The Ashes 2010-11 November 15, 2010

An embarrassing dress rehearsal


The selectors' job is to make decisions but Australia's keep on delaying them. In picking a 17-man practice squad in Sydney's Circular Quay the panel has taken a roundabout route of arriving at the real unit for next week's opening Ashes Test.

In Australian cricket 17 is the number of men who usually go on an Ashes tour, or the age of Ian Craig on Test debut in 1952-53, not the size of a squad for a home game. This is the sort of embarrassing tactic expected of England between 1989 and 2002-03, when they picked and discarded so many apples.

The tourists, who have only 16 in their unit for the entire series, arrive in Hobart later today for their final warm-up before the Gabba with a squad as settled as Tasmanian cider. Ashes roles have reversed and the Australian camp can't see the shame. England deserve their laughs.

Andrew Hilditch, a solicitor and part-time chairman of selectors, looked more a man in the dock than someone prosecuting his case in Sydney. He was unconvincing when saying the panel "thought it was prudent" to wait until the conclusion of this week's round of Sheffield Shield and Australia A games before finalising the squad. If they thought it was prudent why didn't they do what they usually do? The selectors couldn't even pick the timing of the release because it didn't suit Cricket Australia's marketing.

A team ranked No.5 in Tests obviously needs a lot of pumping up from the spin department. So the announcement was delivered in a soggy park near the beautiful Sydney Harbour and the key figures and spectators were rained on. Even picking 17 players couldn't inflate the crowd, which struggled to get into three figures. PR lost to substance again.

Instead of doing the traditional, sensible thing of deciding on the squad a few days before it convened in Brisbane, the selectors had to make their choice 10 days before the game. But they didn't do any choosing. They opened the gates to allow most of the contract list in. No picking of the players they wanted and focusing on the series come what may, just a lot of hedging and more uncertainty.

Ryan Harris is in despite having a knee injury that won't go away and will struggle to last five days. The spinner Xavier Doherty gets a spot while averaging 48 as an intermittent first-class bowler. Doherty is there in case the side needs a left-arm orthodox at the Gabba instead of Nathan Hauritz's offspin.

Only three specialist left-arm spinners have played in Brisbane over the last ten Tests and all were from visiting sides. The best return was Ashley Giles' 4 for 101 off 29.2 overs in 2002-03. Hauritz has a good record against left-handers - they make up 22 of his 63 Test wickets - and England have four of them in their first-choice XI.

The young batsmen Callum Ferguson, Usman Khawaja and Steven Smith are included, at least for the duration of the Australia A game, and are really on standby in case Hilditch and Co finally lose faith in Michael Hussey or Marcus North. If they don't, which is most likely, the team will be a familiar one.

The next elimination round will lop the collection to the familiar size of 12 or 13 in time for training in Brisbane next Monday. Most of the new faces won't even make it to Queensland. Why bother stringing them along?

This is the uncertain age of Australian cricket. On Sunday two comments from the team's current and former members summed up the hazy focus. In one story Johnson told how Ricky Ponting had kept the spirits of the side up during their recent losing streak. "We are still the No.1 one-day side in the world," Ponting said, "and there is nothing to be stressed about."

In the next article Matthew Hayden, who retired in 2009, said the team had never been interested in rankings. "It's not really culturally part of the side," Hayden said. It is now. Talk of rankings - the good ones - and luck sit alongside inflated Test squads. The Barmy Army have been given a new chant: "Are you England in disguise?"

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on November 16, 2010, 13:34 GMT

    I have told Peter several times, via the excellent comment facility on Cricinfo, that he is what is known in the trade as a beat-up merchant and he creates his own portents. He has pulled himself together and done better, twice, but this one is a backslider.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2010, 11:47 GMT

    English, do us all a favour and give the Aussie bashing a rest. As an Australian living in England, one thing I had always noticed was how the Aussie press and commentators used to get behind the team, whilst the English press constantly moaned and brought the team down. How ironic then that you should accuse the selectors of being 'England in disguise'.

  • Mick on November 16, 2010, 7:08 GMT

    I don't like the 17-man squad at all but as mentioned I guess sign of the PR times. In cricket terms though a complete waste of time. The bonus for the bumbling selectors is they get a chance to look like they're considering up and comers when they know they'll just pick the same old crew. In relation to ponting saying Australia no. 1 ODI side. Well like them or lump them, the ICC rankings give Aust a healthy lead based on some pretty impressive performances in past 18-24 months. 1. Australia (128), Sri Lanka (118), India (117). No more ridiculous than India ranked no. 1 in tests even though they're nothing but flat/home track bullies.

  • David on November 16, 2010, 4:11 GMT

    @Tristan Kennedy - yes, and that's why Steve O'Keefe is THE best spinning prospect in Aus by a country lightyear. My side for the first test if fit (yes, I know some aren't in the 17) - 1. Watson (ex Qld) 2. Katich (ex WA) 3. Ponting 4. Clarke 5. D Hussey 6. Usman K 7. Paine 8. O'Keefe 9. Harris 10. Hilfy 11. Bollinger. NB: I've put the notes in brackets after Watson and Katich so some of you VIC fans might go less spare than usual about the number of NSW players.

  • Tim on November 16, 2010, 0:35 GMT

    Its not for a lack of talent or ability that Australia won't win the Ashes, its a lack of self-belief. Unfortunately Punter doesn't have it or is not able to generate it in the team. Back in the day with the likes of Warne, Gilly and McGrath he didn't have to worry, but now who is there with that belief that they can and will win every time? Self-belief would have gotten them over the line in Cardiff and Mohali and we may not now be having this discussion. Its a very good side on paper but they are being let down by not playing consistently well as a unit - not believing in their ability has to be a reason for that. Look at England, they definitely have it, just like they did in 2005.

  • Chris on November 16, 2010, 0:23 GMT

    Thanks to the internet and cricketinfo go to the 1985 Adelaide Test between Australia and England, it was Merv Hughes debut (i found it by going to Merv's profile and following the link to his debut game) Examine the team and then answer this question, which bowling attack is stronger? McDermott 290+ test wickets, Merv 200+, Brue Reid cruelly cut down by injury but a 200+ wicket taker had he been fit, Mathews and Bright, not big turners but solid performers in the tied test. Id go for the 1985 attack. The punchline, this is regarded, without quetsion as the weakest period in Australian cricekt history.....We (Aust) are in so much trouble this summer it aint funny. It just aint funny. I know the boys will play their hearts out for Oz and I with many others will be ther supporint them..but sometimes the facts are too hard to ignore....

  • Sam` on November 15, 2010, 23:48 GMT

    LOL @ people saying "this is the Australia way" etc etc. If that's true, how come it hasn't been done before? This doesn't put pressure on the likes of Doherty, Ferguson, Smith - it tells them "hey, you are THIS close to getting picked even though your first class records wouldn't even get you a start for teams like New Zealand." Selecting two bowlers who average almost 50 and a batsman who averages 37 on the best batting wicket in Australia rewards mediocrity. Picking 17 shows that the selectors and those in charge a) have no real plan as to what they want to do to England, and b) have no plan as to how they are going to do it.

  • Dru on November 15, 2010, 18:55 GMT

    This is a sign of reality - its time to panic and rightfully so. Aus go in to an Ashes after a long (long) time uncertain and low on confidence and it shows. The announcement of the team this early is totally out of charactor as is the form leading up to Gabba. Eng have their best chance since the 80's to win the Ashes down under but the home advantage balances the contest to what should be one of the great Ashes match up's on paper.

  • Adam on November 15, 2010, 17:50 GMT

    Well they had to pick a large squad this early. For Doherty to still average 50, and after he has apparently played well the last couple of seasons shows just how shocking he must have been before. What was his average then, 80?? Jeez.

    You have to say there is a bit of an air of panic around Australia right now.

  • Graeme on November 15, 2010, 17:15 GMT

    So what if the Aussies have a 17 man squad. I say that in all reality the Aussies always have that large of a squad when they are playing at home. By selecting extra players to be with the team instead of their Shield sides for the preparation for the tests it gives these players (Ferguson, Khwaja, and Doherty) some insight into what will be required if they are pressed into duty later in the series. I guess that the selectors must have been reading the press though because by selection of these extra players they are covering their behinds if the batting or spinning performances don't pan out early in the series. I salute progressive thinking by selecting a large squad and giving others players a chance to experience what will be required from them in the not too distant future. I hope that the Aussies keep the same 11 throughout the summer and are able to win the Ashes back. Just in case they can't at least the infrastructure will be in place to get new blood into the team immediatel

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