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December 26, 2012

Australia cricket

Australia's 'best XI policy' goes for a toss

Michael Jeh
Mitchell Starc finished South Africa's innings with six wickets, Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 3rd day, December 2, 2012
Mitchell Starc has played just two consecutive Tests with long gaps in between  © AFP
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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

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Keywords: Burnout

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Posted by Ravi on (January 1, 2013, 12:51 GMT)

@Marcuss, I don't agree with Mr. Science. Amir was 19 when he was banned. Till then he was playing in almost all the matches. It all depends on the stamina of players irrespective of their age. Shane Bond was almost always injured irrespective of his age.

Posted by Anonymous on (December 29, 2012, 9:33 GMT)

Well, considering that Starc hadn't done anything at first-class level to be justly considered for his initial selection, (averaging 2 wickets per match until the recent Perth test), then I don't think that he- nor his supporters- can have any complaints. Esecially since his 5/63 came against weak opposition on bowler-friendly pitch, as you mentioned might be the case in Melbourne for iddle and co. His 6/154 against SAf was riddled with poor bowling as he went for 5.34 per over, and his 5/63 was bolstered by taking the final 4 tail-end wickets. He was selected for test cricket because he is from NSW and had preformed well in the shorter formats.

Posted by MarkDal on (December 29, 2012, 1:02 GMT)

I think it was Andrew McDonald raised an interesting point on commentary yesterday. With the rotations, are the going to take 6 or 7 pace bowlers to England for the Ashes tour? Traditionally, they take 5, but that may not be enough to 'rotate' effectively. Are they going to take a squad more akin to a Rugby tour than a cricket tour, with 20-25 guys there?

Posted by Spex on (December 28, 2012, 22:49 GMT)

Really, is there really a "Best XI" in Australia right now? Despite their successes, they are still a team in transition and nowhere is this more obvious than in the pace attack. Of these, only Peter Siddle has the long term form to be an automatic selection. The rest have either lost that status (Johnson, Hilfy, Harris) or are yet to cement their long term credentials. Everyone bleating about Starc being rested are basing that on his performance in, what, two innings over two Tests? Meanwhile, they ignore what happened to Pattinson in the SA series.

In these circumstances, and where some of your options are in a high injury risk phase of their careers, it makes perfect sense to try new options while managing the workloads on young bodies.

Posted by Drew on (December 28, 2012, 4:05 GMT)

I think Jeremy makes a good point which questions the fundamental assumption upon which this article is based: that Australia has a 'best group' of fast bowlers. I would suggest no country has ever had the depth in quality of fast bowlers Australia now has. Statistically, most countries could probably be represented by a bell curve, where the frequency is highest around the average ie average quality fast bowlers. Australia's distribution is not normal and heavily skewed towards the right with an astounding number of high quality fast bowlers. As is usually the case with high quality it can be very difficult to differentiate between the quality of these bowlers. That Bird can bowl as he did in his first test only illustrates this. What sense does your argument make when, say, starc, harris, pattinson, cummins, hilfy, siddle and johnson are all fit and in form? You can add bird to that list now. I would rest Siddle in Sydney for Starc, why not!

Posted by Martin on (December 27, 2012, 22:52 GMT)

@Jeremy Bennet It's a terrible policy that is making your selection panel the second most laughable thing in world cricket after NZC and the Ross Taylor debacle. The fact is that 50-odd % of this so called fast bowling unit you're building up in unavailable through long term injury and the one accusation we never thought we'd be able to throw at the Aussies is coming true. You've periodically had poor sides, but never physically flimsy ones. Is Australian cricket going soft? Glenn McGrath wouldn't have let the selectors rest him and, what is more, they wouldn't have wanted to rest him. This doesn't send out a message about strength in depth, but one of a lack of outstanding quality fast bowlers...For the first time in my life as a Pom cricket watcher, I can honestly say I'd be dismayed if we didn't win the next two Ashes series.

Posted by MarkDal on (December 27, 2012, 12:02 GMT)

I was just discussing yesterday that we now have something like 14 pace bowlers around the country who have been picked in the Australian squad! That's fine for Pat Howard, who is using Rugby Union thinking of how to best use his forward pack, but ridiculous for cricket! If you refer to the previous article about Siddle, you'll know my feelings. Jeremy, it's fine to say that we've developed a 'squad', but Hastings, McKay, George and probably Bollinger and Copeland will never play again. Cutting & Hazlewood were teased but not picked. Harris may be finished as well, and I can't see Hilfy getting back, so the 'rotation' has just shortened the Test careers of some quality bowlers. I'd like to think that Bird was picked on the traditional form, not rotation, and I'd pencil him into the Ashes squad. Let's see the bowlers get quality EARLY wickets, and not tailenders and big-hitting players, and then we can see who is quality and who is not.

Posted by Mad Hamish on (December 27, 2012, 11:31 GMT)

Considering how Johnson bowled in Perth compared to how Starc bowled in Perth the best attack didn't line up in Hobart either. (and Hilfenhaus ahead of Johnson this summer was dubious as well)

Posted by Royce George on (December 27, 2012, 11:05 GMT)

I think indian team must take a cue from the australian management Indians overely on Zaheer khan,I wish he was told to get fit and come back...By now he would have been more fitter...and some youngsters would have also got a chance to showcase te talent

Posted by Ben on (December 27, 2012, 10:50 GMT)

Spot on! This rotation policy is absolutely ridiculous. John Hastings will never play test cricket again. Jackson Bird has bowled well, but you have to wonder what is going through Mitchell Starc's mind right now. Surely as a professional cricketer you want every opportunity to play for Australia. To be told that you are to be rested, when you have no injury, must be a huge kick in the teeth, a feeling akin to being dropped! The test side should always be made up of the 11 best available cricketers in the country. 'Resting' players on the basis that they may get injured is insane! People will stop turning up to work on the off chance they may hurt themselves! How we have come to this I don't know but it is a sad state of affairs.

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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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