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