Where have Australia's batsmen (other than Steve Smith) gone?

ESPN Cricinfo

ESPN Cricinfo

Author 2019-10-09 10:47:48

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"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."
- Oscar Wilde

Steven Smith's elevated batting during the 2019 Ashes series might have helped Australia retain the urn but it also exposed concerns over their batting depth at Test level.

This isn't a recent discovery. Smith, and to a lesser extent until the Ashes, David Warner, have masked the fact the Sheffield Shield and Australia's much-hyped talent pathway system hasn't produced a bevy of players who can thrive consistently at Test level.

While accepting that Australia entered the 2000s as a great - perhaps the greatest - Test side, there has been a significant drop in Australian batsmen averaging 40 in Test cricket. From 2000 to 2009, 16 Australian players averaged over 40. This decade the figure stands at nine (with a minimum of ten matches).

While there are global issues around batting to be debated, in Australia most of the focus, by commentators and pundits, has been on technique. However, state coaches are almost in universal agreement that this is too simplistic a view.

"I think there is an element of people critiquing technique a lot," Victoria coach Andrew McDonald said. "So players feel compelled to tinker and find the perfect technique rather than finding the technique that best works for them, which is something that's repeatable.

"Steve Smith has been a great advert for what is the perfect technique. It's something repeatable for you as an individual. Stick to that philosophy, make good decisions around it, work out your method to each individual bowler - that's what I'd love to talk about."

Jamie Siddons, South Australia's coach, who scored over 11,000 first-class runs but never played Test cricket, agrees that Smith's technique can't be mimicked because players' movement patterns and styles of play are all but set by the time they reach Shield level.

"I don't think we can necessarily coach what Steve Smith does," Siddons said. "Smith is a genius through the leg side and doesn't miss the ball. We've got to work with what we've got and work within their game, but we've also got to be really clear that they need a good forward defence and a good leaving game."

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Tasmania coach Adam Griffith has noticed that the difference between his young developing players and his captain, Matthew Wade, the only other Australian to score two centuries in the recent Ashes series, is a deep knowledge and trust of his own technique and method.

"You watch the great players play, and they're comfortable and at ease with the way they bat," Griffith said. "They know their games inside out, they know how they play, how they score and what mental state they need to be in.

"For Wadey, that's probably been the biggest transformation - how much more relaxed he is about his cricket and how much he trusts what he does. All he talks about is staying still, watching the ball and staying still. That works for him."

One of the pillars of Smith's success is how he has bedded down his method by hitting thousands of balls in practice. Smith hits more balls than any other player in the Australian men's squad, just as Ellyse Perry does in the women's team.

India opener Mayank Agarwal credited five-to-six-hour batting sessions as the reason for his transformation from a mediocre first-class batsman into a Test match player after his recent double-century against South Africa.

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Sheer volume in practice is nothing new. Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey hit a huge number of balls in practice at their peak. When Justin Langer became Western Australia's head coach in 2012, he was concerned by how few balls his players hit in comparison to what he had seen as Australia's batting coach.

But the current state coaches are less concerned about the sheer volume and more about the quality of practice their young players are getting.

"When we see players do volume training these days, you've just got to walk past any net, whether it's a first-class team or a school team, they'll be on a bowling machine hitting cover-drives all day long - that's the greatest fun ever," Queensland coach Wade Seccombe said.

"We need to be practising what the bowler is setting up to do. Every bowler is setting up to hit the top of off. That hasn't really changed, so as a batting unit we've got to cover that first and foremost. We do talk a lot about discipline and when you're not practising discipline, it's very hard to go into a match situation and put that into practice."

Western Australia's current coach, Adam Voges, joked that his arm nearly fell off during a recent coaching stint with the Australia A squad on the tour of the UK because of the number of throwdowns he gave the batsmen. But, like his fellow state coaches, he wants his players to train with a specific plan.

"I guess what I challenge our younger players with is just to make sure they've got some purpose to what they're doing and how they're actually trying to improve. If they can answer that then I'll throw to them all day long," Voges said. "I don't think volume is the issue. Particularly with young guys, it takes a little while to develop and get exposed to higher-quality bowling that tests your ability and your decision-making around off stump."

Trent Woodhill, Smith's long-time batting mentor, talked in ESPNcricinfo's Stump Mic podcast about setting players up to not only protect their off stump but to dominate bowling that consistently hones in on the top of off stump in long-form cricket.

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One of the challenges that state coaches are facing is that, unlike Smith, young players are struggling to strike the balance between defence and scoring, particularly scoring in a fashion that mitigates the risk of getting out.

"For me, the big sort of framework around modern-day batting is decision-making," McDonald said. "When you take more risk in your day-to-day environments, which is your white-ball game, and where Test cricket is at the moment, strike rates are up and we're ingraining players to think runs the whole time.

"Decision-making has been lost a little bit in this whole search for the perfect technique. We've been shown by a multitude of batters across so many generations that a technique is something that is repeatable for that individual. Around that, you've got to make good decisions. Steve Smith is a great decision-maker."

There is also a fine line between sticking to a repeatable method and not being able to adapt that method to different scenarios.

"With the amount of white-ball cricket played, we are losing the ability to adapt to game situations," Seccombe said. "We're often seeing players play the one way regardless of the situation. When quizzed, the player will say, 'That's the way that I play', which doesn't sit well with me. Yes, that's the way you play, but you've also got to adapt to the match conditions in front of you."

ALSO READ: Can the Sheffield Shield answer these Test questions?

The challenge for young players is much harder than it used to be. This is the first generation that grew up trying to develop a game that can be successful across all three formats. Some younger players are now getting to the stage where they don't play any long-form cricket in their youth. Cricket Australia removed red-ball matches from the Under-17 and U-19 national championships in 2015-16, making them exclusively limited-overs tournaments.

"Young batters coming through the system up until the U-19 programme are only playing white-ball cricket, especially at interstate tournaments and national carnivals," Griffith said. "All we're doing is preparing them for white-ball cricket. When they get up to the next level, they don't know how to construct an innings. They don't know how to bat for time because they never have had to bat for time."

Despite this having been the case for the better part of four seasons, there are still widely held misconceptions about how well Australia's young batsmen are being developed, as exposed in former England coach Trevor Bayliss' recent interview with the Cricket Monthly.

"Australian cricketers are tough and robust," Bayliss said. "They come up through a system which prepares them for Test cricket. From age-group cricket into club and grade cricket, they play semi-finals and finals. So they get used to playing knockout cricket. They get used to playing under pressure. I think England could do with more of that."

Lots of young Australian players are bypassing grade cricket to go straight into Shield squads, and very few recent Test debutants have been picked off the back of dominating Shield form.

Smith was initially picked in Test cricket as a legspinner who batted at No. 8, but it hides the fact that he had scored 1012 Sheffield Shield runs at 56.22 with four centuries as a middle-order batsman prior to his debut. And he had got his Shield opportunity after dominating Sydney grade cricket for Sutherland. After his first two forays into Test cricket, he was sent back to Shield cricket to refine his methods before returning permanently in 2013.

And Warner, who was picked for T20Is even before he made his first-class debut, averaged 60 in 11 first-class matches with three centuries, including 211 for Australia A, ahead of his Test debut.

By contrast, only two of Australia's last ten specialist batsmen to debut - Kurtis Patterson and Peter Handscomb - have averaged over 40 in first-class cricket.

There are mitigating circumstances. The introduction of Dukes balls for half the Shield season has provided a new challenge, and some of the pitches have changed in nature and tend to feature far more grass than they used to.

"When I played, there were some wickets where you basically couldn't get out. I don't see too many of them anymore," Siddons said. "But I do think there's a little bit to be said for having a very good forward defence and leaving game. I'm not sure we have too many players around that have those."

In the end, it's about finding ways to survive and make runs, no matter how it looks.

"The Indian system is all about output," Woodhill said. "It's all about scoring runs. [They] don't care how you do it as long as you do it. In Australia there's always, 'We wanted you to score well, we wanted you to look good', and players would get praised for a sexy or good-looking 30 and others who would score 60 or 70 that were unconventional were almost dismissed."

Australian cricket can't ask players to imitate Smith's technique, but they should be asking players to mimic his run-scoring at all levels before progressing up the ranks if they want to bridge the gap between one of the game's greats and the rest.

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