Where are all the good (young) (bats)men?
The First Test is this week, and while the toss is yet to be decided, and a ball yet to be bowled, focus and conversation is again centred on “our batting”.
A former Australian batting legend admitted our pool is shallow, and mused the country’s up-and-coming batsmen aren’t being pushed hard enough to reach the benchmarks of old.
Looking ahead to Thursday, we know a new-look combination will open in Adelaide, and beyond, with David Warner and Cameron Bancroft both serving suspensions. Victorians Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris and Queenslander Matthew Renshaw are among the likely replacements.
Before last week’s Sheffield Shield matches, the top five runscorers were Tasmania’s Matthew Wade (455 runs at 75.83) and Alex Doolan (452 at 50.22), Victorian opener Harris (whose 439 at an average of 73 includes an unbeaten 250), South Australia’s Tom Cooper (392 at 56) and Shaun Marsh of Western Australia (362 at 120.66 bolstered by 163*).
Of this group, two have won selection in the First Test squad – the oldest, Marsh at 35, and the youngest, 26-year-old Harris. Wade is 31 on Boxing Day, while Doolan and Cooper are 32.
Looking for the next generation
So, where are the emerging batsmen?
Hopes were high and we dared to dream when, in the opening round of the Shield season, Victorian gun Will Pucovski amassed 243 against WA at the WACA. Yes, on a Perth deck in October!
“I think if you’re winning and having fun, that’s probably when we enjoy our cricket the most.”
Following his monster double century, @VicStateCricket’s Will Pucovski spoke of his approach to this season when we caught up with him at this year’s New Player Induction Camp. pic.twitter.com/0ia5sUuydG
— Aust Cricketers Assn (@ACA_Players) October 18, 2018
The 20-year-old batted for more than a day, facing 313 balls on the way to becoming the youngest player since Ricky Ponting to score a Shield double-century.
It was Pucovski’s second triple-figure score in seven Shield innings, following his knock of 188 against Queensland last summer, but sadly, it was his only hit for the season with the batting prodigy stepping away from the game to look after his mental health.
On November 27, NSW’s classy 25-year-old left-hander Kurtis Patterson, an excellent player of both pace and spin, scored his first Shield century since October 2016. It too was in Perth.
Kurtis Patterson with a massively important knock for the Blues in Perth!
A brilliant ton!
— NSW Blues (@CricketNSWBlues) November 27, 2018
At 18 years and 206 days old, he was the youngest batsman to score a Shield century with 157 against WA. He played his second Shield game two years later and in season 2015-16, with state teammates on Test duty, registered 737 runs to become NSW’s leading runscorer.
A veteran’s view
Victorian cricket legend Brad Hodge dominated the domestic competition for more than a decade, scoring 10,474 Sheffield Shield runs. He believes standards are lower for batsmen today.
“I certainly think that our batting group is at the bottom of a trough. Our bowling group seems to have plenty of options with (Peter) Siddle and (Chris) Tremain waiting in the wings of (Pat) Cummins, (Mitchell) Starc and (Josh) Hazlewood,’’ Hodge told The New Daily.
“Jhye Richardson’s just taken a heap of wickets, the younger quicks down in Tassie, the quicks over in Perth – there seem to be some really good quality bowling stocks around, but our batting is thin.
“What’s the reasoning? It’s hard to tell. Maybe we’re in an era where they’re not getting pushed as hard as we used to. I went through a list of 15 players who were available for selection during the early 2000s and the quality of those players – Martin Love, Simon Katich, Michael and David Hussey – guys who were consistently averaging 50, that was the standard, that was the benchmark that was pretty clear.
“I think whoever takes over from [former Cricket Australia high-performance manager] Pat Howard needs to understand that those benchmarks need to be put in place and set in stone.”
Hodge, still sporting splinters from years of knocking the door down for a return of just six Test appearances, despite averaging 55.9 for his country, said time at the crease and runs, plenty of both, must again be crucial criteria.
“Kurtis Patterson, as good as a player as he is, shouldn’t even be talked about or considered for selection if you haven’t got three or four [of those years] together,’’ he said.
“This is the problem. These are the messages that need to be portrayed to our younger cricketers. It’s fast food. There are other things they want to consider – there’s IPL, T20.
“You have to have an expansive game if you want to play across all three forms. That’s a balancing act but if you want to play Test cricket you’ve got to be hungry and consistently churn out runs.
“Simon Katich is a great example when, he was told by [former national chairman of selectors] Andrew Hilditch he’d never play Test cricket again yet he goes and makes 1500 runs in Shield cricket and is selected the next year.
“That’s the kind of example that needs to be set and needs to be told to the younger playing group. That’s the benchmark.”
Because of the lack of competition for spots Hodge believes it’s exposing players too early without the protection and mentoring from seasoned pros that can guide them in their initial exposure to international cricket.
“There’s no real standout or a younger Steve Smith or Michael Clarke who gets selected, and we just don’t have that luxury either. When those guys got promoted, there was (Justin) Langer, (Matthew) Hayden, (Ricky) Ponting, (Damien) Martyn ahead of them, who all averaged 50-plus and that gives you the luxury of blooding a young batsman.
“Now, our batting group averages close to 30 and we don’t have the luxury of bringing in a young cricketer to get some game time. We’re in a bit of a catch-22, even though we want to promote the youth, our senior batsmen are averaging low scores.”
Hodge was adamant the cycle will turn.
“We’re in a bit of a trough but in time it’ll turn around, like all sports, and we’ll have an abundance of cricketers, batsmen,” he said.
Regardless of incoming executives or messaging, our emerging batsmen would do well to learn from and look to emulate the Shield paths forged by Hodge, Katich and others who honed their craft in Australian cricket’s toughest nursery.