April 30, 2013

'Players can become jaded playing all forms of the game'

John Inverarity talks about the challenges of selection, the future of Australian cricket, and the forthcoming tour to England

On April 24, John Inverarity named the squad that may define his tenure as national selector - Australia's Ashes tour party. Over the preceding 18 months Inverarity presided over a panel that introduced numerous young talented fast bowlers, but they have found it harder to identify genuine batsmen for the future. Inverarity spoke about the challenges that have confronted the selectors in that time, and looked ahead to the England tour.

You have had a view of Australian cricket from the outside. How do you feel about it now, having been on the inside for a time?
I'm not sure that it's changed much, because before I got into this position I was obviously following it very closely. One of the things we can really look forward to, I think, is the maturing of a lot of very good players: James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Gurinder Sandhu, spinners Ashton Agar and Nathan Lyon; allrounders James Faulkner, Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell; batsmen David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Alex Doolan, Joe Burns, Nic Maddinson, and Matt Wade with the gloves; and a number of other talented youngsters. We really hope those young players come through. But it will take time for them to mature.

I think the future is good. We are in a transition stage at the moment, and we really need those young players to mature and perform.

You mention maturing players. Is it a challenge now to find ways to help them to mature in the right way? Not just around the way cricket is today, but in wider society?
That's a good question. The cricket scene now is more fragmented than it was, with T20. If you'd said ten years ago that there wouldn't be any domestic first-class cricket in Australia in December and January, you would have thought that was not possible. The Big Bash League has been a great attraction and it's been a great success in spreading the word of cricket. But in terms of players developing momentum, it has made it rather difficult. A very good example is Alex Doolan, who has been a very promising player for some time and built up some real momentum in October-November, and then of course the next time he played a Shield match was in February. So that was difficult for him.

Society is different in some ways from what it was. There's certainly a lot of support for the young cricketers now, but developing initiative, independence, and resilience is an essential part of becoming a good cricketer, I think.

One example of that is Nic Maddinson. He's clearly extremely talented but at a stage where I've seen him attempting to hit sixes over cover in Shield games. Regarding his development as a Test-match batsman, you wonder whether T20 or other influences make that difficult?
Your summary there is exactly right. Nic Maddinson is a talented player who sees the ball early and strikes it beautifully, but there's a lot more to making 150 over four sessions in a Test match. That's the sort of player that we need. But with T20 and the boundaries in a bit, the better bats and the glitz, not as many are coming through that way. We desperately need players of the talent of Maddinson to find that gear you're talking about.

Is there anything you'd like to see change at a mentoring and development level to encourage young guys to become Test players?
It's a difficult question. I don't think anyone has got the exact answer as to why we haven't got players who bat for long periods coming through. But one thing I am sure about is that young players need to work it out for themselves. As you've alluded to before, society is different now: there's fast food and immediate gratification. I would think, for an intelligent young player with some talent looking to make his way, high on his agenda would be developing an appetite and the wherewithal to bat for long periods and make big scores.

Ricky Ponting said that he felt it's difficult for a young player playing T20 when he's still working out his role as a batsman. It's very different to what he himself did.
Ricky did, as did a lot before him, at school or in the backyard - when he got the bat, he liked batting and he was going to bat for as long as he could, until someone got him out. He probably batted all of recess time, all of lunchtime, all through after school, and most of the next morning. That's the sort of mindset we need, and that's less prevalent now than it used to be.

"Playing in all forms, players can tend to become jaded. I think Michael Clarke at the moment is benefiting greatly from having a break. Over a period of five years, my view is, you'll get more out of a player if he has appropriate breaks"

One thing many have been curious about since the forming of the high-performance regime that came out of the Argus review is how much of a place at the table you have with Cricket Australia regarding the schedule, when that's often cited as an issue.
That's CA's responsibility. They do the scheduling. It's not at our level. There'll be meetings and we'll express our views, but the fixtures are the fixtures. As simple as that.

You spent a lot of time in England with a couple of counties. What were some of the key lessons you learned there about achieving success in England?
Just playing good cricket. Having good bowlers who are patient and bowl a line and length with some movement. And batting through the difficult periods, and then being able to capitalise when the sun is out later in the afternoon, when things are a little easier. So nothing much has changed in that regard.

In 2004 Warwickshire won the championship, and it was said widely that it was the poorest side ever to win the championship in living memory, which I think the side took as a compliment because it meant that without the talent they were able to apply themselves. They played very determined cricket, game after game. They kept the pressure on for four days. It was a reward for application and bowling persistently, patiently, and for the batsmen it was about enduring the difficult periods and making hay when things got better. I think it's exactly the same here [in the Ashes] - playing consistent cricket and not panicking at any stage.

Something else that was said of that Warwickshire side was, it didn't have a star cast of bowlers but some solid batting that was used to the bowlers' advantage. This time around with Australia you have steady batting at best and a bit more of an edge among the bowlers.
We just used the resources we had. We had a steady bowling side at best. As in anything, you go with the best that you have and you apply yourself really well, prepare really well, and do as well as you can. I think with this Australian side, there's 11 weeks before the first Test, and there'll be a lot of preparation, physical and mental, and I think we'll be really well prepared when the Test series starts.

Rotation got a big run in the newspapers last summer. You'd said yourself at the start of the season, "Rotation isn't a dirty word, rotation is reality."
I was talking then about Pat Cummins four or five days before we knew he had a stress fracture. He's a fine young talent but we were fully aware he would not be able to play six Tests in a row; at most three or four out of six. It was also obvious when we were in the West Indies just over 12 months ago that Ryan Harris was a wonderful bowler who's had some fitness issues. He was, as I recall, the Man of the Match in the first Test. But he was obviously not going to be able to play the three Tests. So he was managed in the second and came back strongly in the third. That's just a reality.

The first [Ashes] Test starts in 11 weeks. If you look back at the two years before that, injuries aside, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc have been managed and prepared as well as can be expected. Mitchell in the 12 months, from when he played two Tests against New Zealand, then one against India, then went to the West Indies as a project player, then played the last Test, had some exposure at Yorkshire, then Australia A, then came in and played the third Test against South Africa, then the first and third Tests against Sri Lanka. He was having some trouble with his ankle. He went to India and played two Tests. He's had the bone spurs removed. In reality he's had as perfect a preparation for the first [Ashes] Test as could be wished for.

The rotation of bowlers is a reality, but is there a fundamentally different attitude that needs to be taken with batsmen? Do they require more consistency because it can mess with their heads if they're shuffled around?
I think that's exaggerated. It does not stand up to scrutiny. Missing a game or two for an elite professional cricketer, who plays all three formats and for numerous teams, should not be an issue at all. Players regularly come back from a prolonged layoff for injury and bat brilliantly. A recent example is Shane Watson's superb 122 against West Indies in Canberra after not playing for more than six weeks.

Playing in all forms, players can tend to become jaded. I think Michael Clarke at the moment is benefiting greatly from having a break. Over a period of five years, my view is you'll get more out of a player if he has appropriate breaks. And of course that creates opportunity for others. Jackson Bird playing for Starc in the Boxing Day Test was a great benefit to Australian cricket.

A question that keeps coming up, particularly in reference to the India tour, was, why doesn't Steve O'Keefe get picked?
Steve O'Keefe is a very good cricketer. He's taken wickets, and he's a steady batsman. Whenever we've been at the selection table, we've marginally preferred other players to him. But he's still regarded as a good cricketer. We're very aware of his figures and we do look deeper than that. But there's a panel of five of us and there's a consistency of view when we select the spinners.

As a selection panel you've used limited-overs formats to stretch younger players, at least partly to see whether they might be capable performers in Test matches. However, the selections of Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell for Tests in India, largely on the strength of their ODI displays, did not produce great results. How informative was that in terms of recognising Shield performance?
It was unfortunate that Jon Holland and Michael Beer were injured and could not be considered. Our spin bowling stocks were significantly reduced. The immediate future looks considerably brighter with these two players regaining fitness, Nathan Lyon having done well in Delhi, Ashton Agar and Fawad Ahmed performing very well at the end of the domestic season, and Steve O'Keefe continuing to perform consistently.

Xavier Doherty is a very reliable bowler and in the Tests in India he was able to provide a good level of control. Glenn Maxwell captured seven wickets in the two Tests at an average of 27.57. It was very unfortunate that the one day on the tour he was ill was when India batted - on the second day of the fourth Test in Delhi - and the wicket was turning square.

Nathan Lyon had a topsy turvy India tour, but he finished the series well, and has now struck up a mentoring relationship with Stuart MacGill. He had worked with Ashley Mallett before the India tour. How have you viewed his progress, and the challenge of finding the right people to mentor him?
I consider it very important for spin bowlers to establish a relationship with others who are, or have been, successful spin bowlers. They do well to have soul-mates. People like MacGill, Mallett and others have a great deal to offer. In the West Indies just over 12 months ago Lance Gibbs told me that when in Australia in 1960-61, he constantly sought the company and advice of then recently retired Australian offspinner Ian Johnson, and then in England soon after, he sought out Jim Laker. Lance wanted to talk about his craft with those who had had successful careers as offspinners. He indicated he learnt a great deal from them.

Lyon has done well for Australia and he is learning all the time. He is only 25, has considerable upside, and the selection panel looks forward to him improving steadily over the next few years.

Ricky Ponting retired at the end of the South Africa series, while Michael Hussey was still going very well, and then he surprised everyone by saying he'd decided to retire. He's subsequently said he didn't convey his intentions because he didn't want to be shuffled out. Would Ricky conceivably still be playing for Australia if you'd known about Michael?
All you can deal with is what's going on at the time. Ricky made his decision just before the third Test against South Africa. His mind was very clear. A month later we learned of Mike's decision, and he was very clear there. We certainly didn't see Mike's decision coming. But they're two separate decisions. And we've lost a lot of experience with those two.

I wanted to ask about the media side of things inherent in your role. It's fair to deduce you still think selectors should have a certain distance or mystique to them. How have you dealt with that and have you found it more challenging than you expected?
Times change and there's an expectation of a national selector being in the media. I'm asked a lot of questions and I'm forthcoming, but there's always a word or a sentence here or there that will be taken up. It's a challenge.

Do you feel that you communicate better in a conversation than in a TV-friendly sound bite?
That's for others to judge, but I certainly enjoy conversations.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here