Australia cricket December 6, 2012

Was Quiney the sacrificial lamb?

Was Quiney genuinely the best available batsman in the country three weeks ago when he made his Test debut?

Former Australia captain Graham Yallop wrote a book in the late 1970's entitled "Lambs to the slaughter". It referred to an Ashes series during the Packer vs ACB era when a young Australian team, led by a very inexperienced captain (Yallop) copped an almighty 5-1 annihilation by England. There was some talk at the time that the experienced veteran John Inverarity might have been made captain instead, so it is fitting indeed now that he is the chief architect in what could be a sequel to Yallop's book, perhaps ghostwritten by Rob Quiney one day - Lamb to the Slaghuis (Afrikaans for butcher).

So now it's all becoming as clear as mud. Phil Hughes is the favoured long-term option to replace Ricky Ponting but he wasn't ready enough to be exposed to the likes of Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Rob Quiney is a damn good chap and all that but if there ever was a chap that was expendable, then Quiney it was to be. Usman Khawaja meanwhile is perhaps next cab off the rank but even with a slight concern about Michael Clarke's dodgy back, Khawaja is to be removed from a three-day game against the visiting Sri Lankan side for a quick bash for Sydney Thunder. Josh Hazlewood bowled a few overs in the nets in Perth under strict supervision by the medical/conditioning team and is now out of cricket for a few months. And to cap it all off, perhaps more of a joke than a genuine story, there is some scuttlebutt that Shane Warne may be back to bowl Australia to Ashes glory. Yep, clear as mud.

Inverarity's statement today about the Hughes selection is refreshingly honest and is a reflection of the man's decency but it still leaves a few questions unanswered. Was Quiney genuinely the best available batsman in the country three weeks ago when he made his Test debut or was he merely a band-aid to stem the bleeding? We can only assume that winning the series against the Proteas was the first priority for the summer, so on that assumption, it stands to reason that Quiney was selected because he was the best man for the job at No. 3. Yet, reading between the lines in Inverarity's comments today, it almost sounds as if Hughes is clearly seen as the next best batsman in the country but not worth traumatising. So we throw Quiney to the wolves, hope that he gets lucky and it becomes an inspired selection but at the same time conceding that our real favourite for that long-term position at 3 is another batsman who wasn't good enough to take on the best bowlers but is hoping to feast on some juicier fare.

"We felt that for the South African series that Quiney was the right man," Inverarity said. What? The right man to bat at 3 and average the same? Clearly that was some way short of what they expected from Quiney but it still appears from the outside that he was deemed expendable against the high-quality Proteas attack so that Hughes could be protected. That hardly seems to be the most ringing endorsement of either candidate. One is deemed worthy of a sacrifice if necessary and the other is rated as the best player (supposedly) but not good enough to take on the best. Can you imagine selling that argument to a young Ponting?

The references to Quiney being grateful for the opportunity and not holding grudges etc. just underscores the perception that he was the sacrificial lamb. Why would he possibly hold a grudge otherwise? What is there to be bitter about unless it is now being made transparent that it was a poisoned chalice all along to be given the 'honour' of batting at 3 against the South Africans.

Similarly, with Khawaja perhaps being just one injury away from the Test team, why would you possibly remove him from a three-day game and give him slogging practice instead? Unless of course that decision too is a clue that Alex Doolan is actually the next incumbent and Khawaja can Big Bash to his heart's content because at least we know that our real choice, Doolan, is playing the entire match. He failed today, bowled by Suraj Randiv for 6 but unlike Khawaja, Doolan at least might get another chance to practice his Test Match technique in case Clarke's dodgy back doesn't improve. Or in case any part of Shane Watson's body seizes up overnight after the arduous workload he shouldered in Perth.

Listening to all the young players giving diplomatic but sterile media interviews over the last few days, it is clear that they are all trying to please everyone and offend no one. That is admirable and unavoidable in the circumstances. Doolan especially was gracious enough to claim that the others should be picked ahead of him while Khawaja was happy to "put his hand up" but equally quick to acknowledge that whoever they picked was the best choice. I remember hearing similar vanilla offerings a few weeks ago before the Brisbane Test. It's clear now that the person they picked wasn't necessarily the best player, but the best player that the system could afford to sacrifice with half a chance of him getting lucky and making it look like an inspired selection.

Was that the same selection policy for the bowlers too? If Steyn, Morkel and Philander comprise the best bowling attack, surely a top order comprising Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB De Villiers is to be similarly feared in batting terms. Can we assume (tongue in cheek of course) that the bowlers selected for Perth were not necessarily the best available on the day but handy foot soldiers who could be sacrificed if the Proteas went on the attack and ripped them to shreds. Was that partly why Smith, Amla and de Villiers batted with such raw aggression in that magnificent second innings in Perth? They knew that this attack were lambs sent to the slaughter?

All of these cricketers, when interviewed, offer bland, diplomatic and utterly manufactured comments that tell us very little about how they really feel. One can't blame them - that is the role of the modern professional cricketer these days. Say nothing of substance, nothing controversial, nothing that can be misconstrued as an attack on the selectors. Privately, it may well be that a few players may be seething inside (Peter Siddle springs to mind), but they'll never admit it upfront. There's some talk that some of the current Test team are astounded that Khawaja is being released from a three-day fixture to play T20 but I doubt you'll find a public voice of dissent. Fair enough too. Not so much a case of lambs to the slaughter; silence of the lambs perhaps!

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