In February this year, Hillary Clinton was odds on for a clean run to the White House, Brexit was the name of a breakfast cereal and Leicester’s claim to fame remained a long-deceased monarch buried under a few rusting Ford Fiestas.
Australia, the dominant force in global cricket for the past couple of decades, had also just reclaimed the number one Test spot. Normal service hadn’t resumed – it had hardly faltered.
They say a sudden change in wind direction can cause a wildfire to rage in a manner so unexpected any future modelling becomes obsolete. For the year 2016, the transition has not so much been sudden as a persistent series of events so seemingly implausible it is now a disappointment when the unexpected does not occur. Future forecasting is indeed irrelevant. We live in an age of uncertainty. This much, Australian Test cricketers now know.
Last winter, Australia were considered such a superior red-ball outfit that the nation was lamenting the allocation of the Boxing Day Test fixture to that of an ailing West Indies side. South Africa have not featured in this showpiece event since 2008, New Zealand have been waiting for 30 years. Surely such opposition would provide a sterner test for the boys in baggy greens?
The Big Bash League, then in its fifth season and an exponential success, became a welcome distraction from the predictable series victory over the West Indies. The sigh of relief was almost audible from Cricket Australia’s offices – the BBL had salvaged cricket’s status as the nation’s number one summer pastime. Fast forward 12 months, and this tournament is being blamed for cricket’s downfall – the Diet Coke of the sport, detracting from the serious stuff.
‘Funny,’ remarked the sports broadcaster Alison Mitchell on Twitter. ‘How English cricket is striving to emulate Australia’s BBL success just as Australia pick an opener who aspires to bat like [Alastair] Cook.’
Matt Renshaw, the English-born Queensland opener, selected as one of six possible changes and three debutants for the third Test against South Africa in Adelaide, is part of the latest solution sought by Australia’s selectors. Renshaw bats in a manner that is indeed akin to Cook or, to find a more contemporaneous comparison, Haseeb Hameed, England’s new teenage Geoffrey Boycott, take out of cryogenic hibernation from the 1930s when timeless Tests were still a thing.
England’s Test team, despite their current struggles on the sub-continent, have performed reasonably well in recent years, more consistently at least than in bygone eras.
The difference between the ECB and Cricket Australia however, is that when the former’s chief executive harks on about the primacy of Test cricket, the ECB can claim demonstrable evidence to support its assertions.
First-class cricket in England is – relatively – thriving. For better or for worse, administrative power lies with the 18 counties, whose membership is largely fond of the longer format.
A healthy second-11 competition props up a County Championship which saw the season finale between Middlesex and Yorkshire attract the highest attendance for a Championship game at Lord’s since May 1966.
21,595 came through the turnstiles over the match’s four-day duration, numbers which the Sheffield Shield might dream of for an entire season, every state combined. The BBC for its part, continues to provide commentary on “every ball of every first-class county match”, a service its Australian counterpart, the ABC, long since shelved.
Yet even with this rose-tinted view of England’s long-form game, Mitchell’s tweet rings true – restlessness abounds.
18 counties to Australia’s six states fuels arguments of a diluted domestic competition. A widening gap between the quality of first and second division cricket lays the foundation of a them-and-us culture. Grassroots uptake of the sport has been declining for years.
Free-to-air television coverage is non-existent – you’re more likely to catch a game of American football on the box than our national sport. At the forefront of the disquiet is the failure of England’s T20 competition to capture the public’s imagination, or that of the broadcasters. There is much to like about the domestic set-up in England, but equally enough to dislike too.
It is a welcome respite from today’s real world consternations to be able to indulge in a spot of schadenfreude by observing Australian cricket’s apparent state of disarray. The bark and bluster is at levels only the romanticism of sport can inspire.
That there is a huge faff over Faf’s sweet-chewing habits, ill-advised though they may have been, only adds to the spectacle. Where elaborate moaning and a vicious critique of one’s own national team was once the preserve of the English, it’s a relief to think that we do not suffer alone.
There are issues within Cricket Australia’s framework, and evidently an imbalance has been created between long- and short-form cricket, between preserving tradition and attracting new consumers (and money). It may too be time to draw to a close the experiment of a Futures League over a genuine second 11 state competition.
Perhaps have a tinker with the scheduling of the BBL and Tests too.
Yet record numbers of grassroots participants, an unrivalled club structure which caters for the career amateur as well as it does the out-of-form international, and a domestic competition (albeit in short-form) that can fill the MCG, are but a few enviable distinctions Australia’s cricket following would be loath to dismiss.
We’re told that Australian cricket is in the grips of a Warner-esque disease – all bish, bash, bosh but little stick and grind. Yet Warner himself mustered a double century against the touring Black Caps just last year. Soon after Adam Voges achieved the same across the water in far less obliging conditions. Just 18 months ago Steve Smith and Chris Rogers put on a partnership of 284 together at Lord’s. Renshaw could well prove to be the next generation of this mould.
Australia’s cricketers are weathering a rough patch, deeper than any they’ll have experienced. The biggest culprits of a hit-and-run style mentality, however, are arguably the selectors themselves.
Until recently, apparently immune to their own mortality, the selectors’ revolving-door player-selection method has only added to the carnage. In Smith Australia have a captain of rare talent, temperament and tenacity, and enough in the players that surround him to ultimately triumph.
Turn down the hyperbole, and let cooler heads prevail, for Australia’s current predicament is not the end of the world. President Trump might be, but not this.