January 15, 2009

Six obsession

The Australian selectors' fixation on creating allrounders out of players who aren't has affected more than a few careers

Andrew McDonald: "the latest Frankenstein-style construction to be wound up at his back and sent on as Australia's new No. 6" © Getty Images

When Andrew Hilditch played Test cricket for the first time, the man listed at No. 6 was Phil by name and fill-a-hole by nature. Phil Carlson, tall and fair, bowled 10 wicketless overs in that game. He batted twice, enduring seven minutes in total, outsmarted by an Ian Botham long hop and sparring with bat too far from body at a John Emburey offbreak. The ball ballooned - Carlson's final act of the match and his Test career - and as it hit short leg's hands the captain, Graham Yallop, squatted at the non-striker's end and slowly shook his head.

Hilditch himself was dumped soon after, and he stayed dumped for most of the next six years. The last time Hilditch played Test cricket, Wayne "Flipper" Phillips was Australia's No. 6. "Flipper" was a simple bastardisation of Phillips' surname. Coincidentally, the selectors looked on him as a kind of performing dolphin. His first trick was a scintillating 159 on debut. Then the selectors got thinking: Phillips should not merely make runs but keep wicket too, not that he wished to, and not that five other wicketkeepers in the land weren't considerably more dexterous. The experiment was a flop. Phillips, a freewheeling and clear-headed batsman, grew bedraggled at a time when clear-headed and freewheeling Australian batsmen were nigh on extinct.

If Hilditch now has an odd and twisted notion of what a No. 6 should be, that is understandable. The trouble is that Hilditch is chairman of Australia's selectors. It could be that the effect his dysfunctional upbringing had on the young Hilditch's mind is influencing the make-up of Australia's cricket team now.

Selecting is hard. Always selectors, knowing they can pick only 11 men, wish somehow to turn 11 into 12. Under Hilditch's chairmanship the wish has become an obsession. Normally selectors see that there is no allrounder worthy of summoning and so content themselves with 11, the best 11. Hilditch's method is different: where no allrounder can be found, we shall build one. Andrew McDonald of Wodonga is the latest Frankenstein-style construction to be stirred from sleep, wound up at his back and sent on to the Sydney Cricket Ground as Australia's new No. 6.

History is against Hilditch. Australia has fielded more allrounders than most countries. Even so, if we rule out wicketkeepers and stick to the classic definition of an allrounder as someone who bats and bowls well enough to earn a place in any team for either discipline, then Australia has produced seven: George Giffen, Monty Noble, Warwick Armstrong, Jack Gregory, Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson. That's one every 19 years, and none in the past 46. Even these are inflated figures. Technically, if Benaud or Davidson had elbow niggles that prevented them bowling, selectors would seldom have picked them as specialist batsmen; the reverse applies to Armstrong and, less strongly, to Giffen and Noble too.

If we believe the classic definition, only Garry Sobers and about six others were ever true allrounders. The classic definition is too strict. Really, an allrounder is someone who commands selection with one skill and is an invaluable contributor with their second string. By this logic, handy sorts like Gus Gilmour and Greg Matthews just about qualify. By no available logic do Hilditch's projects - McDonald, Cameron White, Andrew Symonds or Shane Watson - amount to Test allrounders.

McDonald looked at home in that Sydney Test without quite appearing menacing. Wish him well. Attempts to manufacture a No. 6 allrounder out of Watson have come at the cost of Watson's health and his batting. An upright defence, a taste for boundaries and a brace of hundreds signalled a bright new batting prospect in the summer of 2003-04. It didn't win Watson a Test berth - but what if he bowled more? Geoff Lawson ranked him back then as Australia's 17th-best seamer. Now Watson does enough with the ball to have taken seven-for against South Australia. But the first-class hundreds have dried up - four in his past 65 outings - and the backache that scared him off bowling as a child is currently stopping him leaving the couch as a man.

Symonds was saluted by pressmen at summer's beginning as "the world's finest allrounder", when it was not necessarily evident that he was an allrounder at all. Not so long ago, Greg Chappell spun the ball harder and wobbled cutters and swingers more deadly; he batted, too. No one called Chappell an allrounder, let alone a fine one. People look at how far Symonds has fallen and they try to explain it. They say he is mentally not right, and they are probably on to something, although for a player with a mental approach so simple - "Give it some Larry Dooley" - it would seem strange if that were all there was to it.

Symonds was saluted by pressmen at summer's beginning as "the world's finest allrounder", when it was not necessarily evident that he was an allrounder at all. Greg Chappell spun the ball harder and wobbled cutters and swingers more deadly; he batted, too. No one called Chappell an allrounder

A true batsman - a dangerous if not totally reliable one; that used to be Symonds. He'd bowled little spinners in his junior days, taking up quicker stuff much later, at the urging of the state selectors and his Queensland coach, John Buchanan. As Symonds tells it: "Buck's line of thinking was that I should add medium-pace bowling to my batting, slow bowling and fielding, and frankly, I could see no real counter-argument." Had he spotted the counter-argument, he might still be in the Test team today.

For Hilditch, one answer is to do what selectors have done forever: pick the six best batsmen, four best bowlers - including a spinner - and one wicketkeeper. To do anything else is to overcomplicate an already complicated job.

Australia now has no real allrounder. Of the seven they used to have, none batted regularly at No. 6. It stands to reason that the person who bats at six should be his country's sixth-best batsman. A 21-year-old Victor Trumper started there. Don Bradman debuted at seven, graduated to six, and conquered the world from three. Neil Harvey, two Chappells, two Waughs, Allan Border and Ricky Ponting did apprenticeships at No. 6.

In the time the selectors have been playing snakes and ladders with McDonald and company, David Hussey and Brad Hodge have grown two years older. Who knows what they could have been?

Selecting is not a one-man job. Presumably Hilditch's three companions share his obsessions. All are young enough to remember the days of Carlson and Phillips. All understand the urge to turn 11 into 12, or 13. Still, perhaps it's time they had another conversation and drew once more on their own experiences.

David Boon is the panel's second longest-serving member. When Boon played Test cricket for the first time, against West Indies in 1984, his team-mates were being tenderised by four blokes bowling fireballs. His captain was writing out his resignation note. Malcolm Marshall had promised to come around the wicket and kill him. Boon killed time. Two-hundred-and-thirty-six minutes he batted. Fifty-one runs he made. He went on to play another 106 matches for Australia in which he bowled a grand total of 36 balls.

Boon batted, that first time he played Test cricket, at No. 6.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vanguard on January 17, 2009, 10:34 GMT

    That was a good read.

    My opinion is that against India and South Africa we couldnt land the telling blows with the ball. Sure our batting was frail at times, but we had opportunities and didnt take them.

    Pick 5 batsmen, Haddin, and 5 bowlers.

    With a combination of Johnson, Kreija, Siddle, Lee, Hauritz, Hilfenhaus & Bollinger I am confident that, for the most part at least, the tail will contribute strongly. On the occassions that they dont, well thats just cricket and they have to back themselves to bowl sides out.

    Cricket is a simple game: to win, you have to take 20 wickets. At the moment, we just cant do it.

    I have liked what i have seen from the new boys in the attack, but my personal preference for the 5 bowlers would be Lee, Johnson, Kreija, Siddle and Hilfenhaus. I would take Hauritz and Bollinger on ever tour however, and bowl them when conditions suit.

  • Vishnu27 on January 16, 2009, 16:29 GMT

    It's not a groundbreaking, earth shattering relevation we are talking about here. It is a concept of the game everyone wants to maximise; an extra bat & that extra bowler. It is fairly common knowledge in world cricket that Australia & ever test playing nation covets an all-rounder of the calibre of Kallis, or even Vettori. It's a fascination of the game, a guy that come in & routinely do it all. There is dearth in world cricket of such players. Kallis is probably the only one of true allrounder status in the game. Vettori is a good finger spinner & a vastly improved bat, Flintoff is primarily a bowler, who when on form can hit the ball, Oram has his moments, India appear to have given up on Pathan, Afridi rarely plays due to the nature of Pakistani cricket. There are others. Every country flirts with the idea of an allrounder. Completely aside: there is reason for Brad Hodge not being in the test team: he CANNOT play the short ball. Hodge should NEVER EVER wear the baggygreen again!

  • thewombat on January 16, 2009, 14:40 GMT

    I agree with 'TheMissingAllrounder' who backed up my points, and illustrates that while other posters, and Christian, may have a point about a batsman at 6 being better than a at best moderate allrounder...they miss the point that we MUST have an allrounder otherwise all our bowlers will be overworked into the surgeon's room. Advocating this over a 'bits and pieces' player seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face insanity.

    However if a true allrounder is what's required, I agree with 'Governor', look towards Henriques! I don't know if I'd take him to the Ashes yet as he's so young, but long term he might be the solution.

  • BigWillieStyle on January 16, 2009, 2:37 GMT

    What planet is this bloke on? Alan Davidson a "true allrounder" who could have claimed a Test spot in either batting or bowling?? Davo is certainly in Australia's top ten best ever bowlers, but he had a first-class and Test batting average sitting in the low 20s, and never scored a Test century! Greg Matthews has far greater claims to being a Test allrounder than Davidson.

    And why isn't Gilchrist on the list of Australia's only "true" allrounders? Was it his batting or his keeping that let him down?

  • eyballfallenout on January 16, 2009, 2:30 GMT

    We must stick with the best of what we have, at the moment we have a better 4 fast bowling attack than a 3 + spinner attack so we should go with that, we also have 6 great batsman but no great al-rounder so team should be 6 great batsmen 1 wicket keeper and 4 fast bowlers. it would be a really good side. katich, new guy, ponting, clarke, hussy, new guy, haddin, lee, clark, johnson, siddle. then we make all our wickets green tops, and teams would struggle against us.

  • 7bish7 on January 16, 2009, 1:28 GMT

    Outstanding article. Good to see sports journalism can still be extremely well structured...moving on to the cricket, why can't the selectors see that between Johnson, Krejza (if they'd pick him) and Siddle they are likely to produce at least 1 tail-end score per innings? Along with a genuine number 6, that makes for a deep batting line-up. Then you have 4 quality bowlers, plus M Hussey, D Hussey (if they'd pick him) and Clarke who can bowl. Consider it "Collective flexibility" instead of 1 man expected to provide that extra dimension.

  • Ben99.94 on January 16, 2009, 0:45 GMT

    I think Christians definition of someone who could make the side for either discipline is a bit harsh. I'm happy to say that the greats are those who could make the side doing either but there is room for the good who could make the side doing one or the other. I think he is also unecessarily harsh on McDonald, and his outlook reeks of having been spoilt by the past 10 years of batsman who averaged over 50 and bowlers who went sub 25 runs per wicket. As far as I am concerned any person who averages above 35 and bats in the top 6 of a line up has the right to be referred to as a good test cricketer, same goes for averaging 25-32 with the ball. Plus 45 for an average and you go down as a great player, plus 50 - use whatever superlatives you want.

  • chapnis on January 16, 2009, 0:34 GMT

    Poos to Aussie! We have got Jacob Oram!

  • TheMissingAllrounder on January 16, 2009, 0:19 GMT

    The article, while interesting, is flawed. Virtually all test innings use at least five bowlers, frequently six. So selectors often pick as their sixth batsman someone who can bowl a bit if no-one in the first five fits the bill. Steve Waugh was picked for this reason in his early days. He gave up bowling to prolong his batting career but the selectors probably wouldn't have persisted with him if it wasn't for his bowling. His early batting returns were pretty poor after all.

    In the Warne-McGrath era, Australia were spoilt not only in having two bowlers who could regularly destroy batting line-ups but in having the same two bowlers able to bowl long spells so we rarely needed more than four. But with our current attack, we definitely need a fifth bowler who can take some of the load off the other four. If Clarke or Katich were willing to bowl more they might fit the bill but both seem reluctant to injure themselves by bowling too much. So we need a Symonds, Watson or McDonald.

  • arya_underfoot on January 16, 2009, 0:18 GMT

    wont be long before mitchell johnson is selected at no.6 i reckon, unless we get rid of hilditch and his buddies, and replace them with professional full-time selectors who're not necessarily former test players.

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