JLT Sheffield Shield 2017-18
Generation next gets in the swing
Statistics show younger generation have adapted well to the introduction of the Dukes ball in back half of Shield season
21 March 2018, 03:37 PM AEST
When it was announced – amid the inquest into Australia’s fourth consecutive failed Ashes campaign on British soil in 2015 – that the English-made Dukes ball would be introduced to the Sheffield Shield, the immediate beneficiaries were tipped to be Test batters who had struggled against swing and seam movement.
But there was also longer-term development rationale underpinning Cricket Australia’s decision prior to the 2016-17 summer to pioneer the Dukes ball in the back half of the season while retaining the traditional Kookaburra model at summer’s outset.
In much the same way that Australia A and age squads are deployed around the world to gain experience in all prevailing conditions, and facilities are established at Brisbane’s Bupa National Cricket Centre to replicate that diversity, the goal was to produce players whose game can adapt readily to any environment.
“Our aim in the second half of the season is to ensure that our players are as well-equipped as they can be to think on their feet and adapt to challenges, such as those provided by varying pitch conditions and ball types,” Pat Howard, Cricket Australia’s Executive General Manager Team Performance, said today.
“Certainly, the use of the Dukes ball asks different questions for our batters and the experience they gain against it can only hold them in good stead.”
As such, data emerging from the second season of varied ball use within the JLT Sheffield Shield (red and pink Kookaburras, as well as the red Dukes) has indicated a small but telling shift in the profile of the top performers.
With one match remaining - this week’s final between the myFootDr Queensland Bulls and the Tasmanian Tigers at Brisbane’s Allan Border Field - the most successful batters against the more potent threat posed by the Dukes ball carry a decidedly youngish tinge.
Which, on purely circumstantial statistical data alone, tends to suggest that emerging batters exposed to the exaggerated and prolonged swing that the Dukes ball exhibits are adapting more readily to the mid-season switch than those who have historically faced only the Kookaburra.
That is not to theorise that the more experienced batters have been unable to cope with the introduction of the English ball that has consistently shown the capacity to swing throughout the course of an innings, and in a variety of pitch and overhead conditions.
After all, the first batter to score a Shield double-century when the Dukes ball was introduced midway through the previous domestic summer was 34-year-old Ed Cowan, who ultimately averaged more than 116 against the moving ball that season.
But of the batters to have averaged more than 50 (having batted more than once) in the past five rounds of Shield games with the Dukes, all except 30-year-old Tasmania keeper Matthew Wade are aged in their 20s with more than half of them younger than 25.
That list is led by 26-year-old Peter Handscomb who averaged 114 in his sole match against the Dukes before he joined the Australia squad for the Qantas Tour of South Africa, followed by Matthew Renshaw (aged 21; average 67), Joe Burns (28; 60.5), Wade (30; 56), Will Pucovski (20; 55.8), Travis Head (24; 52.8) and Jake Doran (21; 52.1),
It also excludes Queensland’s 33-year-old seamer Luke Feldman who averaged 57 in the second-half of the season but was not regarded as a specialist batter given he occupies the number 11 berth for the Bulls.
The reason why these numbers pose such a contrast to recent trends can be seen from the average age of that cohort, which is slightly above 24.
That is six years less than the same measurement applied to batters who averaged more than 50 in the first half of the Shield summer against the Kookaburra, with three rounds played using the red ball and two as day-night fixtures featuring the pink version.
Burns (who missed most of the second half of the summer due to a groin injury he sustained during the KFC Big Bash League) is the only player to earn inclusion in both lists.
The others to dominate against the traditional Kookaburra balls were 25-year-old Test opener Cameron Bancroft, his Australia teammate Usman Khawaja (aged 30), Victorians Cameron White (34) and Glenn Maxwell (29), Callum Ferguson (33) and specialist spinner Steve O’Keefe (33).
Perhaps the most significant difference is a direct comparison to the inaugural Dukes phase of the Shield season last summer, when it was the experienced hands like Cowan who led the way against the harder, darker ball that boasts a more prominent seam and maintains its sheen longer than the Kookaburra.
Of the eight batters to average 50 and above in the second half of the 2016-17 season, only Burns and Western Australia allrounder Hilton Cartwright (then 25) were aged below 30.
The remainder of the leading group were comparative veterans Moises Henriques (30), George Bailey (34), Aaron Finch (30), Peter Nevill (31) and now retired Queensland keeper Chris Hartley (34).
Jamie Siddons, South Australia coach and all-time third-highest Shield runs scorer, recently noted that training programs for players at first-class level have needed to quickly evolve in order to better prepare batters for the challenges posed by the Dukes ball.
Siddons claimed that middle-order players who historically came to the crease when the Kookaburra ball was older, softer and rarely deviated from the straight, are now required to routinely face new balls in the practice nets to ready them for the vagaries of the Dukes.
And he suggested that use of the English-manufactured ball should be extended to Premier Cricket level across the states, as well as in the Toyota Futures League (second XI) competition and national age championships where it has been introduced in recent years.
“Every batsman is now like an opening batsman because it (Dukes ball) goes around corners for the whole day, not just 10 or 15 overs,” Siddons said.
“So it’s a massive challenge for the batsmen, especially when you get out of form – it’s hard to get back.
“I love the Dukes because it’s a challenge for the coaches, it’s a challenge for the batsmen and it makes the bowler in the game.
“With the Kookaburra, at times, it’s a very flat game and lots of runs are scored.”
In addition, the bowlers who have proved most effective with Dukes in hand this season are also largely in their 20s, with 24-year-old South Australia left-armer Nick Winter (34 wickets at 19.70) a stand-out having made his first-class debut at the start of February.
The next-most successful with the Dukes ball were Victoria’s Sheffield Shield player of the Year Chris Tremain and Winter’s SA teammate Daniel Worrall (both 26), followed by Queensland’s Michael Neser (27), New South Wales’ ex-Test seamer Trent Copeland (32) and 24-year-old Tom Rogers from Tasmania.
Upon announcing his retirement from first-class cricket earlier this month, Cowan called for the Dukes to be adopted as the official ball of top-level cricket in Australia.
"If I were an administrator working at Cricket Australia, I would be looking firmly at Dukes cricket balls for Test cricket in Australia,” he said.
"I think we've just seen better games of cricket generally.
“We see the ball moving for longer, we see the spinners in the game, a bit more even contest.”
However, while the Kookaburra remains the preferred ball for Test cricket in Australia (and a number of other Test-playing nations) the domestic season will continue its split focus.
The first half of the summer is designed to prepare players for the coming home international season, using the Kookaburra ball at Test grounds, with the post-New Year phase employing a different ball and varied venues to help strengthen the adaptive skills players require at international level.