Australian cricket’s new overseer of national teams Ben Oliver admits the game still has a lot to learn about dealing with the mental health of its players, coaches and staff in the wake of the withdrawals of Glenn Maxwell and Nic Maddinson from national duty over the past few days.
As one part of a two-man high-performance team – the other being former Olympian Drew Ginn – that replaced Pat Howard earlier this year, Oliver’s commission is to work closely with the national men’s and women’s teams and their coaches Justin Langer and Matthew Mott.
He quickly surmised that closer and better management of people would be critical to the role, whether those in the national set-up or others working in the state system. To that end, the bravery of Maxwell and Maddinson to pull back from playing the game in order to look after their own wellbeing, rather than suffering in silence as many past generations have done, has been welcomed, but Oliver agreed that in the tension between a highly competitive sport and the wellness of its practitioners, Cricket Australia was trying to develop better understanding.
“Each individual person will have a whole range of different circumstances and that presents a challenge but it also means we can’t make a broad-brush statement about this or in fact a broad-brush approach to it,” Oliver told ESPNcricinfo. “Just because people are going through different challenges in their life doesn’t mean they’re also not able to perform at a really high level and so our aspiration is to make sure we’re giving our players and staff the best chance to thrive on and off the field.
“I’m incredibly proud of both Glenn and Nic in feeling as though they could share what they were experiencing and really be open and honest about that. Equally proud in terms of our response to that. The coaching and support staff response and their care and empathy for both Glenn and Nic. And more broadly my view is it’s a really complex issue, something that all of society is grappling with and, as a sport, we’re part of society.
“We’re not immune to it, and we’ve got to continue to find ways to understand the issues and we’re doing all we can and applying our support and resources around players and staff on their own health and wellbeing. There’s lots to do, I think there’s lots to understand and we’re really committed to making sure we give our players and staff the best possible support we can.”
Australian players currently have the option of reporting mental health problems or spiralling feelings via the wellness apps used to track their physical and mental wellbeing, but are also able to discuss their state of mind with coaches, medical staff and team psychologists.
“We’ve got some systems in place where players are tracking their experience,” Oliver said, “but equally, we’ve got a whole range of coaching and support staff who are working with players on a daily basis and get to understand them very well.
“I don’t think there is any one effort that is better or worse in terms of understanding where a player is currently at, I think it’s a combination of those aspects that will ultimately allow us to better understand where a player is at and provide support at any given time. We’ve got a couple of ways in which we are trying to understand where a player is at and how to respond.”
In his former role with Western Australia, Oliver dealt with numerous instances of players and staff battling mental health and wellbeing issues. Ashton Agar is one WA cricketer who has spoken publicly about learning how to “ride” the peaks and troughs of personal wellness, having taken time out of the game for that reason in the past.
“It’s certainly clear to me and important to me coming into this role that Australian cricket is prioritising its people, players and staff”
“I spent six or seven years in WA and we had a whole range of challenges on and off field for players and staff and that’s a reflection of the world we live in and some of the challenges people are going through,” Oliver said. “And it reinforced to me the great opportunity we have as a sport to really lead the way and show how we can care and support our people. Whether it was with WA or this role or other states and territories from a cricket perspective, we’re all increasingly aware of the challenges people are going through and we’re learning how they go through that.
“Certainly not the first time this has come up, I’m sure it won’t be the last, and our obligation is to really make sure we’re understanding the issues and supporting our people. If and when they’re going through different challenges we provide them with the best care and support. I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive, there’s certainly opportunity for us to continue to perform at a high level on the field and support people off it.
“It’s just a case of building really strong relationships with our players in this case around how they’re travelling, what they’re experiencing and making sure we’re supporting them in that, helping them prepare, and ultimately go out and perform.”
Oliver has built up plenty of respect over time as a calm and considered presence in cricket administration, having previously held roles with Cricket Victoria, CA and also the ICC prior to moving to WA. In joining CA less than a year after the announcement of damaging findings from the cultural review that followed the Newlands scandal, he is well attuned to the attitude of listening and learning that so many of the governing body’s partners had demanded.
“It’s certainly clear to me and important to me coming into this role that Australian cricket is prioritising its people, players and staff,” Oliver said. “So that becomes a really important part of what we stand for as an organisation. That’s been really clear that is a priority, an important part of what the future looks like, and I’ve been really pleased with the endeavour going in to understand how we best do that. Really proud of the players and their willingness to be open and honest about what they’re experiencing.
“One of my initial observations coming into the role is the intensity of international cricket and the complexity of the schedule and those things are obviously real challenges for us to find the best possible solutions for. That’s all part of what players, coaches and staff are experiencing and mechanisms for that. Really comfortable that players are feeling confident to be open and honest and really proud of our staff for being able to care and support them when they do present that way.”
One set of fresh information about the mental health of Australian cricket is set to land early next year, with the results of a study begun three years ago by the youth mental health consultancy Orygen to be handed to CA in February.
The kings of the Dukes ball and how it wasn’t all bad for spin
The Sheffield Shield season of two halves is over, at least for now. Cricket Australia has announced the Kookaburra ball would be used throughout the competition rather than the Dukes coming into play for latter part of the tournament after the Big Bash.
The Dukes has been in use since 2016-17, with the primary aim of giving Australian players more practice against the type of ball (although a modified version) that had often troubled them for a decade in England. Last year, the Ashes was retained in England for the first time since 2001 so, in that sense, the plan had come together although it hadn’t always enjoyed rave reviews on the domestic circuit.
But who fared best when it was in play? We take a look at some of the numbers from the last four years of the Shield.
In the runs
Victoria opener Marcus Harris, who played the last three Tests of the Ashes, is the top run-scorer against the Dukes ball. The form that earned Matthew Wade a recall for that tour is highlighted by his numbers – including a Dukes average of 59.38 – while Marnus Labuschagne’s far more mundane numbers highlight the speed of his development over the last 12 months where he’s scored runs against anything. New South Wales’ Daniel Hughes is again highlighted as one of the most consistent players in the Shield while Nic Maddinson‘s prolific form in the last two seasons is reflected.
In terms of the difference between the top 15 run-scorers against the Dukes and their Kookaburra record, Ed Cowan, who retired in 2018, has the biggest swing and could lay claim to being the king of Dukes batting. Matt Renshaw, who has slipped well down the Test pecking order, also has an outstanding return as does Hilton Cartwright despite the last two seasons being much more of a struggle.
Overall, the batting average against the Dukes was 27.44 compared to 30.05 against the Kookaburra.
In the wickets
The bowling list is unsurprisingly dominated by the seamers, although that is likely more a reflection of overall Sheffield Shield cricket over recent years than specifically the ball (more on that in a moment). The returns reinforce why Michael Neser and Peter Siddle were part of the Ashes squad and plenty of others in the table were in the debate ahead of that tour. James Pattinson‘s Dukes average of 14.92 is eye-catching.
Of those in the top 15 wicket-takers with the Dukes, Nick Winter, the left-armer from South Australia, has the biggest difference in the average in favour of that ball compared to the Kookaburra closely followed by Western Australia’s David Moody. The one spinner to make the list, Victoria’s left-armer Jon Holland, has similar figures with both.
In a spin
It’s the spin numbers overall that are interesting to look at, given the talk of the health of spin bowling (beyond Nathan Lyon) in Australian first-class cricket. Bringing spin more into the game was mentioned in the Cricket Australia release about moving back to Kookaburra all season.
In fact, over the last four seasons, spin has taken wickets at five runs fewer with the Dukes than the Kookaburra. And, if you compare it to the three seasons prior to when the different types of balls were used, the Dukes average is three runs better off with spin averaging 38.36 from 2013-14 to 2015-16. However, what is very noticeable is the reducing number of overs bowled by spinners in those four seasons even taking into account last season was truncated by four games due to Covid-19.
There are spinners, not least Shane Warne, who have said how the Dukes is a better ball for the art. It would appear more needs to change in Australian domestic cricket than just the ball to revive the fortune of spinners.
Recent Match Report – Team Buttler vs Team Stokes Warm Up 2020
Team Stokes 233 (Crawley 43, Robinson 2-7) lead Team Buttler 287 for 5 dec by 54 runs
England allrounder Sam Curran is awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test after being placed in self-isolation at the Ageas Bowl, casting a shadow over the second day of the intra-squad clash.
On the pitch, the battle for bowling places intensified as Jos Buttler’s team, who declared on their day one score of 287 for 5, dismissed Ben Stokes’ side for 233 at stumps.
Injury has kept the country’s quickest bowlers apart since both played key roles in England’s World Cup victory last year, but midway through the morning session they teamed up for a promising eight-over spell that cost just seven runs and yielded the wicket of opener Dom Sibley for 12.
Archer banked the scalp, caught behind flicking the ball down leg-side, but the pair hunted together to unsettle Sibley with pacey short-pitched bowling. Wood might just as easily have been the one celebrating moments earlier, forcing Sibley to fend awkwardly to Ollie Pope, who squandered the chance at short leg.
Wood returned in the afternoon session to take Jonny Bairstow’s outside edge with the first ball of his second spell and finished with spotless figures of 1 for 14 from 11 overs, while Archer returned 2 for 37 after adding Ben Foakes for 38. He received treatment for sore feet late on, understood to be a result of wearing new bowling boots, and was replaced by Surrey’s Amar Virdi – the 29th player involved in the match.
Sussex seamer Ollie Robinson also offered a reminder of his skills, bowling with precision as he accounted for Moeen Ali and Lewis Gregory in a double-wicket maiden.
Stuart Broad could find himself vulnerable to the growing competition, with the fetching white bandana he wore over his lockdown hair more eye-catching than his figures of 0 for 42.
Moeen’s dismissal, lbw for 5, followed a peripheral role with the ball on Wednesday and his hopes of a first Test appearance in a year appear to be receding. Instead, Dom Bess is well placed to hold his place in the side. He bowled more tightly than either Moeen or Jack Leach managed on Wednesday and took a key wicket when he had Keaton Jennings caught at slip before lunch.
Zak Crawley top-scored with 43, a positive innings strewn with neat drives, before he nicked Chris Woakes – yet another able seamer vying for attention. Stokes made his way to 41, and doled out Bess’ only real punishment when he launched him for six and four in the same over, before he was stumped charging Matt Parkinson.
West Indies batting form a ‘worry’, admits Estwick
Roddy Estwick, West Indies assistant coach, has admitted he is slightly troubled by the top-order’s form ahead of the Test series against England but insists there is no concern over captain Jason Holder‘s form.
While many have made scores of substance in the two intra-squad matches at Emirates Old Trafford in the last couple of weeks, there was some alarm when their frontline batsmen capitulated to the first-choice bowlers on Wednesday.
A top-five of Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope and Roston Chase subsided to 9 for 3 and 49 for 5 in their final competitive innings before next week’s first Test at the Ageas Bowl.
“I would have loved to see the batsmen spend a little bit more time in the middle,” Estwick told the PA news agency. “That would be one of the biggest worries, that none of the batsman in the Test squad got a score in this innings.
“In the first game players got scores so it’s not a major concern but I would love to see a couple getting scores in this match. They’ve still got a little bit more time.
“In England you’ve got to get used to leaving the ball, especially early on. The ball’s obviously going to nip around so you’ve got to be able to know where your off stump is, know what to leave and what to play at. We’re obviously going down to a different surface at Southampton, we’ve got to assess that surface as quickly as possible and hit the ground running.”
Holder’s woes with the bat continued on Thursday after his move to open the innings backfired when he was dismissed for 2 off 15 balls, leaving one from Anderson Phillip that nipped back in and clipped his off bail.
That means he has scored just seven runs and faced fewer than 30 deliveries in three innings while he has bowled only five overs across the internal matches after an ankle niggle. Estwick, though, believes Holder, No. 1 in the ICC Test allrounder rankings, will not be undercooked at Southampton.
“Anybody that knows Jason Holder well wouldn’t be worried. He is a strong and tough competitor and he’s mentally very, very strong as well. Jason knows how to prepare for Test match cricket, he’s been the number one allrounder for a number of years so he’ll be ready come July 8, no worries at all.”
Joshua Da Silva was the star performer with the bat for the Holder XI in the drawn four-day contest against a side led by Brathwaite, the 22-year-old following up his unbeaten first-innings century with 56 not out in the second dig as he amassed 189 runs without dismissal.
It will not be enough to be catapulted into the Test squad from the reserves but Estwick has been impressed by the youngster. “He played very well in the game and I’m sure that his time will come,” Estwick said.
Estwick had been leading the side this week as head coach Phil Simmons was self-isolating in his hotel room after recently attending his father-in-law’s funeral. Simmons was back presiding over the warm-ups on Thursday morning after testing negative for coronavirus for a third time, allowing him to link up with the rest of the touring party.
Estwick added: “We’ve missed him, obviously. But he’s back now with us and everything is good to go. It wasn’t a disruption because it happened in the game. You tend to miss more hands on deck in practice but if there’s a game going on, you’ve only got to monitor preparation and the odd person going into the nets.
“But as our leader, we’re happy to have him back and it’s very important that he’s back for us because now we can sit down, plan and prepare. We’ve been here now for three weeks so it’s all about good, solid planning and letting the players execute properly.”
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