May 20, 2009

The madness of Digger Hilditch

It's hard to think of an Ashes squad weirder than the one picked by the NSP

Picking Australian cricket teams has got a lot more complicated since the days when the NSP was merely called the national selection panel, its simple task being to pick the country's six best batsmen, four best bowlers and a wicketkeeper. And the longer NSP chairman Andrew Hilditch spoke this morning, the more the complications swirled.

"Um," he said, "in the end result, um, I suppose it came down to a consideration of, you know, we were very happy with the top six that played in South Africa [and] it would be hard to see us moving away from that."

Not all that hard, surely, Digger? What if someone in the top six gets hurt? What if new boy Marcus North finds conquering capable English seamers on helpful English pitches less than a doddle? What if Mike Hussey - two fifties in his past 16 Test outings - continues to bat with the comfort and fluency of a haemorrhoids-stricken man grappling to find a cure for cancer?

And as you contemplated these questions, questions that went unasked at this morning's press conference, you looked at Ricky Ponting, sitting to Hilditch's left. And you felt for poor Bradley John Hodge of Sandringham. And you wondered whether perhaps the VB logos on the collar of Ponting's shirt stood not for Victoria Bitter but for Bitter Victorian.

And meanwhile you re-read the team sheet and you did the math and it dawned on you that, in a touring party of 16, the selectors had named only six specialist batsmen.

But, um, Hilditch sort of explained, you are forgetting Shane Watson - "a batter" who, at a pinch, might "give us a few quality overs". Right. So Watson is a batsman, a you-beaut one at that, accomplished enough to command a spot in the XI whether he is bowling or not. Sounds feasible. Then Hilditch kept talking.

"Um, and in addition, which is very important for us, he gives us quality pace bowling … As an extra player, ah, providing options within the group, um, we thought Shane Watson was the right choice."

And at that point you really wished someone would ask: well, Digger, which is it? Is Watson a batter? Bowler? Allrounder? Please, Digger, which is it?

And then you started to long for those innocent pre-NSP days when an allrounder was someone whose expertise lay in batting and bowling, not in providing options within the group.

In truth, Australia's selectors are clueless when it comes to determining who is Australia's best No.6. In fairness, working it out is not as easy as it once was. Fringe batsmen no longer get tested by world-class attacks in Sheffield Shield cricket. Old-time Bradman's XI versus McCabe's XI trial matches were abolished yonks ago. Klinger, Khawaja, Pomersbach, Henriques and Voges are just so many names in the newspaper small print.

Possibly the selectors do not rate Hodge or Callum Ferguson as being quite good enough - or surely one of them would today fill the spot occupied by Andrew McDonald. Probably the best batsman in Australia not getting a look-in is Chris Rogers. Rogers is an opener. It has seemingly occurred to no one that Simon Katich, a Test opener by default courtesy of Phil Jaques's travails, and a fine batsman, would be just as fine, and perhaps even finer, in the middle order, where he has after all batted almost all his life. Not once have the selectors tried a top six of Hughes, Rogers, Katich, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey. It looks a lot like an Ashes-winning top six.

If Phillip Hughes proves unbowlable, and if Ponting lives up to his career average, none of this will matter. If not, Australia's batting looms as one of two big potential problems.

Their other big potential problem is their bowling. The plan is to field four fast bowlers, subscribing to the reasonable-sounding logic that you pick your best bowlers and Australia's best bowlers are fast bowlers. History tells us that unless those four fast bowlers are super-powered and West Indian, the plan is doomed. Four quicks won't achieve what three can't. What invariably happens is that the fourth fast bowler hardly bowls. The lack of variety becomes mind-twistingly apparent to all. And finally, reluctantly, the selectors turn to a spinner.

Australia have picked only one of these, Nathan Hauritz, not because he spins the ball sharpest or loops it highest but because he is regarded as the one least likely to get slaughtered - or, in Digger-speak, because "in the end, for the balance we want in the side, which we think is a spinner that can assert lots of pressure and maintain pressure". A back-up plan involving some unassertive offies from Marcus North, whose mid-40s average flatters him, is hardly a plan at all.

They're a weird mob, all right, that Hilditch and his three helpers have chucked together. It is hard to think of any Australian Ashes squad weirder.

"England's ability to over-theorise and complicate the game of cricket is legendary," observed Ian Chappell 15 years ago. "Ever since I became involved in Ashes battles, I've felt that Australia could rely on some assistance from the England selectors."

Too true, eh? Get that man a job on the NSP. Get three others, any others, to join him. For Australia's selectors have gone mad, madder even than England's.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009