‘Us versus them’: The states winning the battle for the baggy green

By Daniel Brettig

Hookes said NSW players were handed a baggy green with their state cap. Was he right?Credit: Stephen Kiprillis

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“When they give out the baggy blue cap in New South Wales, they give you a baggy green in a brown paper bag as well to save making two presentations.” – October 14, 2003.

Twenty years ago, the late David Hookes, who was coach of Victoria at the time, offered this immortal assessment of Test selection for the Australian men’s team.

For the record, it was said in the context of a NSW left-arm seamer, Nathan Bracken, getting picked in front of a Victorian, Mathew Inness, for a Test squad to face Zimbabwe in Sydney.

Two decades on, does Hookes’ hot take still hold up? This masthead has compiled state-by-state selection figures for the past 20 years, showing that the spread of baggy green caps has widened considerably.

Over that period, 20 players have been picked from a NSW background, 19 from Victoria, 12 from Western Australia, 11 from Queensland, 10 from South Australia and nine from Tasmania. NSW, then, is not exactly dominating the debutants list – and has had only three new baggy green caps since 2014.

Looked at in terms of Test match tenures, however, there is no debate: the baggy Blues still provide the bulk of the team’s long-term players. Over those 20 years, the 20 NSW players have played a combined 775 Tests between them, an average of nearly 40 Tests each.

By contrast, the 19 Victorians played just 212 Tests, or around 11 matches apiece. Queensland (30 matches on average per player) and WA (22 per player) have fared somewhat better, because of long careers for a few in both past and current crops.

But the overall figures make it abundantly clear that the historical supremacy of NSW as the primary breeding ground for top Test talent has carried on beyond Hookes’ moment of sharp observation.

In all-time terms, this has meant that NSW-grown players comprise seven of the top 10 run scorers (11 of the top 20) and five of the top 10 wicket-takers (10 of the top 20). The 21st bowler, Geoff Lawson, and the 21st batter, Usman Khawaja, were also both NSW cricket products.

For the purposes of compiling the data, we regarded the state of origin as the one the player represented at the time they were picked for Australia. Hence Nathan Lyon and his 500 Test wickets are products of South Australia, where he was a budding off-spinner and part of the Adelaide Oval ground staff before moving to NSW later in his career.

For Lawson, now a NSW selector, the numbers demonstrate that his state has long excelled at producing players best rounded for international cricket because of the need to cope with pace, swing and spin on junior, club and first-class surfaces in Sydney.

“Players who play spin well in Australia tend to adapt to faster wickets rather than the other way round,” Lawson said. “That’s why Western Australians would come to Sydney and go ‘we can’t play on that s—heap, that’s terrible’, but when people went to Perth, no one said ‘oh we’ve got to play on this bouncing, cracked minefield’.

“They had a huge advantage over there, but their complaint was that they had to play on a spinning wicket. Not many West Australians in the 1980s had long Test careers. Kim Hughes was good against spin so he played a few more. Guys like Graeme Wood did well opening the batting and did OK against the Windies, but didn’t make many runs against spin.

“When you did tour overseas, a lot of those guys didn’t have the skills to handle it because they had played in those Perth conditions. But certainly people who play on slower wickets that spin can adapt more when the wickets get quicker. That was a great thing about Australian cricket – different pitches everywhere.”

Nathan Bracken in his baggy green. He played five Tests. Credit: Andy Zakeli

For David Hussey, one of the talented Victorians Hookes felt should have received a more rapid call-up to the Australian limited overs teams and who never cracked the Test side, the difference was evident as he came through the ranks in WA before moving to Melbourne.

“Playing 17s, 19s and second XI, when we used to play NSW, and this is just me, but I always thought they were better batters than us,” Hussey said. “They were more rounded batters, better players of fast bowling, better players of spin and they had this inner belief, these NSW players, that they were the best and they were always going to be international players.

“I guess you could say that was a poor mindset from an interstater, or from a Victoria person or a WA person, but it is slowly changing.

“I believe over the next three or four years when some of the greats like [Mitchell] Starc, [Josh] Hazlewood, [David] Warner, [Steve] Smith, [Pat] Cummins, Khawaja all leave, there’s going to be huge opportunities for all players around Australia to get a long go in Test cricket. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few WA players get in there and have an extended time in the Test team.”

Bracken’s Test career lasted two years and five Tests, but he enjoyed an illustrious ODI career of 116 matches, including a role in Australia’s triumphant 2007 World Cup campaign. Inness, a fast and big-hearted left-armer, did not make a national squad. The respected fitness guru has recently joined AFL club West Coast as high-performance manager after a long stint at the Western Bulldogs.

The perceived injustices in national selection did not end there, and Hookes’ comments tapped into a parochial view that Victorian players were hard done by. Brad Hodge, dropped after six Tests, was the poster boy for this argument. Peter Handscomb (20 Tests) is the only Victorian batter to have enjoyed an extended run in the Test side since, and he is now considered a subcontinent specialist.

Brad Hodge was dropped after six Tests.Credit: Sebastian Costanzo

“We always thought if there was a 50/50 selection call it always went to another player rather than a Victorian player, and that used to get us down a little bit,” Hussey said. “But that was the environment that was created, us versus them, and Hookesy was always going into bat for us.

“That was Hookesy in a nutshell, he was us against the world. When he spoke about the baggy green in the brown paper bag, I took it as him going into bat for our players, the Brad Hodges, the Matthew Elliotts, Mathew Inness, to play for Australia. He was backing his players, and everyone got a lot of confidence out of Hookesy saying those words publicly.”

However, Victoria has done a much better job at producing white-ball players in the 20 years since Hookes’ baggy blue remark. Our data shows 19 players have been picked from Victoria – equal with WA – for a whopping 1247 matches, more than double WA’s 527 matches.

Here, thanks largely to the brilliant careers of former white-ball captain Aaron Finch and World Cup hero Glenn Maxwell, Victoria puts NSW in the shade. The Blues have produced 14 ODI debutants in the past 20 years for 797 matches.

One of Hussey’s great rivals for a spot in the Australian Test side was Simon Katich, who played his early cricket in WA before moving to Sydney. He can recall the sniggering from both north and south of NSW about how he first became established in the Australian side after joining the Blues. But tellingly, he also recalls that he made the move to become a more rounded player, something that helped him perform overseas.

“I know a lot of people speculate that, but I never thought by going there [it would get me in the Test team],” Katich said. “I’d played a Test match by playing for WA in 2001 Ashes, so I never thought of it like that.

“When I look back it was purely that I wanted to go there to not have any regrets later in my career and to improve my bowling, because I knew I wasn’t going to bowl much in Perth, and I knew I had to get better at playing spin.”

What is unknown, of course, is where things go after the current, dominant NSW generation departs the Test team, starting with Warner after the SCG Test in January. For Lawson, the continuation of the NSW dynasty Hookes battled against will depend as much on conditions underfoot as talent in the eyes, hands and feet.

“Partly it is a function of the way the game is played now,” Lawson said. “Because they play so much international cricket, they virtually don’t play state cricket. That means they’re always fit and ready for the international team and get looked after physically and mentally so they can play longer. That means there are fewer spots available.

“We’ve got to turn over our state players as well, which hasn’t happened much. Playing professional cricket is a good gig, no one wants to give it up – everyone wants to stay longer, because that’s what they do for a living.

“We’ll go to Sam Konstas, Ollie Davies and Blake Nikitaras – they’re the next group who’ve got to get out there and play, they’ve all got talent. You’ve got to get them into first-class cricket, then produce some pitches that help teach them to play normally. There’s no point putting them on these pitches that seam all over the place.”

Come back tomorrow part two in our series.

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