A bad week in a tough year, gloated Dennis Shanahan in The Weekend Australian, promising that things can only get worse for Julia Gillard and her government.
And indeed they may: there is still a lot of unfinished business, and quite a bit yet to be started. Labor again is behind in the polls, more trouble is looming with the miners, the irrigators, and the state governments, and of course the politics of what should be the side issue of boat people keep getting worse.
And even when the government manages to produce something positive it gets little credit: the best the critics can find to say about Wayne Swan’s banking reforms is that they are better than nothing, but not much. But: Labor is still in government, and despite the best efforts of The Australian seems likely to remain so. Which leaves our national daily all the more time and space to devote to the real issue: itself.
The weekend paper used more than five broadsheet pages to give its readers the message: We’re always right and everyone else (but especially the Fairfax press) is always wrong — about everything, including but not only WikiLeaks, Kevin Rudd, and of course climate change.
Ah yes, climate change. Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell insists that he really believes in it, but given that his paper again has become a haven for sceptics, deniers and downright nutters, his affirmation has all the conviction of Galileo’s enforced admission that the earth is the unmoving centre of creation.
But at least Mitchell is certain about that: he follows the doctrine of the medieval fathers of his church that the universe revolves around this planet, and more specifically around that portion of it occupied by himself.
And that’s quite enough politics for 2010. On to something more cheerful.
If the Australian cricket team were run on the same lines as the Australian Labor Party, Ricky Ponting would never have led it into the Perth Test.
After Adelaide, the judgement of the pollsters, the focus groups and the factional bosses was clear: the team had lost its way and the only solution was a change of leadership. No matter that no one really wanted the job, or was better qualified than Ponting to take it: a fresh face was the obvious and only answer.
Well, no; not only would the switch have been unsettling and divisive, but there is no reason to believe that it would have made things any better. Like Kevin Rudd, Ponting has his weaknesses; as Rudd was no Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke, Ponting is no Richie Benaud or Ian Chappell. But he doesn’t have a bad record, and no matter what the mass media commentariat likes to think, he is generally well regarded by the public.
The problem is not the leader, but the whole institution of cricket. As the great Bruce Petty put it in a memorable cartoon about the Liberal Party many years ago: “The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but he had fled/ And a staggering piece of insight/ Kept running around in his head./ When the flame of truth hits the ship of state/ And the tides of time are turning/ They tend to bucket the captain/ But the ship is what is burning.”
And the reason Test cricket is in danger of smouldering away altogether is a simple one: greed. The greed of the administrators, the television networks and, let us not forget, the players themselves. Nowadays there is little real money in Test cricket: like chess, it is too complex, too studied and above all to long.
For a while a simpler substitute was found in the one-day, 50-over, pyjama version — draughts, perhaps. And now we have gone all the way down to snakes and ladders: the mindless hit and giggle of Twenty20. It’s easy, over before dinner and immensely profitable; what’s not to like?
Well, all of the above. The skills needed for Test cricket are rapidly being lost, players are being worn out physically and mentally and the great tradition of over a century trashed in the name of a quick buck. But there is a solution that could, if anyone had the courage to implement it, solve the problem: simply quarantine the various versions of the game.
Test players should not be allowed to play Twenty20 until they are ready to retire from the real thing. To some extent that is already happening, and it should not be beyond the wit of the gin-soaked old farts (as Ian Botham once described them) who run the sport to formalise the arrangement.
It would not mean that Test players would miss out on the Twenty20 pot of gold; they could sign contracts in advance, auctioning off the years when Tests become simply too strenuous. But meanwhile they would have to concentrate on developing the true skills of the game; the ability to build an innings or bowl in long spells and to temper attack and defence.
All the best Australian teams have been built around this formula, particularly as it applies to the bowling attack; from Fred (the Demon) Spofforth through the days of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson and Glenn McGrath the most effective quicks have been noted for their endurance as well as their mastery of tactics and technique. But even more so it applies to the spinners.
Australia has seldom fielded a truly great team that did not include a classical wrist spinner. Some of the finger spinners have been useful; Ashley Mallet was probably the best of them and Ian Johnson and Tim May were serviceable journeymen. But these days the selectors run through the tweakers like drowning men grasping at straws when they should looking to find and groom another Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly, Richie Benaud or Shane Warne.
And there is at least one credible candidate: Steve Smith. He would be the ideal test case for the quarantining program and it should be tried forthwith. At least it makes more sense that the current strategy — of lack of it. At present Australian cricket is looking a bit like the New South Wales state government.
And compliments of the season to everyone, including all those mentioned in this and previous columns. Once again: bah, humbug.