Season of opportunity for brightest talents

Criticised by plenty, the Cricket Australia XI concept has nonetheless provided a host of brilliant young players with chances at an elite level

Cricket is very much a game of opportunity. You have to work hard enough to get one. And then be good enough to make the most of it when you do.

For a group of Australia's emerging male cricketers, that chance presented itself in the Cricket Australia XI squad during this year's JLT One-Day Cup, an opportunity to take on the best players in the country, and show they have what it takes to compete at the level.

The CA XI concept has been met with mixed reactions over its three years in the domestic one-day competition – the team has won just two games in three summers.

But according to coach and former Test batsman Matthew Elliott, the short-term learnings bode well for the future of Australian cricket, far beyond the win-loss ratio.

"I said to the players, 'Sometimes it's funny how we see the world differently'. I think in this case it's certainly true," Elliott said.

"I think someone looking from the outside would say, 'They've only won one game, they gave up a series of bonus points', but I thought we were really competitive.

Match Highlights: CA XI v SA

"The first two games – we obviously won the first one, and the second one we gave it a really good chase.

"Overall I thought there were some terrific performances individually, and collectively as a team in the first couple of games. I think we've seen some huge improvements, even over the course of one month, in some of those players.

"People from the outside might not necessarily see that, but certainly the consensus within the staff involved in the team is we've seen a huge amount of growth in the players that played in that tournament – in lots of different areas."

While every player from the squad is still at a relatively early stage of their professional careers, they all have different stories.

Tasmania's Beau Webster captained the side and Victoria's Jackson Coleman was one of a handful of National Performance Squad members in the CA XI squad.

Then there was regional South Australia product Ben Pengelley, getting his first taste of professional cricket. Queensland rookie Max Bryant stepping up from Australia Under 19 duties. And the uncontracted Jonathan Merlo who, if not for the CA XI, would have been working part-time in Melbourne around playing district cricket.

Captain's Knock

Webster, along with Jake Carder, both cracked centuries during the tournament – the former in their first-up win over eventual runners-up South Australia.

"There was obviously some disappointment there," Webster said of missing selection for the Tasmanian squad.

"To get some runs in the first game was excellent, for myself I would have liked to have got a few more in the next few games, but that's the way it goes."

Webster leads the charge for CA XI

A 'veteran' of 26 first-class games, the 23-year-old Tasmanian was tasked with leading the squad.

"We gelled really well since coming together a couple of weeks ago … I've played a few games (at this level), and we have had a young team," he said.

"To be in that leadership role I've really enjoyed. The toughest part was just not knowing everyone's strengths and weaknesses early … it's a short tournament, so you've got to get to know them well pretty quickly."

Second-year Sensation

For Carder, it was a different story, with the left-handed West Australian playing in the squad last year and having some clear objectives for this summer.

"I'd love to make my Shield debut for WA and hopefully solidify a spot in that batting line-up," the 21-year-old said of the summer ahead.

Jake Carder notches brilliant ton

"It was definitely better having been in the squad before. Even though I'm not experienced, I feel that last year was invaluable experience for this year.

"(If I wasn't here) I'd probably be in at the WACA most days – gym, running, skills and playing grade cricket. The CA XI is great for the blokes who miss out on their state sides to come and play cricket."

Merlo the Magician

On the flipside of that, for Victoria's Merlo, it was a first taste of top-flight cricket.

The 18-year-old allrounder, who represented Australia Under 19s in April and is in contention for next year's ICC Under 19 World Cup, would have been working part-time and playing Premier Cricket for St Kilda if not for his JLT Cup opportunity.

"It was a little bit intimidating at first," Merlo said of the first game, against South Australia.

"It was a bit of trying to find my feet, trying to work my way into the game and establish myself at the level. As the game wore on I became more and more comfortable."

Rather than setting out to prove a point, he says it was an invaluable opportunity to play without fear of failure.

"I've seen it as an opportunity just to have no pressure on myself and just being able to play cricket and play as freely as I can," Merlo said.

"It's been an experience I've definitely learned a lot from – learning off the older blokes, the blokes who have been around the state environment for a long time."

The seasoned veteran

Merlo has had the chance to learn from players such as fellow Victorian Jackson Coleman – the oldest member of the CA XI squad at the age of 25.

Coleman, a former Under 19 representative, left cricket to pursue Australian Rules football, before returning to cricket – and cracking the Bushrangers squad for a couple of games during last year's domestic one-day tournament.

A big off-season with the National Performance Squad in Brisbane had the left-arm quick primed to make an impact, as he looks to rise up the ranks in a strong Victoria line-up.

Coleman leads the way with four wickets

"There's a fair few Aussie bowlers to contend with, so I'm just waiting for my turn and when that chance comes (it's about) just being ready to go," Coleman said.

"It's been great to get that exposure at the next level. I obviously got a few games away last year (with Victoria) … but to play a vital role with the new ball, I think my improvement's gone through the roof just from playing this (tournament) and I think it'll be good for my cricket down the track.

"I'm happy with how I've bowled up front, swinging the ball. My consistency has been pretty good. My death bowling is probably one thing that's sort of let me down in the last couple of games, with short boundaries and a lot of wickets in hand ... just executing the yorkers and change-ups is one thing I need to keep working on."

Come in spinner

While Coleman was in the thick of the action from start to finish – claiming a four-wicket haul in the CA XI's win against the Redbacks – for young New South Wales leg-spinner Daniel Fallins, it was a frustrating time.

A finger injury saw Fallins miss the first four games, and forced to watch from the sidelines.

"The thing you can see is the teams that win the games have that killer instinct," Fallins said. "They don't let you off at this level."

On the pint-sized Hurstville Oval, the 21-year-old was tasked with taking on the likes of Ben Dunk, George Bailey and Alex Doolan.

Fallins knocks over Dunk

It started in perfect fashion – with a perfectly-landed leg-break to dismiss Dunk – but was a steep learning curve.

"That's the dream ball for any leg-spinner, against the leftie back through the gate and it was nice to get it in my first over as well and start off with a bit of confidence," Fallins said.

"It's tough – they don't miss. If you're off your line and your length it goes the journey, especially on a ground like Hurstville.

"It's really enjoyable to test yourself and see what it takes to get to that next level and learn some tough lessons, but that's the way it is."

The alumni, and the next steps

While the side had one win – and was competitive in others – it's the little wins along the way that Australian cricket fans should be excited about.

Graduates of the first CA XI intake include Hilton Cartwright and Mitch Swepson, while the likes of Matt Short, Ryan Gibson and Brendan Doggett saw consistency opportunity for their state sides after representing the CA XI last year.

For some members of this year's squad, it's Premier or Futures League cricket next, while for others, a Sheffield Shield berth could be on the cards. The chance to represent the CA XI in tour games against England ahead of the Ashes also looms large.

But from Elliott's point of view, the experience his players have had can only be a positive regardless of their route.

"It helps to identify very quickly in their minds where the standard is at, and the things that they need to be able to do to perform better at that level," he said.

"From our point of view, it was a very successful tournament.

"There were surprises across the board … moments from every player that you go, 'I didn't see that coming'. I think they all had moments in the tournament where they almost surprised themselves as much as us, which is a really exciting thing to see."