Before Tim Paine was selected to play in the first Ashes Test last November, he had not kept for Tasmania in a Shield game all season.
Parachuted into the XI for the Gabba Test, the right-hander had an excellent summer, averaging 48 with the bat and notching 26 dismissals. Only two men (Rod Marsh 1982/83 and Brad Haddin 2013/14) had amassed more dismissals in a five-match Ashes series than Paine did in Australia’s 4-0 victory.
In this instance, the ends clearly justified the means. Although his state form had been almost non-existent — aside from a duck and an unbeaten 71 at the MCG — the selection was a punt that paid off handsomely.
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The national incumbent, Matthew Wade, was short of runs at Shield level and the Aussie selectors elected to trust Paine’s glovework over his state teammate. But his selection also underlined a clear disconnect between Cricket Australia (CA) and the state associations that was explicitly laid out in Dr Simon Longstaff’s cultural review 11 months later.
In the damning 145-page report released in October, Longstaff wrote of CA’s overbearing attitude towards states. Victoria, alongside South Australia, was notably critical of the governing body, suggesting CA too often rode roughshod over their autonomy and ambitions.
“Unfortunately, the focus on winning and the success of the Australian men’s team has pushed the rest of Australian cricket into a subservient role,” the report read.
“The sensibilities of Sheffield Shield teams can be overridden … not for the benefit of the Shield side but for that of the national team.”
The current Aaron Finch predicament is yet another example of a fractured high performance system. It’s no fault of any one particular person, but the lines between states and the national team have been blurred for some time.
As a compromise, the Australian opener is destined to bat at No. 3 for Victoria on Tuesday against Queensland. This is despite his place at the top of the order against India being all but locked in.
Rationally, how can a player be good enough to open for his country but not his state?
Travis Dean, himself a fine young player boasting six first-class tons, will face the new Kookaburra for Victoria alongside soon-to-debut left-hander Marcus Harris.
“We’re still the Victorian cricket team and from our point of view we’ve got a very good opening combination,” Victorian cricket boss Shaun Graf told SEN.
“There’s no actual directive that says ‘you must do this or you must do that’, otherwise that just completely mucks around with the integrity of the competition.
“ … We’ve also got to protect the integrity of not only the game, but of Victorian cricket.”
Foxsports.com.au understands Pat Howard, before his exit was hastened, requested that Finch open the batting at state level. The Victorians, using a first-class average of more than 40 batting in the middle order as evidence for Finch to remain at No. 5, politely disagreed.
Over the last six to 10 days, Victorian coach Andrew McDonald and Australian counterpart Justin Langer have been in constant contact regarding Finch’s role. A compromise has been reached, but the big-hitter slotting into first drop is nothing more than a Band Aid solution to a winder problem.
“Have we forgotten what Shield cricket is for in this country? To produce Test players,” Aussie great Shane Warne tweeted.
“Shield cricket should also be the place to learn how to play the game the right way so when you’re picked for Australia you’re ready. Victoria has it wrong and should do what’s best for Australia — end of.
“This is a disgrace by Victoria and must be fixed before the game. Can we please have common sense back into cricket in this country!”
There is a view within Victorian cricket that Finch needs to regain some form after a relatively lean period, not just for the state team but also to benefit the national set-up.
Across Finch’s last 10 innings stretching back to the T20s in the UAE, the 32 year-old has made just 123 runs at 12.3. When he steps onto the Gabba, it will be his third different format of cricket in 11 matches across two countries and 10 grounds. This is hardly unique in the modern game, but finding rhythm is difficult at the best of times.
Victoria believes the most appropriate method for him to find touch is to bat him in a position where he is most likely to make runs. This spot, statistically speaking, is in the middle order, with Peter Handscomb and Glenn Maxwell immediately above him and Matt Short at No. 6. First drop is just a peace-keeping compromise.
And it appears Finch agrees with his state’s direction, where captain Peter Handscomb and McDonald will set the batting order.
“Personally, it doesn’t bother me where I bat for Victoria as long as I get some time in the middle,” Finch said.
“That’s the most important thing.”
Handscomb added: “I think it is hard to take a person away from that spot when he is scoring so many runs and performing so well.
“Considering Marcus Harris is opening the batting, and we also have Travis Dean, who is an amazing opener.
“It’s hard to move those guys from those positions and Finchy being so strong at five or six, really gives us a great opportunity to have this massive batting depth.”
Handscomb’s last point is the crux of the issue. Is the state competition truly a feeder league, as Warne suggested on Twitter, or is it still a recognisable and respectable association in its own right?
A 10-week break for the Big Bash indicates CA sees it as Warne does. State coaches and players passionately disagree, arguing a competitive Shield competition is essential.
Is Australia a better team if the states are completely independent and free to make their own judgments flushed with a diversity of ideas and coaching methods? Or does the national set-up require a streamlining system below it where every single decision, such as promoting a talented 20 year-old ahead of a proven 27 year-old, is funnelled from the top down?
Former Tasmanian opener and Australian selector Jamie Cox believes whatever the answer, it is incumbent on both parties to sort out the lines of communication and instruction.
“Opening the batting is different, opening partners must build strong bonds,” Cox told foxsports.com.au.
“The Victorians have been starved of test players recently so why wouldn’t they give Finch and Harris an opportunity to start a bond that might last for the next five years at the highest level?
“There is no right and wrong here about where Finchy should bat and it’s okay to disagree inside the party room but outside the voice must be united.
“Travis Dean isn’t a national priority right now and I’m sure he can bat at three.”
Admittedly it’s true that Simon Katich would return from Australian duty and occasionally bat at No. 4, and there are now a handful of players not playing Shield cricket who are part of national limited overs setups, where once this would have been inconceivable.
But the four-day format and the strength of cricket played at this level remains the primary breeding ground for Australian cricket heroes.
Unfortunately, Paine last summer and now Finch have been caught in the crossfire, as were Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc when they played half-Shield matches as if state cricket had become a hit and giggle league.
Lack of red ball cricket leading into the Ashes did not harm Paine’s fortunes, but it remains to be seen whether facing a white ball for a month and then batting in an unfamiliar position this week will adequately prepare Finch for a new ball on December 6.
Longstaff’s review was both illuminating and a prophecy.