Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Simon Katich retired because Australia wanted him to

Simon Katich announced his retirement from First Class cricket earlier this week, ending a career that began when Mark Taylor and Paul Keating occupied the most coveted offices in the country. He leaves with a reputation as a hardworking player who moved up the order as his career progressed, starting at six and finishing facing the new pill.

Katich also leaves with a reputation for spirit; something which would surprise those who watched his Test debut during the 2001 Ashes series. Apart from his crablike wander across the stumps in playing each delivery, the most recognisable incidents from a long and quite distinguished career involve his 2009 bust-up with Michael “Bingle” Clarke in the sheds and his press conference last year, where he said what others dared not upon his axing from the Cricket Australia contract list.

Were he still opening the Australian innings with Shane Watson or David Warner, it's doubtable Katich would have retired. He felt he still had more to offer the Australian team and his stats backed him up. Western Australia certainly thought he had something left, as they wanted him to play 2012-13 for the Warriors.  The pay's also pretty good. 

 The enmity with Clarke contributed to Katich's replacement and almost certainly left him jaded and fed up with the politics inherent in Australia's only truly national game. Although maturing, Simon Katich had earned his place ... only to be dropped simply because of his age.

Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey fight the same battle every time they step onto the field. Both are older than Katich and appear near the end, but have no firm plans for retirement. When either fails, a gestalt Salomé appears, composed of a collective press, who screams persistent nonsense about ageing heads on salvers. The promise of youth is decried, a glorious future is prophesied – without admission that promise is all many Australian youngsters have to offer.

In a world culture where stardom starts early and young is better, Australia's sporting hierarchy leads the world. Since the country's failure at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Australia has prided itself on world's best youth development; in cricket, this has manifested in the once-vaunted Australian Cricket Academy, an offshoot of the Australian Institute of Sport.

In Aussie Rules football, the dominant sport, the average age of last year's Premiers, Geelong, was 26.6 years old and considered almost supremely old. The year before, the average age of the Collingwood's Premiership side was 24. This led the expansion Gold Coast Suns to select a squad with average age of just 21.2 years last term. Players are often given only one chance and if renewal is required, players at age 24-26 are the first to go. Precious few delisted players are later re-drafted; an anonymous teen's promise now supersedes proven capabilities of the known foot soldier.

The trend has begun to reverse somewhat as veteran players like James Podsiadly and Orren Stephenson are drafted for short-term impact and clubs countenance that there is life in the lower leagues past the age of 21, but this  psychologically-straitjacketing desire for youth still prevails.

Australian football clubs have cottoned on that fans want one of two things: wins, or hope for the future. If you aren't challenging for the title, you regenerate the entire playing list on the back of high draft picks and hard work. Players emerge to stardom early, destroy their bodies and retire to the paddock of fond memories by age 31. With the success of young teams like Hawthorn and Essendon, the Australian public is prepared to sacrifice mid-term results – wholesale – in the ostensible guise of long-term progress.

This simply doesn't work on the cricket field. The best players should represent their country until their position becomes untenable. Due to the persistent averageness displayed by Phil “Snicker” Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Chris Lynn et al., Katich, Hussey and Ponting should have been left to judge themselves. Creating space for young players to grow is a ridiculous argument – if the players can't dominate the Shield, there's little or no reason to suggest they will perform consistently at Test level. Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Glenn McGrath called time at the right moment – why should we treat Hussey and Ponting any different? Plus, although the dollars on offer cloud the decision, who else is better to judge?

Some athletes pick the correct time to go, while others hang on too long – here, cricketers could take a lesson from AFL players – but to simply remove Katich from national contention was ill-advised and affronting. At worst, a perilous drop in form deserves the oft-cited “tap on the shoulder”; Katich didn't receive even this much dignity in June 2011.

At least on Monday, his announcement carried a nobility not afforded by his former employers.

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