Ashes 2013 April 24, 2013

A well-insured squad

Australia's Ashes side is probably not the most potent team they can put out, but it's a selection based on adequate back-up

Watson is an automatic pick because he provides back-up for any of the quick bowlers who might break down in the cold of England © Getty Images

This morning, waiting for the Ashes squad to be announced, I was part of an email dialogue that spanned four continents and a dozen different people. There were rumours about which players would be selected, and the "dark horses". Dad's Army jokes were also being peddled.

One of the rumours was that the squad would feature Shaun Marsh, George Bailey and Glenn Maxwell, at the expense of Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith (a 17-man squad was assumed). The point was made at the time that (if true), it was a selection that was two steps forward and one step back, except that they were walking in the wrong direction.

I must confess that the actual names selected contain no real surprises. It is, in my opinion, a reasonable job under tough circumstances by a selection panel hampered by possible (probable) injuries to players and their poor recent form. It contains a worthwhile gamble on Ryan Harris, a fast bowler who may not have the durability to play every Test but could still win you one or two games.

As per my most recent post, the selection of Brad as vice-captain was as predictable as it was sensible, given the very real possibility that Michael Clarke will not play every Test or will at least be off the field for considerable periods during a Test. Fortunately for the selection panel, Haddin's domestic form was good enough to justify his selection anyway, thereby sparing them the ignominy of picking batsmen who had not performed, purely for captaincy reasons. For that reason, it was refreshing to see that neither Marsh nor Bailey was selected. Batsmen for Ashes tours have always been selected on the back of heavy run-scoring feats in Shield cricket in the preceding season.

Matthew Hayden's selection for the 1993 tour readily springs to mind, not just because of the runs he plundered in Shield cricket during the 1992-93 season but, more eerily for me, because it was the fulfilment of a prophecy he had made three years prior.

In 1990, when Hayden had just broken into senior club cricket, we were chatting about my impending trip to England to play league cricket in Lancashire. At that point the youngster said that he would be in England in three years' time for the Ashes tour. Puzzled, I asked him if he had planned a family holiday or backpacking expedition that far ahead. He fixed me with a scornful gaze and made the bold prediction that he was going to be part of the team.

Mightily amused at the young pup's cheek, I played along by asking him what his plan was, and he laid it out in some detail: it included two massive seasons of first-grade runs for our club (Valleys) followed by a breakthrough debut Shield season in 1992-93 that would see him score so many runs that the selectors would have had no choice but to pick him for the 1993 Ashes tour.

"Boys will be boys, we're all entitled to dream," I thought as I smiled condescendingly at the lad, giving it no further thought until three years later, sitting in the Common Room at Keble College, Oxford, I opened the newspaper to read of the Australian team to tour England. My heart skipped a beat when ML Hayden's name jumped out at me!

I was a student at Oxford at the time, so I had not been following the cricket back home in Australia (this was before the days of ESPNcricinfo), so I was blissfully unaware that Hayden had indeed written the script almost exactly as he predicted three years prior. It was surreal.

In 1990, Hayden predicted that he would be in England in three years' time for the Ashes tour. I asked him if he had planned a family holiday or backpacking expedition that far ahead. He fixed me with a scornful gaze and said that he was going to be part of the team

A few weeks later, we had dinner together when the Aussies came to The Parks to thrash Combined Universities, and Matty could barely remember our conversation. It was almost as if there was nothing special about his prophecy, as if it was as predictable as a summer thunderstorm in his hometown of Kingaroy. His confidence and sense of destiny was a palpable thing, a living beast within him, a quality that took a few more years to manifest itself on the world stage but one that I knew was utterly inevitable. Sadly (yet fortunately in some senses), I had an exam scheduled for the last day of that match against Australia, so I was forced to be 12th man, saving my already poor first-class bowling figures from a Hayden-Slater mauling on a flat deck.

Clarke apart, I'm not sure if any of the current squad will take that sort of ebullience onto the Qantas flight to London Heathrow soon. England's current bowling attack looks a lot more potent than the one from 1993, and the Australian batting order comprising G Marsh, M Taylor, D Boon, A Border and the Waugh Brothers made for an imposing top six. What strikes me about this squad, especially the likely team for the first Test (barring injuries) is that it's not so much the most potent team that Australia can put out but that it's a team selection based on adequate insurance coverage.

If Haddin plays purely as a batsman, that selection is probably as insurance for Clarke's back injury. I suppose an argument could be made that Haddin is among the best six batsmen in the country, but if that argument is prosecuted, it says more about the current lack of depth in Shield cricket than any late-blooming brilliance by Haddin.

Shane Watson's Test batting average (leaving aside potential) would see him struggle to hold a top-five place in most other national teams, but for the first two Tests at least, he is likely to bat at five because he provides cover for any of the bowlers who might break down at any moment. In chilly English conditions, the chances of hamstring, rib and beach muscle injuries are almost guaranteed in at least one Test during the series, which makes Watson an automatic selection for most of the series, if he stays fit. Unlike previous Ashes squads that could have turned to the Waugh Brothers, Greg Blewett, Mike Hussey and Damien Martyn to take up the bowling slack, this side needs an allrounder somewhere in the top seven, even if his batting average is sub 30.

Steve Smith is, of course, the other allrounder alternative but on seaming English decks, one wonders if his loopy legbreaks have much of role to play. Dave Warner's leggies are even more juicy (oh dear, Hashim Amla), so that really leaves the selectors with no alternative but to play Watson in just about every Test unless his form or fitness become untenable. With Harris, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc all carrying recent injury legacies, they will need that extra bowler up their sleeve. Is James Faulkner good enough to bat at seven? I'm not quite convinced yet, so if I was Moises Henriques, I'd have my passport handy and my phone switched on.

If any of the batsmen fail, just give Haydos a call. He's so mentally strong that he'll probably do better than any of the replacements anyway.

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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