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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Michael Ponnudurai on May 25, 2009, 7:43 GMT

    Australia paid an unnecessary price of a Test loss in South Africa for not having sufficient specialist batsmen in squad. When Marcus North fell ill, they went one batsmen short and eventually lost the 3rd Test, which I guess could have gone Aus's way had they had sufficient batsmen strength in bench to replace North. It is incomprehensible that the team at helm of affairs of Aus team selection are doing the same mistake again, this time for the Ashes. Symonds is not growing younger. But before he went into retirement, this could have been an ideal opportunity to have utilised him in a crucial series such as the Ashes in England, in place of Andrew McDonald, who has age on his side to serve Aus in future. Symonds, after the retirement of Gilchrist and Hayden, is the only player in the current Australia stable, who can win matches single handedly-someone who can counter attack to regain advantage from a crisis situation. I find the selection strange for the 1st time over the last 15 yrs

  • The on May 22, 2009, 7:51 GMT

    Hodge hasn't helped himself by shooting his mouth off, albeit justified - just ask Tait how well that works.

    You don't need 2 wk - you pick your standby keeper from County cricket. Nor do we need 2 spinners - there aren't 2 in the country. (It dawned on me during the IND tour that Sehwag would have been picked as a specialist bowler by AUS, even with a broken left hand!)

    So given that, they could have had 2 allrounders (for whatever reason unknown to those not on the NSP) and still picked Hodge or Rogers for 7 bats. Presumably they think with Haddin @ 7 we already have enough batting but it's all a bit silly. After losing the last test horribly by fielding 3 too few batsmen, they really should have known better.

  • Nick on May 22, 2009, 7:20 GMT

    "I cant remember the last batsmen who scored a 200 and got dropped next match" - Devil.Reincarnated ....That would be Jason Gillespie, mate!

  • hayden on May 22, 2009, 5:45 GMT

    Hartly has only been around a year or two see what his avg is like in another 3 years. also his home is the gabba, one of the few wickets that the ball seems around on. ofcourse he will have more dismisals than Manou who plays half his matches on the placid adelaide oval which is fast becoming the deadest of dead tracks around! aswell as south australia not being the best team in the domestic comp, if they lose by a innings which they can tend to do (hence the one south aussie in the squad), Manou is only going to have one inning behind the stumps! hes a great keeper who has finally been rewarded for his years of toil. Hartly's time will come, he has his place in the pecking order though!

  • James on May 22, 2009, 3:07 GMT

    I am so glad that Brad Hodge is not in the side. I wouldn't even pick him if he was averaging 100. Not that he ever would. But he thinks he's the best batsman in the world and expects to be picked in every Australian team. He is so far up himself that in the All Stars v Australia Twenty20 last year, he played as if he was trying to get selected in the test team instead of belting the ball to give the crowd some entertainment. Not selecting Brad Hodge is about the only thing the selectors consistently get right.

  • Michael on May 22, 2009, 1:52 GMT

    Like many people, I think Brad Hodge should have been picked. But all this business about Australia not having a spare batsman is nonsense. Shane Watson is the spare batsman. I don't think much of him as a bowler, but he's a genuine top order batsman that scored plenty of runs for Queensland last season and has a good first class record. I know his test stats aren't flash, but they will improve if he remains fit. Not saying I'd have picked him, but there is your spare bat.

    And I'm pretty sure that Chris Rogers is playing County cricket at the moment and can be pulled in at short notice when the selectors realise that Hussey really has lost it.

  • Terry on May 21, 2009, 14:39 GMT

    I agree with some of what Chris Ryan has said. My squad of 16 would be: Batsmen: R.Ponting, M.Clarke, S.Katich, P.Hughes, C.Rogers, M.Klinger. Wicky: B.Haddin Alrounders: M.North, S.Watson, J.Hopes. Fast Bowlers: M.Johnson, P.Siddle, B.Hilfenhaus, D.Nannes, D.Christian. Spin Bowlers: N.Hauritz

    This would allow a mixture of experience and up&commers. Rogers & Klinger have each scored 1200 runs average 70-75 over 8-11 matches. Hopes, Nannes & Christian each average 4 wickets per match, with Nannes a left hand fast bowler.

    N.Hauritz has achieved the most wickets by a spinner in Season 08/09 First class in Australia.

    My XI would be: (1)S.Katich (2)P.Hughes (3)C.Rogers (4)R.Ponting (5)M.Clarke (6)S.Watson (7) B.Haddin (8)J.Hopes (9)M.Johnson (10)N.Hauritz (11)D.Nannes.

  • Harit on May 21, 2009, 13:30 GMT

    What's Andrew McDonald doing there? He's the 3rd allrounder after Johnson and Watson. Yet no backup batsman? I know it's easy to fly someone in at short notice nowadays to cover - but what do they do if one of them wakes up on the morning of the test with the flu? Neither McDonald, nor Watson are the 7th best bastmen in the country. Picking 16 players for England isn't that hard. Your best 7 batsman, your best 2 wicket-keepers, your best 5 fast/medium pacers and your best 2 spinners. IF all your bowlers are rubbish with the bat then you can start looking at alternatives. However, given that Johnson averages almost 35 and Lee over 20, there's really no need. My squad would have been...Batsmen: Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Phillip Hughes, Michael Hussey, Marcus North, Simon Katich, Chris Rogers; WK: Brad Haddin, Graham Manou; Spinners: Nathan Hauritz, Jason Krejza; Seamers: Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Brett Lee, Peter Siddle, Stuart Clark

  • Andrew on May 21, 2009, 11:34 GMT

    "Australia's batting looms as one of two big potential problems.

    Their other big potential problem is their bowling."

    Well that's is mostly about batting and bowling..

  • Trent on May 21, 2009, 10:33 GMT

    Hodge must not be a very popular guy. His skills are there, but I get the impression he is not well liked. I dont think he is a good team man. Maybe thats why.

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