One big muddle, 23 million solutions
Once upon a time, the Australian Test team was as easy to pick as a North Korean election. Because, like North Korean elections, there was no election - it was just selected by divine right.
The top order was Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Martyn and the Waugh twins. Gilly "The Amazing" had the gloves and the license to tonk. There followed: Warney; Binga; Dizzy; and Ooh-Ah McGrath. Quality bowlers, sure. But they had highest Test scores of 99, 64, 201 not out (oh, Diz, you keep me young) and 61 respectively.
So yes, one of the great sides and just about unbeatable. And after 16 straight Test wins they even called themselves that - "The Unbeatables". Sure, a bit naff. But there you go. They're cricket nerds not Muhammad Ali.
Anyway, things changed, as they usually do. And today you could poll every Australian and come up with 23 million permutations for Australia's best XI in batting order.
I ran a straw poll of ten mates and the only player selected in all XIs was Michael Clarke. Some brushed Shane Watson, some David Warner, some the entire top four. 'Wade men' argued with 'Haddin men'. Traditional 'top six' advocates clashed with adherents of bit-part all-rounders.
And anyone who selected Steven Smith or Glenn Maxwell was ridiculed and lambasted with frightening vigour. Hence it was an extremely entertaining email exchange.
But it's the same everywhere: social media; anti-social media; the telly; the Daily Tele; the pub. Everyone's got a different XI. Three blokes at my golf club played first-class cricket for New South Wales, and none of them have the same team. Indeed their opinions on who should bat where are as varied as Shane Warne's interesting edict that we drop everyone, install nine allrounders and put Rod Marsh behind the pegs (or whatever Warney put in his funny manifesto thing, I didn't read it).
For what it's worth (roughly the paper you likely won't print this malarkey upon) my Australia Test XI for the first Ashes Test - predicated on these guys being fit, and Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting remaining retired - is this: Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Michael Clarke, Callum Ferguson, Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon.
So yes - following the 4-0 debacle in India, I have dropped Ed Cowan, Phil Hughes, Smith, Matt Wade, Maxwell and old lionheart, Peter Siddle (a tough one - but he's next in, and 12th man).
Yes, there is no place for Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, Jackson Bird and Ben Hilfenhaus, all of whom could sling the cherry prosperously in favourable Pommy conditions with the high-seamed Dukes. They could all factor later in the series given "rotation", and all that business.
Harris? Had it hooping both ways at speed in the Shield final in Tasmania. Cummins is raw with shades of Allan Donald. And James "The Curse" Pattinson is an angry and super-quick leather flinger in the time-honoured way. Three right-handers, sure. But different enough. And it shows this: if you can in good conscience leave Pete Siddle out of your pace-bowling triumvirate then pace-bowling stocks are healthy.
Lyon gets the spin gig courtesy of rolling Sachin a couple of times, taking 7 for 94 in the fourth Test and because he is just about it, outside of Fawad Ahmed, the Pakistani refugee whose citizenship application is being assessed urgently by diplomats in Canberra.
The batsmen? Well, they and they alone are to blame for the unprecedented thrashing in India. The top four were miserable. The middle-order were dysfunctional. Siddle and Starc out-batted all of them. And the bell must toll for someone. And it tolls for them.
Cowan? Good fellah, good luck to him, looks like he'd shed blood for the baggy green. But thirty innings at 32 and no Test ton since November? Time to go off to county cricket, my friend, and earn the spot.
Hughes? Batted his way back into the team with a bunch of first-class hundreds. He's now batted his way out of the team with a bunch of Test-class duds. How would a left-hand batsman so inept against the ball leaving him fare against the quality, orthodox offspin of Graeme Swann? Answer: quite probably bloody poorly.
I've shifted Watson to bat where he bats best. The big man is Australia's second-best batter and gives the new ball a thump. Michael Clarke moves to the rightful No. 3 slot suiting Australia's premier batsman and where he can honour the legacy of Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Ian Chappell and Ricky Ponting. And Warner shifts to No. 6 where he can slog when the ball's not swinging. But Warner is on a promise. And David Hussey awaits.
Rogers gets a gig because he's averaged 50 for ten seasons. South Australia's Ferguson gets a gig at No. 4 because he's classy, looks like a batsman and averages 60.25 in his last nine innings (including 74 and 65 against England Lions). And Usman Khawaja bats at five because he's classy, looks like a batsman and is not Steven Smith.
Haddin replaces Matthew Wade because he's a better batsman and wicketkeeper. And leader. And presence. And cricketer. Wade bowls better. But keepers don't bowl.
So, there you go. That's my Test XI. Sounds all right, doesn't it? Yet such is the poverty of top-order batting, the strength of fast bowling, and the dearth of high-quality spin, that you could make a very good case for a completely different XI - such as Warner, Cowan, Hughes, Watson, Clarke, Doolan, Wade, Siddle, Starc, Hilfenhaus, Doherty - and people would rub their mental goat-beards and muse, 'Yes, the man has a point'.
Okay, maybe not Xavier Doherty. But you get the point.
The other point, given England's 0-0 series draw against New Zealand, is that whatever team Australia field in the first Test of the Ashes, they can still beat England.
But that's a whole other column.
Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here