October 20, 2009

Days of blind hope

Selection trials are obsolete now, and the big players hardly ever play domestic cricket. How does the modern selector judge who is a future Test cricketer and who isn't?

Jackson or Bradman - who to pick first? It is a tantalising choice, yet also a puzzle, and it happened not in make-believe but in October and November of 1928.

Four times in four weeks, again and again and again, the two shiniest talents in all of New South Wales, one from the grime-streaked dockside suburbs, the other from the tulip-growing highlands, batted off for supremacy. The prize was a place in the Test side to meet Percy Chapman's Englishmen. First they had to negotiate an official trial outing, for The Rest against an Australian XI, where it was Archie Jackson who outdid Donald Bradman, but narrowly, inconclusively. They were sent back to the state team, for two more matches, and it was Bradman was the power. Jackson cracked two fifties, Bradman three hundreds, enough almost for the selectors to say that was that.

But not quite. A blister of doubt remained: he could plunder the hapless, this young Don, but who had the steel for a crisis - Jackson or Bradman?

Sydney Cricket Ground was the stage for the fourth and most exacting test of their mettles. Chapman's men were to play an Australian XI. Except the Victorians, insulted by the offer of a pound a day for expenses, did not show up. Selectors Bardsley, Bean, Dolling and Hutcheon all did. Jackson went in at four, Bradman at five. Jackson, pale, and worryingly lean, had recently turned 19; Bradman was 20. When a third wicket fell they were at the crease together. Soon it was the last over before lunch.

Harold Larwood bowled and Bradman edged - and got lucky. The ball bounced in front of third slip and Bradman was away, 4 not out. Two balls later Jackson edged Larwood and third slip caught it knee-high.

No one reached 40 that day; no one but Bradman, that is, who batted slower than he ever had or ever would again, unflustered by the "have a hit" pleas of the 11,000 watching, for 58 not out. Within a fortnight Bradman was in the Test team. Jackson had to wait. And time was something of which Jackson had too, too little.

Picking Bradman not Jackson was a guess, but it was as educated a guess as could possibly be arranged. That was the ritual. Australia's best regularly tested themselves against Australia's best in the Sheffield Shield. Each Shield team played a game against that summer's tourists. The tourists, before the opening Test, would face a composite Australian XI in what was effectively a selection trial. Sometimes a composite Australian XI would play another composite Australian XI, called The Rest, in a second selection trial. Later, if a big overseas tour was coming up, a third selection trial might be whistled up between, say, Ryder's XI and Woodfull's XI. This would double as a testimonial fundraiser for out-of-penny old cricketers.

Selectors were the winners. Put through so gruelling a cross-examination, any budding Test player with frailties could not hope to hide them from the selectors. Crowds were big and the stakes high at these selection trials, where dreams sometimes came true and other times came a cropper.

Tall Lisle Nagel, a swing bowler, got to know both sensations. Hurling into the wind, his bandaged elbow flapping - he'd hurt it cranking a car - Nagel took eight wickets in 10 overs for an Australian XI against MCC, catapulting himself into the opening stoush of the Bodyline series. His bounce and swerve were awkward, his prospects looked bright. A year later, relaxing between overs for Richardson's XI versus Woodfull's XI, Nagel perched beside Tiger O'Reilly in slips. "He turned to tell me something," O'Reilly would later recall, "and ricked his neck. I never saw him play again."

Big-swinging Les Favell's last chance of a maiden Ashes voyage hinged on a 1955-56 selection shootout between Johnson's XI and Lindwall's XI. Favell's mate, Gil Langley, mucked up a simple stumping chance offered by Favell's rival, John Rutherford, who proceeded to make 113 seldom pretty but pretty remorseless runs. Favell himself, in reply, got as far as 4 - then, calamity. "Alan Davidson," he rued, "produced one of his wizard balls which swung about a foot in the last yard… England was getting further away." Rutherford rubbed it in by fiddling out Neil Harvey on 96.

Stuff-ups are run-of-the-mill nowadays, in the era of not many tour games, no selection trials, no best-against-the-rest testimonial matches, no Test stars slumming it in domestic ranks, zero rigour to the selection process. Zero is just about the average Sheffield Shield attendance

"Hey! You're not supposed to be taking wickets."

"That's right. Isn't it a funny game?"

Few laughed when Frank Ward, not Clarrie Grimmett, won a seat on the boat to England in 1938. Bradman's greatest stuff-up, they cried, and they were right no doubt - or almost no doubt, for actually in five lead-up matches, bowling a comparable number of overs, for the South Australian team, Bradman's team, Ward took 22 wickets, Grimmett 21. Dumping Grimmett was theoretically consistent with the Australian selection ethos: watch a player at length, in all possible conditions, against rich and varying opposition, then pick on form.

Stuff-ups are run-of-the-mill nowadays, in the era of not many tour games, no selection trials, no best-against-the-rest testimonial matches, no Test stars slumming it in domestic ranks, zero rigour to the selection process. Zero is just about the average Sheffield Shield attendance. Yet as recently as 1992-93 an Australian summer began with Dean Jones, Damien Martyn and two Waughs fighting out a slightly bitter and very public five-week tussle for three batting spots. "You're ending his Test career," warned selector Jim Higgs when Jones was the unlucky one left out. And they were. But at least the selectors had reason to think, rather than blindly hope, that this might be for the best.

Seven months after Bradman pipped Jackson, a New York laboratory hosted the first public demonstration of colour TV. Colour TV's demands twist cricket further out of shape with each passing year. Players earn thousands by the hour, and teams are now called Cobras. But if the money and the gimcrack are what matters, and no one watches, no one listens out for the score on the radio, no one cares, then it's conceivable that we had it better in 1928 than we do in 2009.

And pity the modern selector. Half the positions in Australia's battling Test side - a couple of batsmen, the keeper, two or three bowlers - should be set not in stone but in quicksand. Yet probably there shall be no new blood when next the selectors meet. Because how can the modern selector judge who is a future Test cricketer and who isn't? How's a selector to know a cricketer, to get a feel for a cricketer, if he doesn't get to really see the cricketer?

Then again, it could so easily have been Bradman's edge that carried to third slip's knees and Jackson's that rolled away for four. It is an imprecise business, selecting cricketers.

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

  • Matthew on October 23, 2009, 12:27 GMT

    "How's a selector to know a cricketer, to get a feel for a cricketer, if he doesn't get to really see the cricketer?" Well a start for our selectors should at least be making the effort to see the cricketers play. Hilditch is barely contactable because he's too busy as a full time lawyer, and doesn't even take the time to watch important matches like Hayden's last, let alone watching the progress of other potential national players in the domestioc comp, cause he's doing other more important stuff like walking his bloody dog.

  • Anand on October 21, 2009, 8:03 GMT

    A wonderful article. The problem is similar if not prominent in Indian cricket. The last player to have made into test team through domestic performance was VVS Laxman. Gone are the days of U-17, U-19, U-23, A team fixtures. Meaningless tournaments like emerging players happen once in a blue moon. How many of those players actually emerged. A more disturbing and sickening trend is to select a ODI team based on T-20 performance and selecting a test team based on ODIs. S Badrinath, Sridharan Srikumar, Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, just to name from TN. Ranadeb Bose, SS Paul, RA Swaroop, Chetesh Pujara, Md Kaif, the list is endless....

  • Sakeb on October 21, 2009, 7:50 GMT

    Thank you, after quite some time I am reading a worthy piece on cricinfo. This tells us how this over-abundance of cricket is hurting the game at all levels. Thís is the reason for players coming in and being all at sea against international opposition. Being a selector seems to mean less and less as time goes by.

  • Alan on October 20, 2009, 22:16 GMT

    incidently, as a scot I'm rather pleased we've had this mini-jackson renaisance recently. He's been mentioned more in the last couple of months than he was in the previous 5 years. keep it up ;)

  • Alan on October 20, 2009, 22:14 GMT

    I pity the modern selectors only slightly. As it's them who slowly but surely chose to ignore domestic performances, dishing out near permanent places to some players, and not rewarding form in domestic cricket with ample chances at international. Look now at the situation in England. Ramprakash ignored for 3 seasons (they were right to ignore him recently, but the previous 3 years when the persevered with Bell and Vaughan? maybe not.) Kabir Ali played a single test for england, and despite topping the county wicket hauls was thrown back and never considered again. Then look at Bell and Broad, chance after chance and never being asked to go back and put together any sort of run of form for their counties. Selectors played a part in county cricket by choosing to ignore it. Boards similarly by scheduling all manner of pointless matches. For example, was there any need for 15 of englands best to be playing 7 ODIs in the county season run in?

  • Avi on October 20, 2009, 21:43 GMT

    Very interesting article which is also applicable to India. Many of our youngsters have beeen picked on promise and talent rather than actual performance because the youngsters have played so few first-class games. Thus this problem is felt most acutely in slecting Test teams. All Indian fans should be very worried about who will be part of our Test middle order when Sachin, Rahul and Laxman retire. The youngsters have barely been convincing in the ODI format let alone even being considered for Tests. I shudder at the thought of our Test middle order reading Raina, Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Yusuf Pathan, as none of them have consistently shown that they have the patience or ability to maintain success at Test level, because they simply play too few first class games.

  • Lou on October 20, 2009, 14:49 GMT

    blacksnake, not only can't you find first class cricketers who think Watson is a test opener, I have yet to find another Aussie fan, even those who like him, who thinks he is one. Farce. He's lucky they didn't pitch it up to him enough as when they did, he was a walking lbw. He is good enough to be a lower order, but Hughes must have felt that it was a slap in the face, not to mention Jacques and Rogers.

    But as long as he is fit, they'll squeeze him in somewhere.

  • A on October 20, 2009, 14:24 GMT

    adding to what JimDavis said, to add to that, I recall a massive debate as to whether Michael Clarke or Brad Hodge should make their debut in the 2004 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, or whether Lehmann should be recalled because of his experience and skills against spin bowling. And to add further to JimDavis's original point, he forgot to throw Chris Rogers into the mix of Hughes v Jacques for the openers spot. Now to add my 2 cents, a few years back, I recall Cricket Australia ordered all fit contracted players to play the first fixture of the Sheffield Shield. They should do that more often...all problems can be solved at Test level by playing more first-class cricket.

  • bikram pratap on October 20, 2009, 13:03 GMT

    Fantastic article. after long-long time i read such an in depth piece.

  • Stephen on October 20, 2009, 10:53 GMT

    Enjoyed this article a lot. But don't forget the good old days were also the time where selectors couldn't get to see players from Qld, WA and Tasmania as easily, leading to a massive bias against those states at the selection table. (Just ask Ken Muelman and Sam Trimble.) Even later on, selectors were prone to making random selections not really supportable by form eg John Watkins, Ian Davis, Trevor Chappel, Australia during WSC. I think Australian selection has been much better since the 1980s than at any other time.

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