The case for short-termism
Among the countless names written into Test match scorebooks, that of Cyril Washbrook is one of the most evocative. It rolls off the tongue and instantly summons a sense of time and place, of English cricket after the war, and of batting bravery in a period when pitches and skulls alike remained unprotected. Most relevantly, Washbrook's is an enduring example of short-term selection thinking making all the difference in an Ashes series.
Short-termism is the sort of concept politicians love to rail against. By pinning the label on their opponents they can tar them as lacking in vision, even verging on the myopic. National selectors can be similarly targeted if they are said to lose the balance between the present and the future. Countless England panels were lampooned for recycling older players when their Australian counterparts pushed aggressively for youth at almost every possible juncture.
So it is seldom popular, in politics or team selection, to press for the short-term option. Strategic thinking, with the "bigger picture" in mind, is considered the best path, usually with good reason. There seems little point in granting the older batsman another season when there are young striplings pushing up from beneath. Still less in plumping for the older bowler who has lost some of his earlier pep when an aggressive firebrand, not yet 25, has made his presence felt. The future must be planned for, always.
But as Australia's selectors enter their final deliberations on the composition of an Ashes squad that will be named this week, Washbrook's England recall as a 41-year-old in 1956 can provide a reminder that when the most important series is the next one, an older head or two can prove invaluable. That summer is most commonly associated with Jim Laker, Tony Lock and spitefully spinning pitches. But before Washbrook returned to the team for the third Test at Leeds, Australia led the series, and uncertainty had enveloped England's batting.
The most outlandish element of Washbrook's return was the fact he did it when a member of the selection panel. In the meeting to decide the Leeds team, his colleagues asked Washbrook to leave the room temporarily while his name was discussed. Returning to the table with drinks, Washbrook was told he had been selected. Boys Own Annual stuff, this, but less significant than the difference his presence made to England's other batsmen.
A little less than an hour of the Headingley Test had elapsed when Washbrook walked to the middle at No. 5, his team a precarious 3 for 17. Before this point Washbrook had been known primarily as a bold opening partner for Len Hutton, but five years since his last England appearance he was now cast as a bulwark for the middle order. Benefiting from his rich experience of batting, Washbrook was to construct a patient 98, while cajoling a young Peter May to 101.
In the words of Alan Ross it was the innings of a "Master Builder", tilting the match and series towards Laker and England. Writing in Cape Summer, Ross summarised the effect: "So Washbrook, pertinently surveying the hitherto silent and raincoated Headingley crowd … came down the steps bringing with him an unmistakeable renewal of confidence. It was going to be all right: from the very first he made it seem so."
In the current muddled state of Australian cricket, such a reassuring presence must be sought for the Ashes tour. The next 12 months feature 10 Tests against England, followed by a tour of South Africa. These 13 matches are as rigorous an assignment as any Australian team has been set, and the squad that limped from India, a week after their captain Michael Clarke had already exited due to his troublesome back, look ill-equipped to survive it, let alone thrive in it.
What India exposed so mercilessly was that the balance of the team had been thrown out so comprehensively by the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey that it virtually ceased to function. Those players expected to step into the breach as batsmen and senior players - Shane Watson in particular - failed almost completely to do so.
A sore and weary Clarke spoke of feeling like he had added a coaching component to his roles as captain, batsman and selector. The suspension of four players, Watson included, for failing to complete basic tasks reflected the hole opened up in the team's psyche without the reassuring sights of Ponting and Hussey as exemplars of all that is required of an Australian cricketer.
The selectors are now aware that the team they selected for India was incapable of forming an effective combination, and needs to be strengthened by additional leaders. None may be found quite so dramatically as Washbrook, by drafting in a member of the selection panel. Nonetheless there are senior names available, players that have it in them to contribute tellingly over the next year, if not much further beyond it.
Brad Haddin's has already been noted consistently. Twelve months since he gave up his Test place to be with his ill daughter, Haddin has punched out a strong season for New South Wales and been conspicuous by his absence from the national team, as both a leader and a gloveman. In India he found himself promoted to de facto captain when Clarke left the field due to his back problems. Matthew Wade is the future, but his keeping and batting have strained beneath the weight of three formats. Haddin's best two series for Australia happened to be the past two Ashes bouts. For the next 12 months, Haddin should don the gloves and the vice-captaincy, in Test matches at least.
Within the bowling ranks, Ryan Harris can be expected to play a key role. Returning to the crease after an elongated recovery from shoulder surgery, Harris impressed all who faced or observed him in the latter rounds and final of the Sheffield Shield. Possessing a method well suited to England, Harris also has the gift of an equable temperament and universal respect among Australian cricketers. With Queensland he has worked increasingly as a mentor as well as a bowler, concerned with the team as much as himself. While allowances for his body may not allow five Tests, he can play a critical role on the field in two or three, and a unifying one off it in the rest.
Lastly, the batting should be buttressed by the inclusion of Chris Rogers. At 35 he has become as well versed at batting in England as any member of Alastair Cook's team, and moreover has shown himself to be a team-builder and captain of some distinction in his time with Middlesex. Arguments may be raised against his presence in the squad on the basis of age and also his station as an opener, when at least another four such top order types are likely to be named. Yet his familiarity with the moving ball and methods to counter it would provide much-needed solidity and knowledge to the Australian order. And with only one Test cap to show for all his run scoring, Rogers will be hungry.
John Inverarity's panel do not have a Washbrook among their number, but in Haddin, Harris and Rogers they have a trio of players capable of making a difference over the next 12 months. All are products of an earlier time, when Australian cricket functioned rather better than it does at present. By this time next year they may all be ready to retire, but it is the time in between that is of most import. Short term thinking is needed.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here