August 3, 2011

Is there a method in the Australian selectors' madness?

The panel seems to be acting without rhyme or reason, mainly on the idea of shaking the tree until Test players emerge

From the moment Nathan Hauritz was omitted from the bulging squad named for the first Ashes Test last winter it was clear that the Australian selectors were embarking upon a risky voyage in search of a cricket team capable of reclaiming top place in the rankings. Defeats might be suffered but Australia was not going to rest till the job had been complete.

Put another way, Greg Chappell has joined the panel. If it was not a move calculated to stir the waters then Cricket Australia did not know its man. Ever since, the panel has been an uneasy alliance between Andrew Hilditch's cautious methodology, Jamie Cox's ambitious analysis and Chappell's restless radicalism. Common sense left the panel on the day Merv Hughes, so much underestimated, was ousted.

Of course there is nothing wrong with having a range of voices and dispositions on a committee. Everything depends on whether the balance works. In this case the decisions seem to lurch between the stated positions, and the panel seems to be acting without rhyme or reason. Consistency requires a theme and a time frame. As it stands, some selectors think about today, others focus on tomorrow, and one seems to concentrate on five years yonder.

Hauritz's offence was not so much that he had been unable to trouble the Indian batsmen on their own pitches. He is not the first tweaker to not leave India bloodied and bruised. In any case it was not entirely his fault. Part of Australia's problem has been that Ricky Ponting was a poor captain of spinners. Far from nursing them or playing to their strengths, he sometimes set ridiculous fields and used them in fits and starts.

Nor was Hauritz's absence from the crucial Oval Test in 2009 decisive. His omission was a horrible mistake, founded upon an extraordinary misreading of the pitch. Still, he was hardly knocking the door down to take part, a response indicating a lack of self-belief. However, he took wickets against obliging West Indies and Pakistan outfits, thereby repairing the damage, or so it appeared. He seemed certain to start the last Ashes series.

Instead he was included only in the party of 17 announced 10 days before the first Test - a debacle, by the way, that ought to cost those responsible their jobs - and cut from the squad that convened in Brisbane. Hauritz was omitted because he was deemed to be a lightweight. That he was the most reliable spinner in the country was not enough. In Chappell's eyes, especially, he was not a Test spinner, did not have the strength of mind or deliver a heavy enough ball. According to this outlook, it's not the good or poor players that are the problem, it's the ones in between.

Dropping Hauritz and summoning an unproven lefty with a modest record but improved form for the first Test of an eagerly awaited Ashes series to be played against a rising England outfit was not so much a gamble as an inevitable consequence of that ruthless, seeking attitude. When Xavier Doherty failed to grasp his chance the panel ditched him and chose another bloke, Michael Beer, a West Australian few insiders had come across. He looked serviceable, not unlike Paul Harris of South Africa. Now Nathan Lyon has been added to the list.

It appears the selectors are working their way through the hopefuls in search of the solution. Not that the cricketing public is as sanguine. In their eyes playing cricket for Australia has become a lucky dip run by the mad hatter and chums. Others compare the selectors to an Idols panel. As far as punters are concerned, Hilditch lacks the wisdom detected in predecessors like Laurie Sawle and Trevor Hohns, whilst Chappell is dismissed as lacking judgement. Suffice it to say the panel cannot survive another chaotic campaign.

Not that all is quite lost. Admittedly Lyon was working on the grounds at the Adelaide Oval a few months ago but he comes from a cricketing family in Canberra and had gone south in search of opportunity. Darren Berry, South Australia's Twenty20 coach, spotted him making up the numbers in a practice match and threw him into a team as part of a successful strategy of preparing turning tracks and focusing on spin. It's the sort of story usually told in Pakistan, not hitherto regarded as a reliable role model.

Inexperienced, untested, mostly unknown, Lyon has only one thing going for him. By the look of things he can bowl. Certainly his deliveries drop and spin and occasionally fizz. He has been chosen not because he is ready or the best around but because he might mature into a Test tweaker. Mind you, much the same was said about Dan Cullen, a promising offie from the same neck of the woods, whose teasing flight excited amateur observers without especially endangering opposing batsmen. But his action was not as strong as the newcomer's. Lyon's game is built on solid foundations. It's possible the selectors might have found their man. Let's hope so. The jury is about to deliver its verdict.

Not that spin has been the only problem. Australia managed to go into the last Test of the Ashes series with a sketchy opening batsman, a callow fourth drop and, perforce, a novice at first wicket down. It was not an order likely to worry a superb England attack determined to complete the demolition job and capable of swinging the ball around in a manner supposedly no longer possible. Injuries to stalwarts like Ponting and Simon Katich did not help, but truth to tell the batting lacked any semblance of authority.

Australia's refusal to choose Brad Hodge, David Hussey and Cameron White confirmed that the new panel is intent on selecting not so much the best players around as cricketers deemed capable of becoming imposing Test cricketers in the Australian tradition. Evidently the three were judged not quite up to scratch, mostly due to weaknesses on the back foot. Nor did stop gaps appeal. Like Hauritz, too, they lack the special ingredient that sets champions apart, or so the panel has concluded. Presumably Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott would have passed muster.

Australia's youngsters need to perform now or the sound of sharpening swords will be heard in every corner of the Australian cricketing community, and the heads on the block will be those of the selectors and those responsible for their appointment

The commitment to shaking the tree until Test players emerge is an idea that in a trice became a formula. At least as far as batting is concerned it may not suit the times. So much has changed in the education of young batsmen. The IPL has seen to that. Over the years Australians have concentrated on footwork. No nation has used its feet as well. Elsewhere shoulder, wrist, hands and head might be emphasised; down under, it is the pegs. Nowadays, though, clearing the front leg is regarded as more important than moving quickly and precisely into position. As David Warner and others could confirm, it is hard to go from disorder to order. India is facing the same challenge. Techniques are not so much deteriorating as becoming more flexible and less secure. The short and merry life can make millions.

Accordingly the selectors' faith in young batsmen has so far been unrewarded. That might not last. True talent usually finds a way. But the disregard shown by the selectors for batsmen with old-fashioned virtues like patience and tried and trusted techniques is overdone. Moreover it is a false reading of the Australian cricketing experience. Bill Lawry was not an especially attractive batsman but he put a high price on his wicket, frustrated many new-ball attacks and protected the middle order. It takes all sorts to make a cricket team, even an Australian team.

In one respect the selectors have been unlucky. Australia does have plenty of promising young speedsters. The selectors could not keep relying on Ben Hilfenhaus, a willing workhorse undone by a wonky back, or Mitchell Johnson, supposedly the leader of the attack but as often as not a liability. No wonder the cricket community was delighted to find Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and others working their way rapidly through the ranks.

Alas most of these raw newcomers have been injured and cannot be called up. Happily Pattinson has recovered and is in the squad to tour Sri Lanka. More will be heard of him. But the rest have been held back and the last place was given to Trent Copeland, an English-style seamer capable of using his height, keeping a line and length, moving the ball about and preying upon weaknesses.

Copeland's selection seems out of place because he is a grafter. Certainly he is not likely to scare any opponents or change the course of a match with a burst. Nor is he suited to conditions in Sri Lanka. But he gets bounce, stays fit, can bowl all day - indeed, gets irritated when he is withdrawn - and generally makes batsmen work for their runs. Oh yes, and he has taken a lot of Shield wickets at a respectable rate. It's not everything but it's a start.

It's going to be an interesting year for Australian cricket, and a telling one for the selectors. Heavily criticised for dumping Katich, they need to convince sceptics that they know their business. Patience is running out. As JM Keynes observed, "In the long run we are all dead." Australia's youngsters need to perform now or the sound of sharpening swords will be heard in every corner of the Australian cricketing community, and the heads on the block will be those of the selectors and those responsible for their appointment. As it stands, the prevailing view is that Chappell and Hilditch cannot work together and that Australian cricket has been undone not so much by their conflicting philosophies but by their want of acumen.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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