Helping the old enemy too much?

The Investec Ashes 2015

Has English cricket got the balance right between upholding the standards of the County Championship or allowing their Ashes rivals too much an upper hand in local conditions?

The silly season is upon us – But with the Ashes not yet underway, many Aussies are already dominating across our land.

As the Australian Ashes squad gets settled into life in England for the next two months, it will already feel like home for a few, that’s because for a few members of the tour party, for a few months of the year it is their home.

Both Peter Siddle and Adam Voges have already had success on these shores this summer, and they are not alone – there is as many as twenty Australian qualified players participating across formats in this summer’s county game.

It was just a few weeks ago that Voges scored a match defying debut hundred in Dominica, and one wonders how much his early season stint with Middlesex helped him keep in the form he showed for Western Australia during their recent Sheffield Shield campaign.

Although there is little doubt that his call up to the Test side was earned through a blockbuster Shield season, in which he scored 1358 runs at 104, there is also a claim that his county stints – spread across eight years at Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex – have helped him hone his skills into a Test quality batsman.

Adam Voges on his way to a debut hundred in Dominica.
Adam Voges on his way to a debut hundred in Dominica.

Voges, of course, is not the first Australian batsman to have trodden a familiar path from the shires to international cricket.

The likes of Michael Hussey, Marcus North and Chris Rogers have all received their Baggy Green’s after many winters of toil in county cricket and like Voges they have all managed early success.

North scored a debut hundred against South Africa in 2009, while it took Hussey just two Tests, and Rogers five to register their first three figure scores.

Despite constant suggestions from the Australians that the Sheffield Shield is a tougher competition, and in many regards there is a lot of truth in that argument, the English county system has continued to act as a finishing school from domestic to international cricket for many Australians.

Alongside giving the Australians more first-class experience, the fact that so many Australians are currently plying their trade in county cricket and not sitting idle back home in Australia, could have major impacts on the forthcoming Ashes campaign.

Should injuries strike upon the Australians – not uncommon in a five-Test Ashes battle – then the visitors will have many back up fringe players around who have already played in England this summer.

When Siddle joined Nottinghamshire last season, he had just been dropped from the Test side during their victorious tour of South Africa, by the season’s end he was reinstated to the team for a tough away date with Pakistan in the UAE – all after a fruitful summer at Trent Bridge. When he was dropped by the green and gold for a second time in less than a year he turned to Lancashire and again strong county form has led to a national recall.

While the early season spring conditions have helped both Voges and Siddle gain more exposure to red ball cricket in England ahead of the Ashes – Perhaps the greatest benefit to Australian cricket could come in the form of a trio of their key limited overs players, who have been given the chance to play more first-class cricket.

Due to limited over commitments – including ODI series against South Africa and India as well as a home World Cup – three of Australians most talented cricketers managed just seven Sheffield Shield matches between last season.

James Faulkner (3, Appearances), Aaron Finch (2) and Glenn Maxwell (2) have all spoken of their desire to play Test cricket, but with Australia’s home ODI commitments running alongside the Sheffield Shield campaign, their opportunities to play more red-ball cricket have been few and far between – Until the counties stepped in that is.

Yorkshire coach and former Australian quick Jason Gillespie has handed opportunities to both Finch and Maxwell this season as his side look to defend their Championship crown without a host of batsmen plucked away by England.

Finch was originally signed last summer as a limited overs bet, but his attitude and willingness to play the longer form left an impression on his coach – who was then rewarded when the Victorian helped lead the White Rose towards their first title in thirteen attempts.

Finch was rewarded with a second season as Yorkshire’s overseas, but a hamstring injury sustained in the IPL led to a delay in his arrival, in his place was Maxwell, who like Finch last year, was originally signed as a t20 Blast prospect but ended up, much to his delight, being awarded an unlikely first-class opportunity.

Faulkner, who incidentally replaced Siddle at Lancashire, has proven an instant hit at Old Trafford. A valuable hundred and a hat trick in his first handful of Championship appearances have made a huge impression on those in Manchester and for Faulkner himself the opportunity could not have come at a better time.

Although the Australians have arrived in England with their most exciting quick bowling line up in recent memory – five match Ashes series with back-to-back Tests involved have a habit of testing the fitness of even the most durable of fast bowler. An injury or two and with Faulkner already in the country then perhaps another Ashes opportunity could arise.

Like Faulkner, Jackson Bird last made a Test appearance on English soil almost two years ago. Since that defeat at Chester-le-Street, a spate of serious injuries has threatened to put his international career on the backburner – this is where Hampshire has stepped in.

Bird was signed by the newly promoted south coast outfit after missing some of the Australian summer with various injuries and like his Tasmanian teammate Faulkner, the left-armer will hope that a potential opportunity could arise as the summer unfolds.

Like those mentioned before him, Ben Hilfenhaus’ mid-season stint with Nottinghamshire is looked upon as a good opportunity to get back into the national selectors minds should an opening arise – Despite last playing for his country in 2012 – he was last called up just last October as an injury replacement for Shane Watson against Pakistan.

Joe Burns, who last played county cricket for Leicestershire two years ago and who made his Test debut against India in December, was a surprise exclusion from the Test squads for the tours of the Caribbean and the United Kingdom. His place in that squad was taken by Voges, but after one window was closed another one was opened and he managed to secure another spell in the County game as Voges’ replacement at Middlesex. With another former Middlesex player in Chris Rogers retiring from Test cricket after the Ashes, runs on the board for Burns will likely quicken his return to the national set-up.

While young batsman Peter Handscomb, fresh off a breakthrough Shield-winning season with Victoria, has had an early season stint with Gloucestershire filling in for regular captain and Western Australian Michael Klinger. Handscomb like Burns and Maxwell will soon join up with the Australia A squad on their tour of India due to start later this month.

Can it have a negative effect for some Australians?

Despite the fact that many Australians (Who can’t get an IPL contract of course!) would jump at the chance to play some pre-Ashes cricket in the County Championship, it doesn’t always lead to success in the main showpiece later in the summer as two examples from previous Ashes campaigns can relate to.

Much was made of Nottinghamshire’s decision to sign Australian Test opener Ed Cowan ahead of England’s previous home Ashes campaign in 2013 but in the end it didn’t seem to matter as the previous incumbent opener was dropped after the first Test, in which he scored just a total of 14 runs, to date his final Test appearance.

Four years previous it was Phillip Hughes who’s five innings for Middlesex in early 2009 included three hundreds and two fifties – all this coming after he scored back-to-back hundreds in just his second Test match in South Africa – A fine start to Test cricket indeed.

When Hughes arrived to England he was an unknown quantity – An aggressive young opener who liked nothing more than width outside off stump so that he could free his arms into his favourite square cuts and drives. Unfortunately when the Ashes arrived he ran into a fired up Andrew Flintoff. Fred, much like he had done to Adam Gilchrist in 2005, found a weakness in Hughes’ technique outside off stump and Hughes lasted just two Tests before he was dropped from the side in favour of Watson.

Does it benefit the County game?

While it appears to benefit most Australians in getting more first-class exposure in English conditions – how does it benefit English cricket?

For starters having the calibre of international standard players is sure to strengthen the competition. A competition that has been criticized in recent years for a tightening on the rule of overseas and Kolpak players – leading to a dilution of the talent spread across the eighteen counties.

Another reason that the counties chose to sign Australian players is that they usually more available than players from other countries during the summer months. Many Australians look towards the UK to play county or club cricket in their winter before returning for pre-season ahead of their state season back home.

With the IPL running between April and June and the CPL between June and August, many international players who used to consider county cricket as a summer option are now taking their talent elsewhere for a shorter stint and a heavier pay packet.

There are exceptions of course and a host of Australians are now part of the furniture in the county game. The likes of Jim Allenby, John Hastings and Michael Hogan, Michael Klinger and Steve Magoffin have strengthened the county circuit in recent years much as the likes of Hussey, Rogers and North have in the past.

While all have had success in their own right across many years in county cricket, it’s the stability that they provide their counties that makes them such valuable players. The fairytale stories of the likes of Rogers and Voges also provide hope to these players that sustained success in the county game can lead to unexpected national call ups.

Leicestershire are a perfect example of a club who have looked towards the Australian winning mentality to resurrect their fortunes that had seen them not win a single Championship match since 2012. Andrew McDonald was appointed head coach with Mark Cosgrove captain, while seamer Clint McKay was brought in to spearhead the bowling.

Do English cricketers benefit in return?

With so many Australians rightly or wrongly allowed to progress their careers in the English game, does the game in Australia return the favour to English cricketers?

With just six state sides involved in the Sheffield Shield, it has in recent times become very rare to see any overseas involvement – with only Johan Botha of South Africa appearing in the competition in the last few years.

With very little chance of any English players being involved in first-class cricket in Australia, it’s another form of the game that has enticed many Englishmen down under in recent years.

This year’s Big Bash competition included nine Englishman. While it’s highly unlikely that Michael Carberry, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Lumb or Kevin Pietersen will appear for England again, the benefits that the likes of Tim Bresnan, Alex Hales, Eoin Morgan, Luke Wright and Ben Stokes will have gained from the competition could prove invaluable.

Stokes especially benefitted enormously. After a year in which he fell from grace as an English cricketer, he turned to the Big Bash and the Melbourne Renegades after a poor ODI series in Sri Lanka, although it wasn’t enough to secure him a place in the England World Cup squad, a 37-ball 77 against the Hobart Hurricanes in January seemed like the catalyst for a resurgence in the confidence and freedom missing from Stokes’ game after his dismal 2014.

While the competition in the Big Bash is currently higher than that of England’s NatWest Blast equivalent, another area that the Australians have long mastered is the high standard and competitiveness of their grade and club cricket competitions.

Each winter hundreds of English cricketers, of various degrees of age and talent, escape the cold of home and head down under to participate in grade or club cricket in Australia. For many years this has been viewed upon as a vital learning experience for young English cricketers.

Essex's Daniel Lawrence is one of a number of players to have benefited from club cricket down under.
Essex’s Daniel Lawrence is one of a number of players to have benefited from club cricket down under.

This past Southern Hemisphere summer saw two of English cricket’s most promising young batsmen follow this route down under as they looked to gain valuable cricket and life experience that will later benefit English cricket.

One of those batsman was Surrey’s Dominic Sibley, who hit the headlines in late 2013 when, aged just 18, he became the youngest ever double centurion in the history of the County Championship when he blasted his way to 242 against Yorkshire. Sibley spent his winter playing for Midland-Guildford CC in the WADCC First Grade competition in Perth. This season has seen Sibley become a regular in the Surrey side.

Another player who has benefitted from his winter spent in Australia is Daniel Lawrence of Essex. Lawrence left the comfort of home for Geelong and more specifically Newtown and Chilwell CC – where he was the club’s top run scorer with 556 at 42.77. In just his second first-class match upon arriving back in the UK he became the third youngest century maker in the history of the county game when he defied his tender years of 17 and 190 days to score 161 against Surrey in April.

Sibley and Lawrence are just an example of two amongst many English cricketers who have benefitted from a stint in Kangaroo country. While of course the County Championship is littered with Australians – it’s too simplistic to suggest that the English game is helping the old enemy without any favours in return. The beauty of cricket is that we will perhaps never know the true worth of the player development each country benefits from their Ashes rival.

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