Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cricket Australia sits and rotates

Cricket Australia and their coaching staff have come in for criticism regarding the policy formerly known as rotation, Strategic Player Management (SPM).   With precocious – but premature - talents like Steve Smith shunted into the canary yellow as Usman Khawaja is given his leave, rotation has become another rod with which to beat the national body.

David Mutton wrote recently that the rotation policy favoured by CA isn’t so much pragmatism but an ideology – something to be sought after, an end rather than the means.  With their infatuation with newcomers, Australian administrators seek a panacea to remove them from this time of trial.

The fact that SPM has been labelled a policy doesn’t help: while governmental policy is a plan with funding attached, its corporate counterpart pure risk-management, less about governance but a get-out for those unable or afraid to make decisions.  Sounds perfect for faceless bureaucracy that is Cricket Australia.

Rather than being a long-term benefit to Australian cricket, the recent policy of haphazard squad rotation undermines team cohesion and actually does just the opposite. 

In theory, player rotation makes perfect sense.  It allows tired players the rest needed to reduce injury and fatigue, while simultaneously allowing the outstanding youth talents with opportunities to see what the top level is all about.

Easily forgotten is that the results haven’t yet been proven.  Rested players still break down (c.f. Cummins, Pat and Pattinson, James), perhaps making Strategic Player Management (SPM) the cricketing equivalent of echinacea: a commonsense medical management that gained widespread uptake on the open-market uptake but was really just bollocks.  Rotation may or may not work.

Part of confusion is that CA isn’t exactly sure why they are rotating players through the coloured clothes.  Is it to blood youth, allow player recuperation, help restore form or a happy commonstance of all?  Was Glenn Maxwell’s ODI debut an audition for a role in the lower order a la Mike Hussey or just a consequence of his form in Australia’s new, annual, December-long tee-time?  It’s injury prevention, it’s specialized coaching, it’s player wellbeing, it’s rotation it’s … just the vibe of the thing.  Such a lack of boardroom vision can’t help but bleed down to the players.

There is little evidence to back up resting as an ideology, particularly with regard to player wellbeing.  It’s hard to fault Mickey Arthur et al for resting Peter Siddle after his efforts against South Africa in Adelaide, but for Mitch Starc to suffer likewise immediately after his best Test bowling beggared both belief and common sense.  If this was done in the name of Starc’s health, we must be concerned of his durability on every tour he participates in.

Cricket Australia has obviously decided that preserving their best on-field assets is the way to happy and productive cricket.  Unfortunately, James Sutherland and his mob would be far better served deploying Strategic Player Management as part of their scheduling process rather than as an escape clause for players wedged into an overcrowded calendar.  In it’s current form, SPM is no more than damage-control.

If SPM doesn’t actually produce less injuries, then how about the youth benefits?  While players have missed games going back decades, Strategic Player Management in the twenty-first century begins and ends with Liverpool Football Club under the reign of Rafael Benitez.  The Spaniard is perhaps the greatest proselytizer of SPM there is; he is a tactically gifted coach who puts faith in young players time and again.  However, the results from his time doing so at football’s most famous club are far from convincing. Players still got injured and few of the vaunted youth allegedly inspired by opportunity have kicked on into the Liverpool first team. 
Rotation for its own sake is a flawed idiom.  It’s a luxury that mediocre teams – like the current Australians – simply can’t afford in that it places philosophy above results.  In the grating words of Marge Simpson: “We can’t afford to shop at any store that has a philosophy”.

Great teams can afford dalliances with Smith, Maxwell, Chris Lynn or Shaun Marsh because the results don’t suffer in the long term.  Anyone who thinks this iteration of Australia is anything more than functional would seem to watch too much commentary by Channel Nine.

Ed Cowan, (c) Balanced Sports
While morally virtuous, when one prefers a complex idiom to simple method, results are often sacrificed.  And by refusing to face this inherent truth, CA has perhaps missed the most important reason why casual squad rotation is detrimental: those results, no matter what they are, stimulate public interest while generating the team spirit that’s forged through shared success or failure. 

Results bring about more than revenue.  Communal trials are what builds a team from a collection of individual parts.  Australia has no narrative, no identity partly because they haven’t had the chance to share enough cricket together.  Rather than building team spirit, SPM can ramp up internal rivalries, clouding the identities that have begun to coalesce.

The fact is that rotation is here to stay.  It’s another example of Cricket Australia running the sport froma middle management point of view.  The Australians will just have to thrive in spite of its shortsightedness. 

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