Moderation in all things. A phrase so often uttered and agreed with, but so infrequently followed. And so it is with cricket and its obsession with age.
One moment the key to success is the elixir of youth, the next it’s the gravity of experience. Never before has the scrutiny over a player’s fitness, potential, and on-field performance been so strongly aligned to their age. Why the obsession? Surely we would do better to extricate ourselves from this dangerous alliance.
In recent years, strategic thinking in Australia about the ‘optimal age’ of a champion cricketer has veered back and forth more frequently than a Tony Abbott policy U-turn.
On its inception in 2009, the interstate Futures League (replacing the state second XI teams) restricted teams to just three players over the age of 23. Former Australian captain Greg Chappell, a key facilitator in the establishment of this league, was a leading proponent of the “pick ’em young and watch ’em flourish” philosophy.
Chappell’s towering influence ensured that Australian cricketing thinking was so aligned at the turn of the decade. The success stories of the early introductions into the Test arena of Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh readily provided evidence of a tried and tested method.
Little was heard, however, of the rise and fall of the prodigious young talents, who, thrust into the limelight and up against the world’s best, soon fell short of the consistent standards that Test cricket demands. Pat Cummins, at 18 years old and with just three first class caps to his name, won his first Test cap in 2011. It remains his only one.
Steven Smith was a chubby-cheeked 21-year-old leg-spinner when he made his debut in 2010. After just a handful of Tests he was lucky to return within just two years, reincarnated as a top-order bat.
A look at the faltering Test careers of Tim Paine, Philip Hughes and Ashton Agar and the elixir of youth philosophy starts to wane thin. All introduced on the promise of providing years of Test certainties to come, the consistency never did. A few seasons of Sheffield Shield and there’s a different story. Smith’s reintroduction proved far speedier than his fellow has-beens, because, quite simply, he was exceptional. Once in a generation – akin to the likes of Clarke, Ponting and Waugh.
One size, however, does not fit all.
The Futures League eventually adapted, and now allows six, not three players, over the age of 23. Earlier this year Australia won the one-day World Cup which mixed fresh youth with experienced heads.
Just as Australia were starting to adjust to this concept of moderation in all things, the pendulum swung full circle. Embarking on a two-pronged West Indies and Ashes tour, the powers that be suddenly decided experience was the key to success.
The experiment was swiftly deemed a failure as Australia returned, beaten, broken (literally in Ryan Harris’ case) and forlorn. So too, returned the obsession with youth; the announcement soon came that this year’s Matador Cup one-day comp would feature a Cricket Australia XI.
A Cricket Australia XI, described simply as “competitive”, which contained not a single player over the age of 23. The young team, promised an experience like no other, succumbed to 59 and 79 all out in their opening two matches. Alex Gregory, the young captain yet to play a first class game, averaged just nine with the bat throughout the tournament. This knee-jerk reaction of a selection policy did indeed prove a unique experience, but one that Gregory and the rest of his team will likely take a while to recover from.
It is therefore with great relief that the announcement of the Australia squad to face New Zealand included the experienced head of Peter Siddle, picked on form alone, with the likes of now tried and tested run-makers in the Sheffield Shield, Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns.
Cricket is a unique sport. One that relies on individual skill, fitness and mental fortitude all wound up and served up as a team game. This strange concoction attracts some of the most unlikely individuals to a game. In no other sport would the likes of Mike Gatting be held on a sporting par with the strapping gait of Curtley Ambrose. Players flourish at different times and this won’t change. Some will flourish at the off. Others won’t.
England’s Graeme Swann needed to toil for almost a decade in the English county championships before a successful run to the Test arena.
Kristen Beams embarked on her first Ashes tour at the age of 30. She’s now, rightly, considered one for the future of Australian cricket.
Pakistan’s Misbah ul-Haq, in last month’s second Test against England, became only the fourth Test batsman to score 1,000 Test runs after the age of 40 – after Jack Hobbs, Patsy Hendren and Tom Graveney – and the first player this side of the century to do so. We weren’t always so het up on age.
So here’s a thought, forget about age. Longevity, consistency, and future talent, after all, haven’t fared particularly well when aligned so closely to these arbitrary figures.
Australia’s top order, in comparison to New Zealand’s, has for years fluctuated sharply between its obsession with youth and that of experience, without thinking about what’s left in between. Eliminate the figure next to a player’s name that’s quantified in years, and focus more on the one broadcasting the averages.
Here’s to living in the now, selecting on merit and sticking to one’s guns for a bit. And here too is to a glimmer of hope for the rest of us, toiling away at the age of 40, still dreaming of that elusive Test debut.
Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com