Selectors make 'harsh' call on Steven Smith
Australia's selectors have jettisoned the young allrounder Steven Smith for next month's Test series in Sri Lanka, after previously giving every indication they were intent on persevering with him.
Having played five Test matches with varying degrees of success since his debut against Pakistan at Lord's in 2010, Smith is now the latest victim of a cycle that has churned through 12 spin bowlers since Shane Warne retired in 2007.
Smith's place has been effectively taken by two players. One is Nathan Lyon, the gifted South Australian slow bowler who has played only four Sheffield Shield matches and is currently in the midst of his first ever pre-season with the Redbacks after being the break-out success of Australia A's tour of Zimbabwe.
The other is Shaun Marsh, the talented but not yet prolific West Australian who will compete with another left-hander, Usman Khawaja, for the spot in the Australian top seven that has been vacated by Smith.
Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors who is widely expected to be removed from his post after the Argus Review tables its findings about the performance of the national team, argued that Smith had not made a spot his own.
"It's a very harsh call on Steven. He was very disappointed when I spoke to him, which I would expect," Hilditch said. "We really made an assessment, and as I spoke to Steve about, that we didn't think he'd cemented a spot in the top six batters and we didn't think he'd cemented a spot as a spinner.
"We really think the best thing for him, and Australian cricket, is that he [first] cements his position in the short forms of the game and plays some more Shield cricket, and gets better at both those skills. I think it's important that people realise that we're hardly moving away from him."
Hilditch went on to say the selection was specific to Sri Lankan conditions, which seemed highly odd given that Smith's skills and SCG upbringing seem to make him better suited to the subcontinent than anywhere else.
A batting technique best described as homespun is more likely to confound slow bowlers than fast ones, while Smith's bowling would have offered the squad greater flexibility. Now the vice-captain Shane Watson can expect to bowl long spells as the third seamer or the captain Michael Clarke to deliver more overs than he would like as the second spinner.
Lyon's selection is rightly touted as a happy tale, and one that harks back to less regimented times. But his preparation for the rigours of Test match bowling have been rudimentary, and he struggled with the physical demands of consecutive Shield matches late last summer.
"In an ideal world it would be nice if he'd played more Shield cricket, there's no doubt about that," said Hilditch. "But from our perspective we're very confident that he's ready. He's a very talented spin-bowler, he's had a meteoric rise. It was one of the great parts of my job to call him this morning and tell him he's got the opportunity to play for Australia.
"We've followed him closely coming through from limited-overs cricket. He then played very well in the Shield games but it was of course a very big learning curve for him as well. We took him to Zimbabwe and he was player of the series, albeit in the one-day series there. Really, the feedback we got from everyone there -- the selector on that tour and the coaching staff -- was that he really impressed as being ready to play international cricket."
"The reason he wasn't in the longer form of the game in Zimbabwe was simply that we thought Jason [Krejza] and Michael Beer deserved the first opportunity to impress ahead of Sri Lanka."
Krejza's omission maintains his topsy turvy run at the fringes of the national team. An apparent inability to drop into a consistent rhythm over long spells has counted significantly against him, but it remained surprising to hear that Krejza had managed to bowl himself from the top of Australia's Test slow bowling ranks to the bottom in the space of one brief tour to Zimbabwe.
Beer was victor in that duel, but Hilditch now painted a demanding picture of what would be required of him in Sri Lanka. Having never taken more than three wickets in a first-class innings, Beer will fly to the island nation as Australia's lead Test spin bowler, and if he does not thrive against skilful Sri Lankan batsmen on pitches of their choosing he will likely be thrown aside just as Smith and plenty of others have been.
"It'll be a very important tour for Michael Beer in particular," said Hilditch. "We thought he bowled well [in the fifth Ashes Test] without much luck, so you'd expect him to play in Sri Lanka in fairly good conditions but against high quality batters, so it'll be a big test for him but we think he's up to it.
"In the end all players are assessed on performance, everybody has to perform to play cricket for Australia. Obviously the hope is that they play really well and move on from there."
Among the batsmen, Marsh and Khawaja will now be counting down to Australia's lone warm-up match before the first Test, for it will be their one chance to dictate which of the two will seal a spot in Australia's batting order, most probably at No. 6. Marsh has the job ahead of him to prove that his talent can be allied to Test match concentration, so attractive starts become substantial innings. It is a quality Khawaja possesses, but in Zimbabwe his form deserted him and he is not known as a particularly adept player of spin.
"Shaun Marsh is someone we've identified for several years as someone we think can have an impact in international cricket," Hilditch said. "I think if you look carefully last year, he really did turn the corner as far as consistency of performance at Shield level. He got some really big scores and was really hampered by injuries at the most critical times, just before Ashes selection and just before World Cup selection.
"So we think he was ready last year and playing very well and scoring big runs for WA. I agree that's a stage that a lot of young batters need to make, where they go from being talented to actually nailing Shield cricket, and we thought Shaun had made real progress last year. If not for injury I think it would've been very different. He's worked very hard on those issues, you won't find anybody assessing him say anything other than he's a very talented player."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo