In a recent piece in the Australian, the peerless Gideon Haigh described the life of a fringe first-class cricketer, Steve Cazzulino. The beauty of the story is that the most powerful words come from Cazzulino himself and not the wordsmith.
It is that time of year in Australian cricket when representative careers are made or broken, sometimes forever. For Cazzulino, a damn fine cricketer who played 13 first-class games, it sounds like he harbours lingering regrets that his career did not kick on. In some senses, when you get close enough to being selected for Australia, the equation becomes simple. If you're in the frame, it mostly boils down to runs and wickets, allowing for incumbency rights. Shaun Marsh v Joe Burns v Usman Khawaja v Cameron Bancroft. Jackson Bird v Peter Siddle v Joe Mennie.
Auditioning for the first-class stage, though, is not quite as straightforward as comparing apples with apples. For many talented youngsters, like Cazzulino when he was an elite junior, making it into the representative ranks and being selected in Under-17, U-19 and development squads can be make or break. If your card is not marked, if you're not identified in the talent ID pathway, if you're not looked at by the selectors, it is not as simple as just scoring big runs or taking wickets.
Unlike, say, athletics or swimming, where your chances are determined by the clock or the tape measure, cricket selectors have more of a juggling act to perform. And at that crucial juncture in a player's life, somewhere between 17 and 20 years of age, when they have to juggle choices like university, job prospects, or giving cricket a red-hot go, if they miss out on selection, it may be the last we see of that person.
That could have been Matthew Hayden's story. Overlooked at underage levels but burning with disappointment, he just piled on so many 1st Grade runs and then Shield runs that it became impossible not to pick him for the next level up. Not every cricketer can tell that story. For many (most?), trying to get noticed by the pathway selectors is often the fork-in-the-road moment. I witnessed the Hayden story first-hand (we were team-mates during that period) but I've also seen the kind of heartbreak, doubt and sadness that Cazzulino so courageously opens up about.
As the father of a young 13-year-old who has dreams of making more rep teams, I'm forever torn between encouraging him to chase that dream with a single-minded determination and being fearful that he might take my advice and still fall short. Have I set him up for an almost inevitable fail or fall? I keep telling him that it's all about putting numbers on the board, but I know my words are hollow - it's not as simple as that. It's also about team balance, opportunity, luck, umpiring decisions and selectorial vision (or blindness). Yes, when it comes to Sheffield Shield cricket and you're in a straight shootout, it might come down to the pure numbers, but to get to that stage, how much of it is in the lap of the gods - the selectors?
Spare a thought for Bird, possibly the first No. 11 batsman to be judged on his batting ability! One can only hope he gets another shot at redemption.
Selecting Test teams must be hard but picking underage rep teams must be a nightmare. Every parent and district coach thinks their child has a powerful case and can quote statistics to prove their point. Selectors on the other hand have to weigh up whether 25 runs opening the batting in 1st Grade is worth more than a century batting in the middle order in 3rd Grade. What allowances do you make for a kid who nicks off to a peach of an outswinger, or gets a poor lbw decision in contrast to someone else who gets dropped early and can murder mediocre bowling? How do you allow for someone who plays on green seamers, which is reflected in their numbers, as distinct from a spinner who never really gets the chance to bowl on a wearing pitch because most junior rep cricket doesn't go for long enough to bring that skill into play?
If you've got the luxury of time, years in some cases, you will eventually sort the wheat from the chaff. But when you have to balance that long-term view with a commitment to rewarding form and "runs on the board", how do you walk the tightrope? I know of recent cases where someone who has opened the batting in 1st Grade and faced first-class bowlers (men) for an hour has been overlooked for a 3rd grade batsman who peeled off 80 against boys his own age. The numbers tell one story but anyone who has eked out a tough 20 on a green pitch in Brisbane in the first session will tell you that you sometimes need to be in good form to nick one.
As a medium-fast bowler myself, when I was in form I almost preferred to bowl to better batsmen because there were more chances of them nicking the late outswinger. So often a marginally slower bowler will find that elusive edge because the batsman has that extra fraction of a second to catch up with the ball. When that same bowler gets selected to play at the next level up, a superior batsman will make him look ordinary. Which selector would have the guts and the vision to look past the numbers and pick the cricketer who is more likely to succeed higher up? When that does occasionally happen, they run the risk of getting pilloried for picking someone who hasn't performed well on paper. For every "gut-feeling" selection, there's an aggrieved cricketer (like Cazzulino) who wonders why the benchmark was not a tangible, measurable, justifiable number. As a parent with experience of all this now, I must force myself to look beyond the obvious when my kids miss out. I must confess that it is an easy statement to make in a hypothetical situation.
Cazzulino's tale, brought to life so eloquently by Haigh, is going to be compulsory reading for my sons. Having gone through that same process myself 25 years ago, daring to dream but knowing in my heart that I wasn't good enough to crack it full-time, I yearned to reach out and claim every word of the piece as my own. In my case, I was never quite good enough but I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Oxford, which satisfied some of that hunger while opening another door. If my sons have inherited anything from me, I hope it won't be my talent but rather the ability to have dreams that can be pursued in a non-mutually exclusive way. As Cazzulino opines when asked if it was difficult to be a rounded person at cricket: "Absolutely. I think you either need to be incredibly smart or incredibly thick-skinned." Or in the case of Bird, you just need to score more runs at No. 11.