March 11, 2009

Vive le new boys

The likes of Phil Hughes and Marcus North have made a case for blooding fresh talent

The performances of the likes of Marcus North have been a retort to the received wisdom that the team that stays together plays together © AFP

Brief, protracted, V-shaped, W-shaped, amphibious landing craft-shaped: no consensus exists about the form, depth or duration of the recession that may or may not be about to lurch into depression. The same seems true of the creditworthiness of Australian cricket team, below investment grade at the end of 2008, but two months later AAA-rated thanks to a stimulus package of new caps.

While England's batsmen padded their averages in Bridgetown, Australia's battled to protect theirs in Johannesburg. Conditions worked in Australia's favour: rather than pick a specialist slow bowler for the sake of it, they chose a batsman, Marcus North, who made a priceless hundred; it then turned out they did not need the spin option anyway. But they deserved their fortune. Like Mark Taylor at Old Trafford in 1997, Ricky Ponting sacrificed a short-term advantage to obtain a long-term objective in batting first, and saw it pay off.

In Durban, the toast was a 20-year-old, Phil Hughes, whose twin centuries contained 166 in boundaries as other batsmen struggled to come to terms with the conditions. There was a great deal of learned talk about the influence of the tide; for Hughes, it was the tide that comes in the affairs of men. Much of the bowling burden, meanwhile, was born by the chalk-and-cheese Victorians, Peter Siddle and Andrew McDonald, who last season were stalwarts of the Sheffield Shield not obviously destined for higher honours.

It was hard to believe that this was the same Australian team so lacklustre in Melbourne, and for good reason - it wasn't. At the time of the Boxing Day Test, Australia's selectors were holding steadfastly to the form-is-temporary-class-is-permanent line, particularly in the case of Queenslanders Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden. But Symonds looked smaller-than-life, nursing a damaged knee and a distracted mind, while Hayden had grown like Hillary Clinton towards the end of the Democratic primaries, hanging around to no purpose yet unable to believe it was over. The turnaround has been a testament to the capacity of new cricketers to restore fortunes, and perhaps a retort to the conventional wisdom that the team that stays together plays together.

It has been Australia, over the last decade or so, that has most publicly promoted continuity of selection as a cardinal virtue, depicting it as a key to success - albeit that this sometimes smacked of a confusion of cause and effect. Over the last couple of years, though, other countries have succeeded through more venturesome selection: Sri Lanka with Ajantha Mendis, Bangladesh with Shakib al-Hasan, even England with Graeme Swann. The unexpected star of the southern summer was JP Duminy, already a substantial figure, while New Zealand's best were also new arrivals, Daniel Flynn in the Test matches, Grant Elliott in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy.

The batsman whose technique has not been extensively scrutinised and the bowler whose fitness has not been compromised by years of hard labour might well enjoy advantages outweighing their "inexperience"

A Test debut, moreover, is not what it was. "I'm really proud of the kids," said Australia's coach Tim Nielsen during the Test at the Wanderers, but he must have been talking about his own. North came to the crease with a decade of first-class cricket, almost 9000 runs, and experience at five counties behind him. This might be the first major share-market crash of Hughes' lifetime, but he has already played national representative cricket in India, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Big cricket, moreover, offers experience fast: 15 months after earning his first cap, Mitchell Johnson collected his 20th at Kingsmead, and already boasts more than 160 international wickets. It also depreciates its assets quickly, particularly those involved in bowling fast: witness the cruelled careers, after early success, of Stuart Clark, Shaun Tait, Ryan Sidebottom and Laslith Malinga among others.

With this in mind, there is much to be said for promoting players before the bloom is off the rose - before long-term injuries take their toll, before the novelty of all those frequent-flier points wears off, before fat Indian Premier League offers instil a preference for cricket in 20-over instalments. Selection is often said to involve a judgment of whether a player is "ready for Test cricket". Perhaps it should also include an assessment of whether Test cricket is ready for a particular player. The batsman whose technique has not been extensively scrutinised and the bowler whose fitness has not been compromised by years of hard labour might well enjoy advantages outweighing their "inexperience". The opposite is also true. Making a comeback in economic policy-making circles, Keynes might also have something to teach cricket selectors, having once described the very human preference for tolerating conventional failure over taking the chance on unconventional success - a premonition, perhaps, of the Test career of Ian Bell.

For fans, too, the refreshment of new talent to enjoy, savour, dissect and debate is a tonic not to be underestimated. Economic data of the last week has Australians sensing suddenly that things will get worse before getting better. That the same might not be true of their cricket team might make that a little easier to bear.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jackneil on March 13, 2009, 7:36 GMT

    My Ashes 11: Phil Hughes, Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Brad Haddin, Jason Kreja, Bret lee, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle... but Aussies can try options like Shane Watson as a Allrounder and Ben Hilfenhuas!!!

  • riteshjsr on March 13, 2009, 4:32 GMT

    'Thewombat' - Mate, well said again. If the selectors stop thinking about an allrounder at 6, a bowler who can bat a bit (White, McDonald), and what they call 'horses for course' and just concentrate on picking the best XI, Australian cricket will be well served. On the tour to India, Krejza and McGain were the two spinners selected. But, when McGain got injured, White was flown in and he got a game ahead of Krejza. What was the point of selecting Krejza then? You made a good observation regarding Hodge. Another brilliant player who was handled very poorly is Martin Love. Played a major role in Queensland winning the Shield in 1994. Toiled for years in domestic circuit, hit double and triple hundreds, and finally earned his place in the Australian side. After being selected he hit a hundred, averaged more then 45 in the games he played but was summarily dropped soon after. What kind of selection policy is this?

  • D.V.C. on March 12, 2009, 16:25 GMT

    McGain is a new talent. How long before they blood him? Or does it only count if you aren't yet 30?

  • Spikelet on March 12, 2009, 15:26 GMT

    Marcus North, a legendary Northumberland Nomad.

  • thewombat on March 12, 2009, 14:25 GMT

    CharonTFM, you missed my point, it wasn't abt young players or not, but that the Hughes example shows the selection policy isn't clear or consistent. I think all players&fans would settle for a policy we thought was imperfect if it@least had clarity! I can't agree with you that young players are the future&old players aren't. The future of any cricket team is sustained success, which comes from players who are performing, be they young or old. If you pick young players it should be b/c their selection is MERITED, not b/c they are young. And you know what's interesting? if you simply select on merit, and stop worrying about getting more young players, or an allrounder at .6 or other such palaver, you will automically get a cross section of old&young players in your team anyway. Speaking of .6, those idiot selectors. Dropped Hodge after 200 against SA (Most of the current team too!) to pursue an ideal of a player we don't have! one example of many of the inconsistent policy

  • Wango on March 12, 2009, 5:32 GMT

    Can anyone explain why Nathan Bracken does not play test cricket??

  • lyonraw on March 12, 2009, 1:00 GMT

    Groan!!! I had to register just to comment on your financial crisis-inspired piece! it made me laugh at any rate, and how funny indeed. with respect to the cricket, good on the selectors for getting the result. i also agree that there is a NSW bias to Australian cricket, always has been, if only because more attention gets brought to players from NSW than the others. at least it stops them from winning the shield too often...

  • cricfan83552016 on March 11, 2009, 23:10 GMT

    Maybe the selectors got lucky. Maybe they were reading Peter Roebuck. Who knows? It worked it seems and we've got a side that can certainly retain the Ashes which didn't look likely back around December 31 2008. Yes I'd agree you'd call North a 'journeyman' rather than a youth but there are plenty of players who haave debuted in their late 20s and given a good 5 years of service. Wish Hussey would come good though!

    I'd say that MacDonald will get left out in Cape Town and the mysterious Bryce "The Spin Star of Tomorrow" McGain will get a go. I thought I knew a bit about cricket but I'd never heard of him before the start of this season. At 36 I don't think he's worth wasting time with - he's only a year or so younger than Warne and McGill! Give Krejza another go.

  • CharonTFm on March 11, 2009, 21:44 GMT

    Thewombat, Mate you know the Australian selectors have been there before with choosing older players who have been performing in the State level, but the problem arises when they retire. Selectors cannot afford to put a band-aid solution to Australia's cricketing future. Allowing younger players with a mixture of older players gives cricketing a brighter future. The future is with the young ones not the older generation who will retire in a few years time. Now is the perfect opportunity to allow new blood into the side and build from the bottom up.

  • Rusty_1 on March 11, 2009, 21:25 GMT

    My ashes 11: Katich, Hughes, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, North, Haddin, Johnson, Clark, Mcgain, Siddle. Clark will find his way back for sure - safe bet. Johnson, clark & siddle will be a dangerous bowling line up with Hilfy as backup, however he will be unlucky to miss out given English swing friendly pitches. Mcgain should be in the side - we need a spinner that can perform consistantly for 2 more years to allow other talent to develop ala Krejja etc. He's not going to set the world on fire like warney, but he'll do the job required. He should be given his cap for the dead rubber against SA in place of McDonald. Why he wasn't in the first place, who knows?

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