Michael Calvin: Is the Big Bash leaving a dent in Australian hopes of producing Test players?

Focus is increasingly on T20 slog-fest which is making money – but not quality cricketers

Shane Warne retired from cricket on Monday, for what even he suspects is the 10th time. This came as a surprise to those who assumed his affections had long since been divided between Liz Hurley and Las Vegas, with occasional visits to the embalmers at Lord’s.

“I think the time is right for me to hang up my Big Bash boots,” Warne said, ending a short, inglorious spell as captain of the Melbourne Stars, one of the eight teams in Australia’s over-hyped, underwhelming T20 competition.

The Stars’ coach, one Greg Shipperd, took time out from his complementary duties with the Victorian Bushrangers to thank him for sharing “freely with his team-mates from his vault of strategic and mental understandings”, which was nice.

The Big Bash is a gaudy world of tweakers, gunslingers, bombers and finger-licking good sponsorship. According to Cricket Australia, an  organisation which makes our own Lawn Tennis Association appear on-message and far-sighted, it is the future, made flesh.

One would have imagined James Sutherland, their chief executive, would have been cowed by his  responsibilities when he awoke in his London hotel yesterday morning. The headlines at home, following an abject second Test performance which is in danger of devaluing this Ashes series, were horrible. Words like “humbling” and “shabby” were used like stilettos.  

Michael Clarke’s squad was at the mercy of second-rate stand-up comedians, whose jibes – “What do you get if you cross the Australian cricket team with an Oxo cube? A laughing stock” – were clearly retrieved from the Christmas cracker reject pile.

Anyone who believes in the primacy of Test cricket, the status of the Australian team as a symbol of  nationhood, and the myths and legends of Ashes rivalry, would be forgiven for not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  Australian coaches were complaining of bowler-friendly wickets, and the manner in which technical faults of emerging batsmen are disguised by the T20 format. Sutherland, though, was ebullient.

Overnight he had sanctioned the release of a statement which hailed the Big Bash League for “attracting a new, diverse fan base in its first two years with its mix of big hits, great value and explosive action.” It proclaimed: “Our strategy is working.”

It highlighted the fact that 13 per cent of the crowds were experiencing live cricket for the first time. It  applauded T20 as family-friendly  entertainment, and reaffirmed that the school holidays, the most important two months of the domestic season, had been reserved exclusively for the slog-fest. 

Even Ashes-related comment was tailored to the shortest, most brutish form of the game. Michael Hussey, the left-handed batsman who retired from Test cricket earlier in the year after 79 appearances, was wheeled out to confirm he had no wish to return to the bombsite of Australia’s middle-order.  He didn’t sweeten the pill. The Ashes? He was well out of it.

“I’ve been watching the boys over in England” said Hussey, who was promoting his Big Bash move from Perth Scorchers to Sydney Thunder. “Obviously they’re doing it tough at the moment. I’m sort of glad I’m not really in that pressure situation. There’s a lot of stress and tension involved, so I haven’t missed being out there on the international stage.”

Intriguingly, seasoned Australian observers were using Hussey to reinforce the argument that their system militates against the production of a young batsman like Joe Root, whose innings of 180 at Lord’s was an old-school mixture of defensive discipline and measured aggression.

Hussey developed a reputation at an early age for his capacity to leave the ball, effectively and consistently. The principles of the Big Bash means that such caution is coached out of young batsmen, who are encouraged to go for their shots, however rash or unconventional.

Agonised inquests into a lack of technique are drowned out by the hubbub of the market place. With Hussey in the first draft of franchise players for the Big Bash, the focus was firmly on the earning capacity of free agents.

Mitchell Johnson, the Barmy Army’s whipping boy, was quaintly described as a “150kph slinger”. He is the most valuable unsigned player. “Whoever gets him will have to pay top dollar” trilled the PR puff. “The Milky Bars might be on Mitch.”

Joe Burns, Brisbane Heat’s so called “young gun” right-hander, is touted as a top-order target. Believe it or not – and scepticism is understandable – he eats a bag of carrots a day, to improve his night vision.

The subliminal message to Australia’s young cricketers was  unmistakable. If you are a bowler, you don’t need to follow the example of Dennis Lillee, who worked long hours in a bank to earn the right to learn his trade in Grade cricket. Get in the gym, and go for your life.

If you are a batsman don’t bother emulating Don Bradman, who honed his technique by hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump against a water tank in the backyard of the family home in Bowral, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. Get the heaviest bat you can carry, and wield it.

Tickets for this winter’s Ashes series Down Under are selling well, despite the inadequacy of Clarke’s team. Cricket captains have a greater range of influence than in many sports, but he looks resigned to his fate.

Like Warne, he is a product of a different time and place.

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