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