheffield Shield cricket has shown, there are dangers in total obeisance to head office withdrawing top players by making them take a rest from the rigours of professionalism.We see it every year at the start of Super Rugby when criticism mounts about top All Blacks - Richie McCaw and Kieran Read come to mind - being spelled.

Border was an Australian selector after a captaincy career where he dragged the team up from the depths a tearful Kim Hughes left them in the 1980s, impressing everyone with his pure, dogged, stubbornness, finishing with a test average over 50 (remarkable seeing he had essentially three shots - a cut, pull and cover drive); recognised as one of the finest players of spin ever.

"Who are the next bright young stars? I was ... looking at averages and ... there were very few young batsmen - and I'm talking about guys under 25 - who were averaging 40 and above. It is staggering ... so the selection process now needs to start injecting some young faces into the side and it's got to be a gut-feel-type selection rather than just on pure stats. Hopefully that produces some real good 'uns.

"Back in my time, the selectors took a punt on a guy like Stephen Waugh. He's a good example, probably not ready for international cricket when picked but what a player he turned out to be. So maybe we just have to do the gut-feel-type selection and get some youngsters in there who can turn things around for us."

There are two observations from that: 1) The Sheffield Shield used to be such an intense examination, Australia could afford to select from averages and 2) You wonder how many other Steve Waughs missed out on representing their country because of that. The Black Caps never had that luxury. Successful batsmen like Andrew Jones and Jeremy Coney were selected in spite of their first-class averages and techniques, not because of them.

Super Rugby has already been sadly diluted by expansionism and the weird and wonderful scenario where not all teams play each other. New Zealand teams have been helped a great deal by playing the strongest opposition in Super Rugby: each other.

It may take a toll on the players but there is no question it establishes a higher benchmark, even though we routinely parrot the line that Super Rugby has no bearing on international rugby. Take a squiz at how South Africa and Australia are faring this year.

The All Blacks selectors are doing a grand job of finding international-class players the rest of us might overlook - Anton Lienert-Brown the latest example. But if Super Rugby is to change shape again (and it will, oh, it will... ) and its value as a production line is compromised, things could change.

It's all about the All Blacks and it's a successful recipe. But too much expansionism, experimentation and selectorial fiddling with players' availability can start slowly altering the DNA of a competition so that, as with the Sheffield Shield, it adopts a shape that obscures its purpose.

If it isn't the best against the best, it isn't a test - and we'd be in danger of being caught by the rest.

- NZ Herald

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