21 January 2013

Opinion: Rotation or specialisation?

Rotation policy or specialisation?

Recently there has been some slight disharmony in the Australian cricket community.
Coach and Captain have come out defending the rotation policy, while supporters feel frustration with the feeling that the best team is not being picked.

The recent performances against Sri Lanka have raised the debate that the rotation on the batting front creates inconsistency and uproots stability, while the bowling rotation has merit but the mix is not consistent with the bowlers utilised, perhaps clouded with the constant, somewhat unnecessary push for all-rounders.

In this article I will address the fundamentals of rotation, while also pushing my idea forward that a specialist team is likely a better route to travel than continuous rotation for player preservation with direct shuffling on constant squad change.

Our recently selected Twenty20 squad is a spectacular example of specialisation and these players should be pushed hard over the next 6 months with the chance to then move to ODIs, keeping in mind other Twenty20 players are easy to point out. This is a topic I will touch on.

In August 2011 the Argus Review was gradually released to the public with the recommendations issued to Cricket Australia following the forgettable home Ashes series loss.

In the review were two notable points:
Improving injury management,
Improving national coaching systems.

Therefore the selectors and coaching staff have ensured they adhere to these two recommendations.
There's just been two problems.

Firstly, the players have never seemed to be at peace with the policy, as Mitchell Starc hit out on Twitter when rested after his Player of the match award and around the time of proposal Michael Hussey stated that he did not agree with the policy regarding batting as it disrupted confidence and stability, but he did go on to state that he understood it's merit for bowlers given the workload.

The other is that with the rotation used we have seen inconsistency with regards in finding the right players to step in for the relevant player rested. We've seen a number of debutants in all forms of the game and in some regards I find this has watered away the value and purpose of receiving a Baggy Green cap, but that's a whole other debate altogether which I feel strongly about.

These chops and changes leave many supporters in the dark with the intention of player management for a stable team being off balance and also leaves many casual, but as important, supporters clueless as to who is who in the Australian cricket team, which does little to promote pride and invested following for the team. This is not a team comprised of the best men for the job that supporters aim to identify with as they follow the game more and more.

A pillar of Cricket Australia's focus going forward is:
Put fans first and Produce the best teams, players and officials in the world.

James Sutherland also pointed out the following during the time of the Argus Review:

"There's an element of truth that comes through in our research that shows there are a whole lot of people in Australia who don't necessarily relate to the Australian cricket team in the way that many other cricket fans do," Sutherland said. "That's largely because of their background, culturally in terms of coming from a different country or alternatively just that they didn't grow up with cricket as a sport and develop an affinity with the team.
"That's not the only way a fan can connect with and relate to cricket, there are lots of other ways. It could be in terms of grassroots, club or school cricket, or it could be in terms of entertainment, perhaps engaging with or supporting a BBL team and going along on a Thursday or Friday night to watch a BBL match and have a bit of fun and enjoy the game and follow your team."

Inconsistent selection policies will only intensify "a whole lot of people in Australia who don't necessarily relate to the Australian cricket team in the way that many other cricket fans do," and it likely goes beyond cultural and ethnic standards.

Consistency with Big Bash League selections saw an incredible devotion from fans with their following of players during the campaign. While it is T20 and rotation is almost out of sight, out of mind in such a format, the concept is that over a few weeks in one tournament supporters had a passion towards the players and identified with their team with a consistent side and well clarified replacements.

Trevor Hohns (a former chairman of selectors) recently stated that he felt the rotation was not being properly communicated to supporters of the game and can be seen as creating a divise issue, as written by Daniel Brettig.

Hohns was asked about the rotation policy and if he'd be executing such a plan and his reply was, "It's a difficult one to answer, that one. Times are different but possibly not ... Way back then, we often rotated or rested players only in one-day cricket and at an appropriate time. I think unfortunately at the moment they are having trouble getting their message across over exactly what they are trying to do."

The basic concept of rotation is that a player has a certain limit as to how much cricket he can play.
Age, cricketing role and frequency of format played come into consideration. From this the sports scientists can figure out when a player is sliding into a high risk zone for injury, so rotation is therefore executed to try prevent injury from occurring. This also creates opportunity for another player, a "shadow player" if you will, to step in for that player until the next rotation is required.

It sounds great and looks to be a logical plan to try assist our serious issue as the number one team for getting men into the injury shed. Given our injuries and amount of cricket played it appears to be a necessity.

However, this can never prevent unforeseen injury breakdowns or protect a player.
It is at best an experiment and a preventative measure taken to try and limit injury and exhaustion but it is certainly not full proof and is not as easily managed as the concept states.

The benefits of such a policy is straight forward. It preserves a player for longevity and creates a system where players can be shuffled with peace of mind in knowing when one player is rested, another comes in to step in for that job. Unfortunately, with inconsistent shuffling comes inconsistent contingency plans, as we have now seen in the limited overs team.

The disadvantages are clear.
Supporters get frustrated feeling that best XI is not walking out onto the field for the matches they have paid to see live or watch from their living room. I have noticed a slight annoyance reading about with the new faces popping up and the confusion for many ha alsos been why so many players have been getting injured, period.

Unity has become slightly complicated and it's difficult to cement in a side with this policy unless a solid plan is in place with the relevant and right players to be used.
Given the way Australia has a busy year ahead in all forms of the game and the mix is far from right, this policy may lack credibility and Cricket Australia should rather be looking ahead at specialised teams as opposed to constant rotation of the best players to try string together the decent team on paper.

Specialisation also faces the challenge that you need to trial and test players in the various formats but there is plenty to look at. Specialisation in many regards minimises rotation and allows for breathing space with players to avoid exhaustion, fatigue and excessive workloads. Specialisation leads to the best side for the format.

Many players go through their careers as specialists in a format, a few examples.

Michael Bevan was given chances at Test level but found himself as an ODI specialist which he crafted into an incredible skill with the bat in hand.
Justin Langer played a handful of ODIs but found himself to be a batsman best used in the longer form of the game and as time went on he became one of the best opening batsmen in the history of the game.
Stuart MacGill became the shadow player for Shane Warne but was far better than that and when he was called into the Test side as a specialist longer format spin bowler he delivered.
Damien Fleming was found to be a more effective ODI player. His body struggled with the demands of Test cricket and in order to get him out there for Australia he was well managed as a specialist ODI bowler.

Our current setup definitely has the capacity to select specialist ODI teams, with the World Cup in mind, and of course our Test side.

Peter Siddle has already found himself to be a specialist Test bowler and is unlikely to ever be a regular fixture in the ODI team.
Ed Cowan is still fighting to cement his place as our opener but he is seen as an emerging specialist Test batsman and Nathan Lyon could also be seen as the chosen Test spin bowler going forward.

A player picked for a specific format will know the upcoming scheduling, know the demands ahead and as a professional can be instructed and can manage his own development and training for the games demands.

A specialised player for a format also accepts his role in the team, knows his duty and has the opportunity to focus on that specific format until such a time where he is in a position (age and body development to handle the demands) to tackle more than one format if proven to be good enough, also known as player management.

Selectors have a duty to still ensure consistent selection policies and not debut a player and toss him out after one or two games, especially in limited overs format where two innings is not sufficient to test a players worthiness.
Recent examples would be that of Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja who would definitely be getting one on top of a few players in the current ODI side if given a fair go. The SCG match would have a been a greater challenge for them against a swinging ball and given them a chance to try go one up on the likes of David Hussey or Moises Henriques.

Inconsistency was a serious problem with our last selection panel and with the sudden emphasis and underlying panic of this rotation policy, we are seeing inconsistencies creeping in with squad selection and make up. This also leaves players with precious little time to find their feet and when playing in tough conditions they could be forgiven when they get eaten alive.

Many back rotation by stating we need to look to the future, we need to trial and test as many as we can before the Indian tour and the Ashes, as well as the World Cup. This is true in theory.

The reality though is that we have a current objective and that is to regain the status as the number one Test team, as well as number one in all limited overs formats too.
The current plans handling risks to only see us fall away from that objective as the plans have never appeared to be solid in terms of longevity and the team unity certainly won't come a long way with constant change.

Rotation is a wonderful concept but only when the right players have already been identified as credible and reliable replacements. This creates harmony and a really fortunate setup for the team, which so far only our Test bowling outfit seems fit for the policy.
However, the right players have not been identified as a whole and there certainly hasn't been enough perseverance shown in order to maximise the potential candidates to assist with rotation.

Therefore, while I understand Mickey Arthur's staunch defense of the policy and Michael Clarke public relations speech to Mark Nicholas the other night in Adelaide on the topic, the reality is without a core group of players for rotation to work and a fast stream of debutants coming in, supporters will continue to be left the dark and progression will stagnate.

Specialisation in itself takes a fair bit of "rotation" but it's done of a different basis, the common way in which a core team is established. State cricket aids this as well and a strong limited overs tournament should be yielding far better results than what we have seen against Sri Lanka, which is fairly seen as a forgettable series by many. Reality is it was a series to get a step closer to the number one rank.

The Lankans have bowled mighty well at us and need to be acknowledged in this regard, but the rotation of the batting line up has probably note given any notable benefit. A specialist limited overs team would also create greater accountability than a scratch of the head as to what the hell is going on...is it rotation or is it the wrong players being brought in?

Australian cricket has always been about looking to the future but at the same time ensured that in the present the best players for the job were being selected and this was at the best of times a brutal process and developed a bloody tough environment.
The Argus Review was proposed in order to restore that culture. Some steps have been made but there is still a long way to go.

Fortunately there is always light at the end of the tunnel as I believe the players are there and inevitable development will be needed, only the objective needs to be a drive for specialisation which will give a stronger platform for medium to long term rotation within a format and eventually amongst formats.

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1 comment:

Sylvester said...

Sums up my feeling on the matter, the current selection panel just haven't figured out when is best to rotate the players. There has always been complains regarding rotation in the past but most could see the merit in it because usually when it was done the series had been won already. Very rarely did we start a series without our captain, wicket keeper and biggest money drawing player.

The prime example for your specialisation case would be Forrest, he was never a 20 or 50 over player yet he was being picked with a view to the Test side. Each format still needs to be picked based on form for that format. Bailey was alright on that regard and looks like Finch will finally go down that road. Hughes was kinda of done right although his record is so outstanding in all formats that he'll probably end up being a triple format player.