Even though Australia looks likely to field one of its youngest Test teams of the past 30 years in next month’s international season opener against New Zealand, former skipper Steve Waugh does not believe the new-look XI will be out of its depth.
Waugh, who was an integral part of a similar generational change in Australian cricket when he earned his Baggy Green Cap in 1985, recalls how at that stage he and his nine greenhorn teammates boasted barely as many Test matches between them as their skipper Allan Border’s personal tally.
That was the year after Australian cricket was rocked by the simultaneous retirement of legends Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh and a number of other players including Kim Hughes, Terry Alderman, Steve Rixon and Carl Rackemann signed for a rebel tour of South Africa.
Marsh, Chappell and Lillee after a Test match in 1980 // Getty Images
Those who took part in the unsanctioned tour, with South Africa still segregated from international sport due to sanctions relating to their apartheid race laws, were banned from playing Test cricket for Australia for three years.
The concurrent Test retirements of captain Michael Clarke, wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, all-rounder Shane Watson and opener Chris Rogers in the wake of Australia’s Ashes defeat earlier this year has prompted comparisons with the large-scale rebuilding the team undertook in the mid-1980s.
But Waugh, who played the first of his eventual 168 Test matches when he debuted as a 20-year-old with just nine Sheffield Shield matches for New South Wales under his belt, does not see similarities between that unsettled era and the current rebuilding of Australia’s Test team.
“It was totally different back then – we were very inexperienced,” Waugh told cricket.com.au of the team with an average age of barely 26 and with more than half its number (Waugh, David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Greg Matthews, Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid and Dave Gilbert) each having played less than a dozen Tests.
“This side now (that Steve Smith will lead into the first Test against New Zealand), whilst it hasn’t got a lot of (Test) experience they’ve played a lot of domestic cricket.
“Back then, a lot of us were coming into the side having played just half a dozen to 10 first-class games and we didn’t really know what we were doing.
“We didn’t have any support mechanisms around us - we didn’t even have a coach when I first started playing, we just had a physio and a manager.
“They’ve got much more support around them these days, they’ve got some experienced players and I think they are pretty much a quality team.
“Whilst they didn’t play well in England (this year) I still think we’re probably one of the three best Test sides going around.”
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If the national selectors agree with Waugh in the make-up of that team for the first of three Tests against the Black Caps starting November 5, opener Cameron Bancroft – who Waugh nominates to partner David Warner at the top of the order – will be the only newcomer to Test cricket.
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However, like the team that Border led into that Boxing Day Test against India 30 years ago, it will also include a number of players whose experience at Test level does not stretch into double figures – Peter Nevill (4), Mitchell Marsh (7), Usman Khawaja (who Waugh believes should bat at number three) and Josh Hazlewood (both 9).
But the constant turnover of players undertaken to avoid a similar scenario to the Chappell-Lillee-Marsh exit in 1984 and more recently when Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn all quit amid the 2006-07 Ashes triumph means comparatively young players have gained significant Test experience.
While Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Marsh (who Waugh cites as a key figure in Australia’s fortunes this summer) and Nevill are the only players to have turned 30, the likes of Smith (33 Tests), David Warner (43), Nathan Lyon (46) and Mitchell Starc (22) know the Test match caper.
In addition, the average exposure to first-class cricket of the likely first Test XI is almost 70 matches with the least experienced (22-year-old Bancroft) having represented Western Australia 24 times in the Bupa Sheffield Shield competition.
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It’s for those reasons that Waugh believes the re-drafted team that Smith will lead on to the ‘Gabba in the opening Commonwealth Bank Test of the summer next month will acquit itself well against a BlackCaps outfit that the former Australia skipper also rates highly.
Waugh even offered a comparison between Brendon McCullum’s current New Zealand team and the outfit led by Jeremy Coney that in the summer of 1985 became the first – and to date, the only – team from across the Tasman to win a Test cricket series in Australia.
It was that result, spearheaded by NZ strike bowler Richard Hadlee and batsmen Martin Crowe and Bruce Edgar, that ultimately prompted the shake-up that saw Waugh and others fast-tracked into the Test team and a new era of Australian cricket unfurl.
“They (New Zealand) beat us pretty regularly in the mid-80s, they were a great side – Martin Crowe and Richard Hadlee and Jeremy Coney and John Wright and Ian Smith, a host of really good players,” Waugh recalled.
“They were a very competitive side, probably their best ever side was in the mid-80s so we certainly didn’t take them for granted.
“We were battling to do well against them.
“This year I think they will provide stiff opposition, they’re a team on the move, they play aggressive cricket and they’ll be confident they can do well.
“I like what I see, McCullum gets them playing in an aggressive mode, Trent Boult is a world-class bowler, Kane Williamson a world-class batsman and they’ve got other good cricketers around that.
“They’ve got the nucleus of a very good team, they know how to win, they’re confident and I think for the first time (since the mid-80s) they’ll come to Australia believing they can win.”