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