Testing times: Why Australia should be worried about NSW’s cricket problem

By Andrew Wu

NSW’s most recent Test debutant was in 2019.Credit: Stephen Kiprillis

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With six players in the Australian men’s Test XI, NSW’s shopfront window is full. But the stock on the floor is running bare and has been for several years.

The Blues have not produced a Test debutant since Kurtis Patterson in early 2019 – almost five years ago – nor a 20-Test player since Josh Hazlewood broke through in the baggy green in 2014.

Apart from paceman Sean Abbott, they do not have a player pushing for a Test debut.

Kurtis Patterson celebrates his maiden Test ton in 2019.Credit: Getty Images

It’s cause for concern for the man in charge of maintaining NSW as the breadbasket of Australian cricket.

But the state’s head of cricket, Greg Mail, is adamant a recent overhaul of the coaching structure will keep the state as the leading producer of players for future national teams.

“[There’s been] eight or nine debutants since Kurtis Patterson, to not have one of those from NSW is an obvious concern for us,” Mail told this masthead.

The recent PM’s XI, effectively an Australia A side, did not feature a single NSW player, though Abbott would likely have been included had he not been on national duty in India with the Twenty20 team. In 2018, an entirely different national selection panel named an Australia A squad to tour India featuring only one Blue.

The problems in the state are yet to manifest on the international stage though former Test captain Mark Taylor said in March 2021, after NSW capitulations for 32 and 64 (the latter coming in a miraculous win), he feared a “serious batting void” was approaching if they could not provide replacements for David Warner and Steve Smith.

Australian cricket has traditionally been at its strongest when NSW have been strong.

The Australian teams of the 1990s that toppled the West Indies from the pinnacle of world cricket were built on a NSW core of Taylor, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Michael Slater, Glenn McGrath and Michael Bevan (in one-day internationals).

Former Australian Test captains Steve Waugh, Michael Clarke and Mark Taylor.Credit: Getty Images

The emergence of Brett Lee, Michael Clarke, Stuart MacGill and Stuart Clark continued that domination into the late 2000s. Pace trio Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and batting greats Smith and Warner played in both of Australia’s recent Test and 50-over world titles.

Domestically, though, NSW have hit lean times. Bottom of the Sheffield Shield table last season, the Blues, who have lost stalwarts Peter Nevill, Trent Copeland and Stephen O’Keefe to retirement in the past four years, endured a run of 15 games without a win and finished fifth in the one-day tournament.

Players have not developed as expected. Nobody has personified NSW’s flagging fortunes more than Patterson, who made a ton in his last Test in 2019 but cannot get a game for his state after an ill-fated stint as captain where he was unable to find the balance between meeting the needs of teammates and his own.

“He came to that conclusion himself,” Mail said. “In KP’s case, that wasn’t helping his output and he was looking for a fresh start. Captaincy doesn’t sit well with everybody.”

In 2017, aged 18 years and 71 days, Jason Sangha became the youngest batter since Sachin Tendulkar to score a first-class ton against England, in a tour match in Townsville. Six years later, he has scored just three more centuries and has an average of 27.

Jason Sangha celebrates his ton against England in 2017.Credit: Getty Images

All-rounder Jack Edwards is another who has been heavily invested in with inconsistent results, though has taken big steps forward this season with bat and ball.

The overall lack of development by players was a key factor in former Test opener Phil Jaques’ dismissal as coach 12 months ago after the Blues had won just one of their first 10 games of the season.

Under Jaques, who declined to comment when contacted by this masthead, the Blues won one Shield and a Marsh Cup and played off in three other domestic finals in his four full seasons at the helm.

The dearth of players below the elite core pushing through had been an issue even before Jaques’ appointment in June 2018.

Mail is confident the Blues’ new coaching panel, helmed by one of Australia’s most successful domestic coaches Greg Shipperd, will deliver. The appointments of Geoff Lawson and Stuart Clark, both of whom have strong views, as selectors have created robust discussions at the selection table.

Though Edwards and Sangha had become lightning rods among critics who believed NSW had tipped too heavily in favour of youth, Mail denied suggestions players had been picked on potential over performance but accepted previous selection panels needed to be tougher.

Jack Edwards in action for the Sixers in the Big Bash.Credit: Getty Images

“I would say that we’ve previously been criticised for not acting quickly enough when players haven’t performed,” Mail said. “Frankly, some of that criticism is fair, things have been allowed to drift for longer than they should have. I don’t think we’ve been firm enough.

“I don’t know why that was the case. This is the first year I’m on the panel. We’ve rebuilt the panel with an intention of strong cricket experience, passion for NSW and strong views. I think we’re seeing some of that play out in the team and in the performance.”

Mail said the effect of the Blues’ “nomadic” existence had also been underestimated, with home games played at the SCG, suburban venues in Bankstown and Drummoyne, and away from Sydney in Wollongong and Albury. This had not helped the team or the development of young players, Mail said.

“All are solid cricket venues but when you’re playing at a different place every week it’s hard to build that home advantage.”

The Blues are now splitting games between the SCG and the ground at their new state-of-the-art $60 million Cricket Central facility at Sydney Olympic Park.

With two wins from their last three Shield games before the break for the Big Bash, there is hope the 47-time Shield champions have turned the corner.

While veterans Chris Tremain and Jackson Bird have added bite to their attack, youngsters such as Ollie Davies, Jack Nisbet and Edwards have played key roles.

Mail refused to entertain discussions as to which Blues could become future 50-Test players but listed Abbott, Davies and leg-spinner Tanveer Sangha, who was in India with Australia’s white-ball sides, as their “best short- and medium-term options”.

Emboldened by having six members of Australia’s under-19 World Cup squad for next year, Mail is adamant NSW will be pulling their weight in their contribution to future senior national teams.

Of that group, Sam Konstas made his Shield debut last month, and Charlie Anderson has been picked in NSW’s second XI. Mail said batter Joel Davies was another who had potential to rise to the top, having already signed for the Sydney Sixers in the BBL.

“We are incredibly proud of our history and contribution to Australian teams,” Mail said. “That stretches back a long way.

“Am I concerned in five years time we won’t be contributing? The answer to that is no. I’m convinced we have solid foundations to continue that legacy of cricket in NSW and the players it produces.”

Come back on Friday for part three in our series and read part one here.

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