February 19, 2014

When the selectors knew something we didn't

John Inverarity and Co weathered unfair criticism for picking Shaun Marsh, but now they need to be lauded for their bold decision

Shaun Marsh could be in for a long tenure in the top order if his fitness can match his talent © Associated Press

It's hard to eat your own words when you're already choking on humble pie. Having been force-fed a steady diet of both over these last few days, I'm now ready to dispense with any more predictions related to cricket. Credit where credit's due - the Australian cricket selectors deserve to bask in the glory whilst sideline commentators like yours truly wear the ignominy of shame with nowhere to hide.

I refer, of course, to my recent comments regarding the selection of Shaun Marsh. Hands up - I'll admit that I was one of those critics (fools even) who openly bagged the selectors for even considering him for the South African tour. My rationale was based on his poor first-class form this season, a poor injury history, and a long disciplinary history. His pedigree and class are undoubted but I was adamant that his selection was evidence of a system in disarray.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. His faultless century in Centurion must have been sweet ambrosia to John Inverarity and colleagues, who weathered much (unfair) criticism for picking a bloke because he was "in a good space". To those of us not as knowledgeable as Invers, that decision appeared ridiculous. It appeared to make a mockery of the recommendations of the Argus Review, which called for players to be picked on domestic form. It appeared to be an insult to the Sheffield Shield batsmen who scored runs and were then ignored because Marsh was suddenly in a good space.

Despite all of that logic, the selectors knew something that we didn't. They saw something in Marsh that convinced them to back their hunches. The skipper himself was prepared to cop a bit of flak and drop back to No. 5 to accommodate Marsh at No. 4 on what looked to be a tough deck to be asked to bat first on. The armchair critics, myself included, were quick to jump on the bandwagon but we were soon to be silenced. Fair play to all involved - being proven wrong is never much fun but there's only one thing to do - offer apologies and be slower next time to jump to conclusions when selectors make bold choices that those outside the inner circle do not understand.

Alex Doolan's selection was mildly contentious but even that turned to gold. His first-innings partnership with Marsh arrested an early collapse, his second-innings knock was mature and classy, and his fielding at short leg was nothing short of brilliant. Again, they went with a bloke whose first-class stats were decent enough without demanding automatic selection and it came up roses. They obviously saw something in the lad that suggested to them that he had the stomach for a fight, and he vindicated their choice in grand fashion. Good on the lad.

At the risk of being proven wrong (so what's new?), it's hard to imagine how the South Africans can bounce back from that demoralising loss in just a few days. AB de Villiers apart, and occasional glimpses of Hashim Amla, the gulf in class just looked as wide as the ocean that separates Port Elizabeth and Perth. Graeme Smith is making all the right noises about regrouping and putting that bad loss behind them but his words sound hollow.

Perhaps I will be composing yet another "shame piece" next week if they bounce back. It is not inconceivable - we owe the No. 1-ranked team more dignity than to write them off after one abysmal performance, as one-sided as it was. In all departments, they looked nothing like the best team in the world. The upside is that they probably can't play as bad as that again. Can Australia play any better?

The selectors have now earned themselves the prerogative of immunity from criticism from those of us in the press gallery for some time now. We owe them that courtesy. Yes, they will occasionally get a few 50-50 calls wrong but that's only to be expected when you're going on informed gut instinct. The next time that happens, I will be slow to jump on the front foot and swing into them. I will remember this moment and give myself a swift upper cut.

It might present a slight problem to the players in Shield cricket who may now be unsure of whether first-class averages or gut feelings influence selectors. Perhaps good selectors have a healthy mix of both, balancing pragmatism with flair and a sense of the daring. The selection of Shane Warne owes much to this sort of thinking, so it's not to be scoffed at.

The way Marsh batted in Centurion, he looks like he might be in for a long tenure in the top order if his fitness can match his talent. He's done enough to prove that he has the class to deal with the second-best pace attack in the world. (Now there's a hole I've dug for me to fall into!)

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