A Test XI with potential or proven ability?
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