Australia's 'best XI policy' goes for a toss
Five minutes into the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. It is a historical day in so far as it is the first time in my memory of Boxing Day Tests, dating back to the Ian Chappell/Clive Lloyd era of the mid-1970s, when the "best available" Australian team has not taken the field. I suppose the recent Test in Perth against South Africa almost qualifies in that category but at least the turn-around for that match was only a few days so that the resting of Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus was almost fathomable. The fact that Ben Hilfenhaus, despite being protected from injury, still broke down when he next bowled in earnest makes a slight mockery of that decision but one can almost understand the rationale.
England haven't always been as insistent when it comes to selecting the best eleven available players for Test matches. They used to subscribe to a system where the captain wasn't necessarily among the best eleven players in the country; the Mike Brearley example in the 1981 Ashes was proof that it is not always a strategy to be scoffed at. Brearley's calm manner and astute leadership brought out the best in Ian Botham and we all know what happened in that series.
Australia on the other hand have always held fast to the tradition that the baggy green is never handed out unless you are among the best available on that particular day, injury, suspension or family emergencies notwithstanding. Some would argue that this has not always been the case but that is more a debate around which cricketer deserved to be in the team ahead of another, an argument that did not necessarily have any black and white answer. Some may also argue that when Bob Simpson was recalled to captain Australia during World Series Cricket, that time-honoured tradition was dispensed with; but his brave performances in unique circumstances can perhaps be written off as a temporary deviation from normal policy.
Not so today. Mitchell Starc's omission from the starting line-up in Melbourne is the beginning of a new tradition. The rotation system has been around for a few years now but never before has the issue come so starkly into focus. Here is a man who has played just two consecutive Tests in a summer where he has not played that much cricket, and eight long days after he took five second-innings wickets in Hobart this modern-day professional whose sole job it is to be fit enough to, well, simply to do his job, is deemed not fit enough to risk turning up for 'work'.
So Australian teams from now on will not comprise the best eleven cricketers available on the day. They will not be selected according to cricket ability. They will proudly wear the baggy green based on a complicated and utterly unproven science based around their likelihood of being injured. There we are. That is the new reality of modern cricket in Australia - a selection system run by sports scientists and executed by selectors.
Even in not-so-recent memory, the opposite was true. The selectors made the decisions and the allied medical health professionals did their best to keep those best players fit and firing. That system has now been turned on its head. The boffins consult their spreadsheets and plot probability charts that are then acted upon by the selectors and reluctantly justified by the captain when confronted with thorny questions at the post-toss interview.
Michael Clarke informed us today that it wasn't "rotation" but "player management". He even made it sound as if they were doing Starc a favour and that the player concerned would be (should be) eternally grateful for the thoughtful gesture that sees Jackson Bird making his Test debut at his expense. I'm not sure about player management but it sounds like management speak is now part of the skill-set that the captain requires. As well as the ability to keep a straight face.
The frustrating thing about the Starc omission is that the evidence around this so-called injury-prevention theory is lacking in results. The whole point of resting Hilfenhaus was apparently to prevent the very thing that made him leave the field halfway through the Hobart Test. So where is the evidence that these strategies actually work? Why not just entrust the fitness of an individual to that individual himself, trusting his commitment to his own career progression and allowing him to live and die by his own fitness regime? Especially when the player hasn't actually complained of a niggle or is showing signs of an injury, and has just come off a rousing five-wicket haul to win a Test match …
It is especially ironic that this same system encourages another player, albeit a batsman, to do everything possible to take the field despite having a definite injury. If the Starc philosophy had been applied to Clarke, they would not even have to predict the likelihood of an injury; Clarke's dodgy hamstring is there for everyone to see. Yet, they allow him to take the field in the same selectorial culture that allows pre-emptive, crystal-ball-gazing, statistics-driven decisions that now hand out baggy green caps to players who, arguably, are not among the best eleven cricketers in the country on that particular day. We might as well be playing a computer game.
On the Channel 9 commentary this morning, Bill Lawry and Mark Taylor were discussing this very issue and posed the hypothetical question about what would happen if both Mitchell Johnson and Bird picked up six-wicket hauls in Melbourne? Let's add Peter Siddle to that mix too. If all three of them get wickets against a relatively weak team on a fast bowler-friendly pitch (on paper anyway), who misses out in Sydney? Will it be Siddle, based on the theory that he would have played two consecutive Tests, without anywhere near the rest periods that Starc had between Perth, Hobart and Melbourne? Using the statistical models used by the sports science staff, Siddle must surely be the next bowler most likely to break down. If they are being consistent (and fair), it would appear Siddle must be rested in Sydney. Despite Clarke's protestations to the contrary, that sounds very much like 'rotation' to me. They don't need selectors - a Lazy Susan will do!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane