To say Australia enjoyed an unbeaten and dominant summer in 2019-20 is not quite true.
Yes, the Test team proper dominated Pakistan and New Zealand, hurtling to five successive victories through the prolific feats of David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne, stubborn support from Steven Smith and the relentless nature of the bowling attack.
But one tier down from the very top, the Australia A side twice assembled for matches against touring teams, the Pakistanis in Perth in November and then the England Lions at the MCG this week, and on both occasions they performed poorly.
In between, Australia’s Under-19s team were, save for one breathless escape against England, a long way from contending for the World Cup contested in South Africa. This is all to suggest that while the shopfront window of Australian cricket is currently in rude health, the results underneath demonstrated that there are no guarantees that things will stay that way beyond the generations of Smith, Warner, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc.
The just-completed pink-ball game against an England Lions team featuring the likes of Zak Crawley, Keaton Jennings, Dom Sibley, Dom Bess and Craig Overton was a sobering one for the selection chairman Trevor Hohns, who watched much of the proceedings from a perch high in the MCG’s members’ enclosure.
After winning the toss, the captain Moises Henriques chose somewhat surprisingly to bowl first, allowing the visitors to accumulate a sizeable first innings as Michael Neser struggled notably to fill the shoes of Peter Siddle now the older man has marched off into international retirement.
In response, Australia A’s batsmen offered precious little, with the almost lone exception of Kurtis Patterson. After a summer in which he has been blighted by a quad injury, and a little more than a year on since he notched a percussive century against Sri Lanka at Manuka Oval in only his second Test, Patterson’s determination and poise were welcome, even if conditions could not have been further removed from those the Test side will face in Bangladesh in mid-year.
“The conditions for what we have in Australia to Bangladesh, you probably couldn’t ask for anything more opposite,” Patterson said. “Who knows what will be read into by the selectors, but it’s always nice to be in winning teams, those teams generally that are winning games have the most players picked, so if we can try and make a Shield final first of all and number two, hopefully lift that Shield at the end of the season, whatever happens, happens.
“The quad’s going really well, it’s got to have some work done to it to get back to 100%, but in terms of being able to play cricket and do my job, it’s well and truly fine. It has been a disjointed season so I wasn’t sure what to expect coming back this back half of the year, generally the Duke ball or pink ball can move around a little bit. So time in the middle is so valuable, and now the focus shifts to trying to win the Shield for New South Wales.”
Others did not respond so well to the scenario before them, which conjured up different forces to the pressure being felt in Perth when Australia A took place in what was effectively a Test trial immediately before the start of the home schedule. Instead of that level of tension, this match was played with a sense of some isolation, away from the pointy end of the Shield season, in the wake of the Big Bash League, and without the context of a Test series to strive for. In other words, much of the motivation needed to be self-generated.
A lack of context had already been discernible from the withdrawal Will Pucovski (concussion) James Pattinson (back) and Marcus Stoinis (shoulder) for fitness reasons, not so long after Glenn Maxwell had absented himself from Australia’s tour of South Africa to get surgery on an issue he had been successfully managing during the BBL. Players, with so much demand for their time and different price points at which their services can be sold, are growing perceptibly choosier about where, when and how much they will play.
The Lions, of course, have been in the far more cohesive and team-oriented posture of a full tour, with some being on the third leg of their winter trekking after the senior team’s travels to New Zealand and then South Africa. As a result, they looked focused and hungry in both their practice habits and their playing ones, also motivated by the idea that the MCG will be the venue in which many of them will be vying for the Ashes urn late next year.
Patterson’s references to the Shield were pointed, and it cannot be disputed that the Australia A players felt some pangs of regret at not being able to play for their states in a critical round of the domestic competition. In their absence, others have shown their skills, not least the fast emerging talent of Cameron Green, who at the age of 20 has already posted a third first-class century for Western Australia. It’s that sort of peer pressure that will ultimately drive all players to be better, finding the ways to endure in long-form cricket despite the attractions of the BBL and other T20 tournaments around the world.
But it was telling, too, to ponder how different the landscapes have been for many of the emerging players in both England and Australia over the past decade. The BBL has provided a sizeable additional income stream, allowing players who secure healthy state and BBL contracts to earn a comfortably better living than those in England playing county cricket and T20 matches under the same, single contract.
Though that is about to change with the onset of the Hundred, Australian cricketers have been able to do quite well without needing to make the extra sacrifices inherent in stretching for a baggy green to make their own. This, too, is where the fortunes of the Under-19 team become relevant. By their performances but also their behaviour, the squad in South Africa demonstrated a tendency towards immaturity and a lack of resilience that did not always bode well for the future, when they face quality opponents from all over the world in the crucible of a Test match.
No-one doubts the ability of a young batsman the calibre of Jake Fraser-McGurk, for instance, but it will be intriguing to see whether his generation is able to develop the hungry attitude of learning that made Labuschagne and Smith so successful in the long-run, after times in their junior careers when they were far from the most obvious or popular talents at their age level. As was the case at the MCG this week, in a landscape where plenty of money is available from multiple sources, the motivation will have to come from within.