Australia news April 24, 2017

Faulkner confronted by the finish line

James Faulkner's eclipse as a member of Australia's top echelon parallels that of Simon O'Donnell, another allrounder who found himself suddenly out of the picture

James Faulkner was neither selected for Australia's Champions Trophy squad nor offered a central contract by Cricket Australia for 2017 © AFP

"I have no comment on it. Don't ring me tomorrow, the day after, or the day after that... please."

In the bowels of the MCG following a Sheffield Shield match, Simon O'Donnell's voice wavered as he came to terms with his omission from Australia's 1992 World Cup squad. Less than a year before, he had seemed indispensable, after being judged International Cricketer of the Year for a string of powerful displays, despite not playing Tests.

But an ODI series won without him in the West Indies was followed by a niggling shoulder problem, and all of a sudden O'Donnell found himself dealing with the effective end of his international career. Having played in the same Shield game, players like Merv Hughes and Mark Taylor celebrated their own Cup inclusions within earshot. Hughes would go on to tag himself and Taylor "the Kon-Tiki brothers" for barely playing a part in the Cup.

Twenty-five years on, it appears that James Faulkner, perhaps the cricketer most like O'Donnell in how he has contributed to Australia's limited-overs cause over the past four years, has similar reason to wonder if his international days are over. Little more than two years ago he was accepting the Man-of-the-Match award in the World Cup final at the MCG, arguably one of the very first players picked for both that team and the squad it was drawn from.

Now, however, Faulkner has been handed the news of losing not only his place in the ODI squad but also his offer of a Cricket Australia contract. The board's recent rhetoric about domestic players "not contributing to financial returns" will cut particularly deep with Faulkner, for who else over the past four years has brought more Australian ODI crowds to their feet than he has?

Right now Faulkner is taking part in the IPL for Gujarat Lions, though to date he has played only one match. O'Donnell was 29 when the curtain fell on his career, and Faulkner is only 26. But what is he to make of Moises Henriques and Marcus Stoinis, two players both comfortably older than he is, slipping into his Champions Trophy spot?

Not so long ago, James Faulkner was Man of the Match in the World Cup final at the MCG © ICC

It was at the same ICC event, in the same country, that Faulkner first rose to prominence in 2013. Tough-hewn from playing club cricket as a Launceston teenager, he won a committed ally in Shane Warne with Melbourne Stars, and at the Champions Trophy that served as Mickey Arthur's final gig as Australian coach, Faulkner stood out for his composure with both bat and ball in an otherwise woebegone campaign. He also showed the sort of combative streak that led one team-mate to term him "a great bloke, if he's on your side". As Faulkner put it during the tournament: "I suppose you can say it is easy to puff your chest out on the ground. I'd say the good players can do both. They can puff their chest out and play good cricket. There's no point puffing your chest out and not playing good cricket, because you're going to be looked at as a bit of a dill."

For the next 20 months, Faulkner did both in spades. With the ball he offered left-arm consistency and variation built on his teenaged infatuation with wristspin, which made back-of-the-hand slower balls a strong weapon after the fashion of O'Donnell, Steve Waugh and Ian Harvey, while also lessening concerns about his lack of a classical inducker to right-hand batsmen.

With the bat he offered the power of Andrew Symonds but also the calculation of Michael Bevan, never better shown than in a pair of heists: in Mohali against India and then at the Gabba against England. A sobriquet of "The Finisher" was grandiose but fitting, and a Test appearance at The Oval earned him a baggy green. Six wickets and useful runs merited further chances, but Mitchell Johnson's whirlwind left him 12th man throughout the home Ashes.

By the time of the World Cup final, Faulkner's was quite a startling ODI record. Though he was not required to bat that day, his seamers and slower balls clogged up New Zealand's middle order to such effect that he earned the match award, then took a central role in Australia's rowdy celebrations - much as O'Donnell had done in 1987. To that point, Faulkner had churned out 814 runs at 42.84, and 60 wickets at 30.08 in 44 ODIs, figures made all the better by a propensity to deliver when most required. He was still a young cricketer but played like a senior one.

All things being equal, Faulkner should have expected to at least double all the aforementioned tallies. But as with many things in life, they were not. The sociable streak led to a drunk-driving offence while playing T20s for Lancashire, and summary suspension from Australia's next limited-overs series in England. This seemed a most inopportune time to be missing, as the team was in transition. By the time Faulkner returned, he was no longer a young cricketer in an old side but a mature player in a new one.

Despite a bad knee, Faulkner's bowling numbers have improved ever since his return from injury © AFP

Whatever the effect of losing ODI team-mates like Brad Haddin, Johnson, Shane Watson and Michael Clarke, another factor was starting to hurt Faulkner, in this case literally. A chronic knee problem required constant management, and scratched him from assignments in New Zealand and South Africa. When he did manage to get back to fitness, Faulkner's training seemed geared as much towards preserving his body as pushing it - an "old-school" tendency increasingly at odds with CA's increasingly high-performance direction.

All these elements seemed to contribute to a loss of confidence with the bat in particular. Certainly his performances since the suspension went into free-fall: 174 runs at 17.4 with a top score of 36 in 23 matches are not the returns of a No. 7 or 8 batsman, even if his bowling performances - 35 wickets at 29.8 - actually showed marginal improvement over the corresponding period, bad knee and all. Faulkner himself seldom showed signs of being perturbed by this, putting it down mainly to a lack of chances for long innings.

Most hurtful to his chances of going to the Champions Trophy, though, was the fact that in recent times his inclusion has not led to victories. His two most recent limited-overs outings for Australia, in New Zealand and then at home to Sri Lanka in T20 matches, resulted in series defeats. At Eden Park, an Australian collapse offered Faulkner the chance to bat time and mount a rearguard, but it was Stoinis who did so instead.

Four years before, Faulkner had shown clear-headed prescience in summing up his value to the national team. "Every time you play for Australia, you're playing as a team, and I know personally I'm not looking at how well I go," he said. "The ultimate goal is to win games of cricket. I don't look at it as keeping my spot, I just want to do as well as I can and the end result will be keeping your spot."

Those recent defeats thus opened the door for others, including Stoinis, Henriques and John Hastings, all of whom have eyed the consistent opportunities Faulkner became used to. In the wash-up to Australia's failed 1992 World Cup tilt, many pined for a bit of the old O'Donnell magic. Faulkner, and the selectors who cut him, will now wait to see whether the 2017 Champions Trophy squad moves on more effectively.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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