How to build a team to conquer India

Australia A, Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Cricket, featured, Sheffield Shield

Having conducted two successful raiding parties and again retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy at home, there can be no doubt that India has a slight but decisive edge over this Australian team in a variety of conditions.

Nonetheless, after the panic-stricken second innings collapse in Dehli, Australia rallied brilliantly to complete a resounding bounce-back victory in Indore. After more luck with the toss, they continued their resurgence in the first innings in Ahmedabad.

It is clear now we have the talent and on-field strategy needed to go toe-to-toe with India in their home conditions. In fact, even in the first two Australia had their opportunities. It leaves many fans wondering what might have been.

What does Cricket Australia need to do to give our team the best chance of conquering the final frontier?

1. Pick the strongest team

We have to field the best team available. Best here meaning the one suited to the expected conditions of play and the nature of the opponent. Selection will always be a point of debate and on the whole the selectors have done better on this tour than some previous series. You have to get it right, but selectors can only pick from what is available at the time.

They’ll be able to make better selections if they have a deeper pool of talent available and they have more evidence of each player’s ability to perform in the expected conditions. My remaining proposals are aimed at providing these through better planning and investment from Cricket Australia.

2. Boost the Australia A program

One of the astonishing aspects of India’s epic last tour of Australia was their bench depth. Despite the loss of Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and others at various points, India were able to call up debutants T. Natarajan and Washington Sundar and pull off a famous series victory in the last hour of the last Test, at Australia’s former fortress the Gabba.

These debutants were not unknown quantities, they were drawn out of India’s well managed A program. To these you can add names like Shubman Gill, Axar Patel and Mohammed Siraj. All of them had exposure to Australian conditions and even members of Australia’s Test 11 prior to their debut through India A.

Shubman Gill of India celebrates after scoring his century.

Shubman Gill of India celebrates after scoring a century. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

It’s true that Australia has its own Australia A program. Unfortunately it’s not nearly as well structured as India’s. In the four years preceding the 2021 WTC Final, India A played 25 games. Australia A I don’t have stats on but it is a much lower number.

Nonetheless it has given us significant benefits. It has given many players on the fringe of the Test team exposure to foreign conditions. Even Usman “can’t play spin” Khawaja, after his recent century, noted how Australia A tours had helped him develop his game in Asia – far better than carrying the drinks for eight Tests.

In the wake of our defeat in the first two Tests this tour, many have been raising the same old chestnut regarding lack of tour games to prepare. While in theory tour games would assist our preparation, in practice they are a now a waste of time. The opponents provided for these tour games are well below par. Pitches provided for the games bear no resemblance to true match conditions.

Australia have learned their lesson on this and don’t waste their time with tour games anymore. Australian coach Andrew McDonald tried to make up for this by running training camp prior to the tour with special practice pitches prepared and SG balls being used. They did something similar before the tour of Pakistan.

The idea was good but the build-up too short. The extended boot camp we held in UAE prior to the previous tour of India in 2017 was much better. The result of that was a resounding win in the first Test of that series in Pune.

On the last tour of England we took along Australia A to play adjacent matches. This provided a ready pool of reserves with clear evidence of relevant form, and it also made up for the two pointless ‘first-class’ tour games, where Essex and Kent rested their best bowlers. Instead they organised a first class match that included the combined Australia and Australia A squads.

It was this game that led to Marnus Labuschange being the nominated concussion sub for Steve Smith. We all know the rest.

We need to invest in the A programme so that it always tours concurrently with the national team. The best would be if the A games run ahead of the national teams, at the same venues. If not possible to tour concurrently, then at least have them visit within the 6-12 months leading up to the national team touring.

There’s no equivalent to a stint in county cricket that can prepare players for Asian conditions. If we’re really serious about winning on the sub-continent, we should also take Jarod Kimber’s advice and set up a permanent academy in Sri Lanka for our players to get exposure.

3. Restructure the Shield

The Sheffield Shield remains our primary development pipeline. Unfortunately it is inevitable it will take a back seat to the BBL. Cricket needs to be a viable concern financially, and the BBL is where the money is. The BBL is also the best means of engaging the next generation of cricketers.

Nonetheless we need to allow the Shield to do its job and remain a high quality first class competition. How to do that is a whole other article, in this article I’m focused on how to best prepare a pool of players for selection into the national squad and Australia A to then go and have success in overseas conditions.

This could be done by structuring at least part of the season around ‘foreign’ conditions matching the upcoming tour cycle. For a while they were using the Dukes ball in half of all Shield games, to prepare players for the away Ashes tour.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 09: Henry Hunt of the Redbacks bats during the Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and Victoria at Karen Rolton Oval, on October 09, 2022, in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Great idea! But it needs to be taken much further. Make the Shield tournament schedule and focus align with national team focus for that season. Choose ball to match current tour schedule – Dukes for away Ashes, SG for India, Kookaburra other times. Those tours only happen every four years so it would be a cyclical thing. It also only needs to be two or three rounds, not the whole season.

Furthermore, we should seek to replicate foreign conditions by playing more Shield games away from the capital cities. In preparation for sub-continental tours, we could play a couple of rounds in Darwin, Cairns, Alice Springs. I’m sure these games would get a better turn out than we see in the capitals anyway. In preparation for a tour of England or NZ, we could play a couple of rounds in NZ.

Pitches can also be prepared to reflect these more diverse conditions, like the one prepared for the squad at Bon Andrews Oval in January.

Finally, we should bring international players back into the Shield competition. In the past we had the likes of Ian Botham, Garfield Sobers and Richard Hadlee play in our domestic comp. We really could boost the profile by having more foreigners play.

I’d especially argue for better integration with New Zealand. Including foreign players into our domestic comp has bilateral benefits. It should increase the standard of our first class games, but also provide a development support for Test-playing nations whose own first class pipelines are faltering, like South Africa and West Indies are currently.

Maybe when these teams do tour Australia they’ll be better prepared that way too, as we can’t just play England or India every summers.

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