June 9, 2011

Michael Jeh

A Test XI with potential or proven ability?

Michael Jeh
Simon Katich nudges another single, Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, 2nd day, November 26, 2010
Every time a country plays a Test Match they should pick the best 11 players available that day; potential is something you can experiment with on A Tours  © Getty Images
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Throughout his career, Simon Katich was a relatively low-key character. In an era where he shared the stage with players like Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds, Katich's role was always underplayed. He flew under the radar at times, churning out runs in his second coming with serene monotony, rarely drawing much attention to himself. It is ironic then that his axing from the Australian squad has attracted more public interest than many of his fine knocks. Even in his disappointment, he may yet see the bitter humour in that.

Unfairly perhaps, Katich will be remembered as a bit of a grafter, a reliable and hardy competitor, very much in the mould of the old-fashioned Australian opener of yesteryear. That image probably sells him short. His scoring-rate may have paled in comparison to Hayden (whose wouldn't?) but he ticked along at a deceptive pace. He may have lacked the power game of his genre, but the shuffle across to off stump and supple wrists meant he rarely got tied down, strong through third man and efficient behind square on the leg side. From the outside looking in, he appeared relatively unselfish, happy to sit in the slipstream of the flashier characters in his team, preferring the shadows while the big boys hogged the headlines.

Typical of his brand though, it appears that even in 'death' (in a cricketing sense), his passing will morph into a debate that renders him an innocent bystander. Like in many of his big opening partnerships with Shane Watson and Hayden, Katich is almost forgotten in the post-mortem. This time too, this issue has become more of a forum to discuss Andrew Hilditch's (and to a lesser extent Greg Chappell's) performance as chief selector. Katich, the original victim has almost become the forgotten road-kill in the bigger debate around Hilditch's future. "What about me?" poor old Kato must cry. “Forget Hilditch's career – I'm the one without a contract!”

Clearly the selectors have made a decision based on the long-term future of Australian cricket, but they've tried to balance that to some extent by not reverting to a wholesale youth policy. Otherwise, based on form and age alone, one could argue that Ponting, Hussey and Clarke might also have been cut from Test cricket calculations, their numbers in recent years no better than Katich. For one of the 'greats' like Ponting though, he probably deserves more than to be compared against anyone. His record allows him the dignity of being judged on a different spreadsheet to the other foot soldiers.

When it comes to Test cricket especially, I'd like to know whether sensible cricket followers, not just Australian fans, agree with the notion of fielding a First XI based on potential rather than the team being the best 11 cricketers in the land on the day. I've always leaned towards the notion that every time a country plays a Test Match they should pick the best 11 players available that day. To me, Test cricket is still the ultimate honour and being selected to play for your country is a special privilege. Regardless of age, pick the best team you can. Potential is something you can experiment with on A Tours and in first-class cricket but it's a bit like marriage to me – you might date lots of girls throughout your life but hopefully you decide to marry that very special person who means the most to you. It's not a trial run and it's not a reward for someone who may just prove to later become the love of your life – I feel similarly about Test cricket.

If you subscribe to that theory, then Katich is entitled to feel miffed to not even feature in the list of 25 contracted players. If you're not going to pick the best Test team on any given day, does it not devalue that spine-tingling boyhood dream of playing Test cricket for your country? If we're picking teams purely on potential, looking to the future, where do we draw the line then? Should we pick the entire Under-19 team, based on the logic that they will one day realise their potential? When they finally reach their potential, should we then dispense with them and pick the next generation of youngsters, recycling that same theory about always picking on potential? I think Test cricket should be the ultimate reward for realising potential, regardless of age. Anything else is tantamount to unfair discrimination.

Sure, the real answer probably lies somewhere in between, where commonsense and idealism meet. The danger, though, with Australia's preoccupation with finding an opening partnership in time for the next Ashes series, is that it unintentionally insults every other team it encounters along the way. There's no doubting that the Ashes hold a special place in Australian cricket's priorities, but I still think that we owe it to our proud tradition to put out the best possible team in every Test we play, against Sri Lanka, South Africa or Bangladesh. Let the next generation show us what they've got in the warm-up games and A Tours, but let's reserve that baggy green cap for the best 11 cricketers available for selection on that particular day. To me, that's the only way Test cricket will maintain its special place in the hearts of cricketers, in an era where ODI and T20 games are played today and forgotten tomorrow.

Just ask players like Jamie Siddons, Stuart Law, Wade Seccombe and Martin Love about what that baggy green cap really meant to them. Fabulous cricketers all of them, but they never got picked on potential. If they couldn't force their way into the First XI, they missed out. That was always the Australian way. We pride ourselves on picking the best team and then finding a captain from among that lot, unlike England who had a long history of selecting a captain who wouldn't necessarily have made the team on form alone.

Will Katich get selected from outside the squad? I doubt it. Yet, if the selectors were fair, they should just ask this question of themselves. If Katich was fit and scoring runs, would he be in the team today, regardless of next month, next year or the next Ashes series? The baggy green cap deserves that respect.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by Adam on (July 11, 2011, 8:20 GMT)

I think there is a place for 'potential' to be bred in the Test arena, just look at Shane Warne's humble beginnings. He came good on the back of experience in the arena. The problem is the youngsters Australia are looking at bringing in don't have the raw talent of Warne. Hughes has too many technical deficiencies, the likes of Smith and Ferguson do not have the mental aptitude for Test cricket.

On this basis, we'd be best off picking the Best XI at any given time.

Posted by Vijay on (July 4, 2011, 18:10 GMT)

Michael, I love your pieces man. I think you bring good important perspectives to various subjects related to cricket, and more importantly present them in a dignified and sensible way. Keep it coming dude.

As for the topic itself, as an Indian, I's want to see the best 11 take the field on any given day unless 10 of the 11 can do the work of 11, there is no way we can justify the inclusion of the 11th fellow just based on potential. Age shouldn't be a barrier. Planning for the future and all those things are fine and let them happen in the background. But most important is to live the present. If you do your best in the present then there is every chance that your future will take care of itself. Present moment awareness and performance is the way to go!

Posted by waterbuffalo on (June 24, 2011, 3:31 GMT)

Bludger, any other left handed openers you have in shield cricket?, actually you only need a defensive guy, because watson will get the runs, any young guys with good defensive technique?

Posted by Bludger on (June 16, 2011, 10:08 GMT)

Let Hughes rip for a while. He'll be ok against mediocre attacks. I'd like to see what Steyn and Morkel have in store for him this time. If they bowl short and wide to him on their own heads be it, but I have full faith that he'll be nicking through to the keeper off Steyn for about 5 for his entire second sojourn in Saffer land.

Posted by waterbuffalo on (June 15, 2011, 2:04 GMT)

Not surprised that Indians always criticize Greg Chappell, he had a bad run in charge of India, and that makes him a terrible selector/coach. I beg to differ, just because Greg upset the legends of India, does not mean the guy knows nothing about cricket. He is always looking to the future, for new talent, there's nothing wrong with that, that's how you keep a country at the top, you watch what happens to India when Sachin,Laxman, Dravid and Sehwag leave, it'll be just like when greg, Lillee, R. Marsh retired at the same time, India will still be good, but nowhere near as good as they are now. Take away Zaheer, and what bowling do you have? Take away Sachin, Dravid etc, and what batsmen do you have? 20/20 and ODI tonkers who will have to learn how to bat for 6 hours. Good luck.

Posted by Sunit Saraswat on (June 12, 2011, 14:54 GMT)

Moneyballs,by Michael Lewis, a book on baseball is instructive in this potential vs performance debate. Actually, there should be no debate. Katich is amongst the best performers for the last three years for his national team. He has not failed a fitness test. No opener has a better record than he.There is no logic for him to be shown the door. Megalomaniacs like Greg Chappel have done enough harm to more than one team , proving that great cricketers are average, often petty leaders and decision maker. Ian, the much saner one, has risen in spirited defence, but for once , it is balderdash. There should be a legal recourse for people like Katich. And our very own Mohinder Amarnath, who was dealt similarly by another petty joker a couple of decades ago!

Posted by waterbuffalo on (June 12, 2011, 8:48 GMT)

I'm no fan of Australia (support Pakistan) but one thing I know about the Aussies is they hate complainers (Symonds comes to mind) if Slater can be dropped with a Test average of 50.00, then Katich, who is much older, can and should be dropped, too. The Aussies want to give a couple of guys 18 months to settle in, maybe 12 months, and they are right, they should give the young blokes a go, Hussey had to wait till he was 29, and he never complained, Katich is not the first player, nor will he be the last, to be cut loose. No one is obliged to pick you, and big deal he had a lot of opening partnerships with Watson, Cook is younger and scores 100's for fun, the aussies want to find a younger opener, end of. I hope Khawaja will eventually take over Ponting, and I look forward to see a young opener burst onto the scene and tonk the Poms all over the park,ya got anyone like Sehwag down there? Australia Zindabad!

Posted by Vik on (June 10, 2011, 12:43 GMT)

In Test Cricket the best IX in the country should be selected, regardless of age, younger potenial or a vision for the future. At best future potential is just that, 'potential'. We should live in the present and select the best IX based on PERFORMANCE ONLY. Otherwise what is the value of true hardwork and proven results.

Posted by Nishan on (June 10, 2011, 10:49 GMT)

As a Sri Lankan i'd be delighted if Katich didn't make the flight to lanka...as he's the most consistent aussie test batsmen right now and with a dodgy middle order it will help us a great deal not to have a stubborn n gritty opener around. But as a cricket lover who enjoys watching quality cricket I just cannot understand how the aussie selectors can leave him out..i totally agrees with the author of this article in saying that any team should play the best XI available and let the youngsters earn their place in a Test team with performances at domestic and 'A' level instead of it just being handed to them. BIG MISTAKE CA!!!

Posted by Buro on (June 10, 2011, 9:43 GMT)

Wake up guys.. see what Greg Chappel is doing to Australia.. he did the same thng to India too and was almost succesfull in kinking out our legends but thankfully we had a bad WC 07 and Chappel was thrown out like a Chappal

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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