If you listen to some people in five Australian states, NSW cricketers get a baggy green cap when they’re presented with their blue one upon making their state debut.
The conspiracy theory was first floated by the late, great David Hookes nearly 20 years ago during his time as Victoria coach as he bemoaned the fact that many of his players couldn’t get a look-in at Test level.
“When they give out the baggy blue cap in NSW, they give you a baggy green cap in a brown paper bag as well to save making two presentations,” he famously said, half-jokingly.
This second Test against the West Indies is the first time Australia have fielded a team with less than half the players coming from NSW since last year’s Boxing Day Test.
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Blues duo Josh Hazlewood and Test skipper Pat Cummins were ruled out of the match due to injury, replaced by Queenslander Michael Neser and Victoria’s Scott Boland to leave five NSW-born players in the XI: openers David Warner and Usman Khawaja (who has played Shield cricket for Queensland for the past decade), stand-in skipper Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon.
In the 26 Tests since Smith and Warner returned from their bans for the 2019 Ashes, 16 of those line-ups have contained six or seven Bluebaggers.
Cummins, at 29, is the youngest of the current seven Test regulars with NSW pedigree and with NSW on the bottom of the Sheffield Shield ladder after six winless matches, there are few players in the current line-up who look like they’re on the path to the national side.
The Blues are the only team yet to record a victory after the first half of the Shield season which has now gone into an extended break for the BBL window.
Phil Jaques was sacked before last week’s loss to Victoria, replaced by experienced mentor Greg Shipperd in a rare mid-season coaching change and Cricket NSW board member Ed Cowan, on the ABC Grandstand Podcast earlier this week, said the “general trend for this team has been downward and quickly”.
“The style and nature of the losses has been disappointing to those who are making the decisions,” the former Test opener said. “NSW should expect to be at the top or near the top of first-class cricket given the population advantage, given the money that is invested in the game. There’s just no room for error around that.”
Cowan said losing six or seven of the state’s best players to national duties has been a perennial problem and can be no excuse for the current malaise. Seasoned campaigners Moises Henriques, Kurtis Patterson and Sean Abbott are unlikely to get a call-up to the Test side while it is still to early to know if rising stars like batter Jason Sangha, keeper Baxter Holt and leg-spinner Tanveer Sangha should be handed a brown paper bag with another cap.
Western Australia and Victoria seem to be the two states with the best young prospects at the moment.
Cameron Green is already established in the Test team and the 23-year-old West Australian has several state colleagues who appear on the path to the national side in fellow all-rounder Aaron Hardie, paceman Lance Morris, keeper Josh Inglis and young batter Teague Wyllie, the star of the under-19 team’s World Cup campaign last year.
While the future of young opener Will Pucovski is unfortunately clouded due to concussion and mental health issues, Victoria also look like their production line to the national team is cranking out strong prospects in batting duo Ashley Chandrasinghe and Campbell Kellaway, spinner Todd Murphy and seamer Will Sutherland.
Perhaps young athletes in those states are finally starting to see the light by committing to a sport played in more than one country rather than being sucked into the AFL vortex.
NSW have also been the most dominant state when it comes to Test captains.
In the past four decades since Kim Hughes’ tearful resignation, each captain has been from NSW or playing there when skipper in the case of Shane Watson’s one Test filling in during the 2013 Indian tour apart from Tasmanian duo Ricky Ponting and Tim Paine.
Of the 47 skippers of the men’s Test team, 25 came from or were representing Australia’s most populous state.
It’s still a few years away before a full-time successor is needed for Cummins but the early frontrunners would be South Australian Travis Head and Queensland’s Marnus Labuschagne with Green the down-the-track leader.
Head and Labuschagne continued their run-spree on day two of the second Test, extending their 199-run partnership to 297 before Labuschagne’s third straight century ended on 163 with a thick snick off the West Indies’ reserve keeper Devon Thomas to first-choice gloveman Josh Da Silva.
Head, with his extensive experience as captain for South Australia, is surely at the front of the queue to be the next long-term Test skipper now that he has removed any doubt about his spot in the middle order with a 99 in Perth and a massive ton in Adelaide.
Labuschagne’s idiosyncratic antics on and off the field mean he’s probably not viewed as captaincy material in all quarters but if he tones that down, he clearly has the cricket smarts to be a fine tactician and is comfortable with handling all the external leadership responsibilities like dealing with the media.