England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval

Harden up, Australia

James Faulkner will be Australia's 17th player in this Ashes - the equal most for them away from home - and it comes as no surprise that so much uncertainty surrounds selection

Brydon Coverdale

August 20, 2013

Comments: 34 | Text size: A | A

James Faulkner takes a blow from a short ball, Sussex v Australians, Tour match, Hove, 1st day, July 26, 2013
It is hoped that James Faulkner will bring some toughness to Australia's team © Getty Images
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Darren Lehmann and Rod Marsh have said not a word in public about their reasons for choosing James Faulkner for the final Ashes Test. But despite their silence, their message is loud and clear. This is a team that needs to harden up. Is it any wonder, really? Soft cricket no more has a place in the world of Marsh and Lehmann than soft drinks. They played with an edge so hard that Hot Spot could have detected it through three layers of silicone tape.

It was left to the captain Michael Clarke, who is no longer a selector, to explain the choice on Tuesday. Notably, Clarke used the word "tough" or "toughness" at least three times to describe Faulkner and the qualities he would bring to the side. Even more telling was his final, one-word answer. When asked if this toughness had been missing from the team on this tour, Clarke said, with apparent reluctance: "Maybe".

There are times when "maybe" means no, sometimes it means "I don't know". Here it meant yes, for otherwise no captain would miss a chance to defend the character of his players. Australia's capitulation on the fourth afternoon at Chester-le-Street was an example of such fragility, of throwing wickets and a game away. It was not the only one on this tour, but that crazy day has cost Usman Khawaja his place.

Khawaja's dismissal in what should have been a gettable chase was tame, just a prod at Graeme Swann, who straightened the ball and struck Khawaja on the pad in front of the stumps. He has now been dropped three times from the Test team, always having shown hints of his promise but failing to display any more. Khawaja's talent has never been in question but his intensity - and intent - has been a constant question-mark.

Faulkner has effectively replaced Khawaja in the side, though not in the same position. It was revealing that when he was picked in the squad, Faulkner was described by national selector John Inverarity as "a very competitive cricketer who gets things done". The logical extension of Inverarity's statement was that there were other players who lack the same spirit, who despite their ability, don't get things done.

By gambling on Faulkner at The Oval, the selectors have backed tenacity over talent. That is not to say that Faulkner lacks skill - far from it, in fact, for he has collected 111 Sheffield Shield wickets in the past three seasons and scored 444 runs last summer. But his bowling alone would not force him above Ryan Harris or Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc or Jackson Bird. Neither would his batting earn him a place on its own.

But his "overall package", as Clarke described it, is appealing. Of course, the same has been said of others in recent times. Glenn Maxwell and Moises Henriques both played on this year's disastrous tour of India and neither would have made it for their batting or bowling alone. Both batted at No.7 in that series, behind a wicketkeeper at No.6. So did Mitchell Johnson against Sri Lanka at the SCG in January. None have lasted in the role.

Really, it should be no great surprise that Australia have ended up imbalanced again, for in five of their nine Tests so far this year they have batted the gloveman, either Matthew Wade or Brad Haddin, at No.6. It is not the result of needing more bowlers, but of having so few batsmen who have stood up. Clarke said this week that he was not one for statistics, but he knew no Australia batsman had made a Test double-hundred away from home since Jason Gillespie.

Forget double-hundreds, centuries would be enough. This year, only Clarke, Chris Rogers and Wade have scored Test tons for Australia. If the batsmen keep failing, the selectors feel they might as well pick an allrounder. They have shown it again and again. And again. Still, it was surprising that Faulkner was preferred over Matthew Wade, whose two Test centuries have come in winning causes. And Wade, like Faulkner, is tough.

"I bring a bit of aggression and a competitive streak," Faulkner said on Tuesday. "That's how I play my cricket and that's how I enjoy playing the game, get in the contest and soak it up a bit, get involved."

It is not surprising that Faulkner has that approach, for otherwise he could not have survived when playing against grown men as a young teenager in Launceston club cricket. He made his first-class debut at 18 and was immersed in Tasmania's cricket culture, generally considered the best in Australia over the past few years. Faulkner has been Tasmania's player of the year for the past three seasons and has been a key performer in three straight Shield finals.

In 2010-11 he scored 71 and took four wickets in Tasmania's win over New South Wales, in 2011-12 he collected five wickets in a tight loss to Queensland, and in 2012-13 he scored 46 and 89 against a Queensland attack led by a fired-up Ryan Harris, and also picked up four wickets of his own in the victory. In two of his three Ryobi Cup final appearances he has completed four-wicket hauls. He is, the selectors hope, the kind of man who stands up when it matters.

Of course, it is easier to stand up when you're not worried about anyone cutting you down. Faulkner's inclusion and the consequent reshuffle of the batting order - Shane Watson will bat at first drop - means that not since the first two Tests of the tour of India have Australia sent in the same top six in the same order for two consecutive Tests. The selectors do not know their best XI or what order to bat them.

Australia used 16 players in the series in India this year; that they will use 17 in this Ashes series - an equal Australian record for any away tour - is an indictment on the performance of the players, but also on the lack of trust in them shown by the selectors. The only other time Australia have used so many in an away series was in 1983-84 in the West Indies, when they lost 3-0.

Here, Faulkner was not considered in the best team at the start of this series, for Watson was the allrounder and Phillip Hughes, Ed Cowan and Khawaja were all options to fill out the top six. Effectively, the selectors seem now to believe none of those men, nor Wade, are good enough. For a team in desperate need of runs, it is a worryingly desperate situation.

Choosing your men and sticking with them has its merits. So does playing hard cricket. And if Faulkner succeeds, it may just open up a whole new criteria for John Inverarity's panel to judge players by for the home Ashes.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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Posted by smudgeon on (August 22, 2013, 3:47 GMT)

Apart from his undoubted potential and mongrel quality (another big fan of Faulkner here, and not just because he's from my former home town) I think the other side of his selection is that Harris is due for a breakdown any time soon! Watson too. Having another bowler who can bat means there can be less of a load placed on Harris and Watson. Probably not the primary reason, of course, but you'd think it'd have to be at the back of the selectors' minds. At any rate, looking forward to seeing him with bat, ball, and in the field in the next few days. Grab your opportunity and make the most of it, buddy!

Posted by fward2046 on (August 22, 2013, 3:25 GMT)

If they were serious about toughness, Katich would never have been dropped. He might have been the captain.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 2:50 GMT)

Why not.. Khawaja with all the talent in the world couldn't make it count when it really mattered. Unfortunately for him at this level means that you will only get a few cracks to impress, especially with guys like Hughes and Cowan waiting in the wings. Faulkner is a strange inclusion the team but with nothing to lose in the test series I think it's worth a shot.

Posted by Guruprasad.S on (August 21, 2013, 14:45 GMT)

The simple fact is that Australia does not have great quality in their ranks. This 'toughness' nonsense is just a way of justifying their team selections. Did Inverarity, Clarke and Lehmann not know earlier that Faulkner was a 'tough' guy' earlier? They are chopping and changing more in hope rather in reason. Cowan, Hughes and Khawaja are all done now. Among bowlers, only Siddle and Harris seem to be guaranteed their places. They dropped Agar and Starc for 2nd test, brought in Bird for fourth, and now they have dropped Bird for Faulkner. It is better to stick to a group of players and give them chances (say, 3-5 matches in a row), rather than play musical chairs. Lehmann's charisma has now worn out and his lack of experience in coaching is showing up.

Posted by   on (August 21, 2013, 10:45 GMT)

mediocre team, mediocre palyers. Not much of a choice do Aussies have

Posted by ihaq1 on (August 21, 2013, 9:29 GMT)

i think a stronger middle is very important when teh top usually crumbles...the only consistent batsman that australia has is rogers...in india australia tried teh wade middle order ineffectively...if australia go in without harris and siddle than they will need faulkner, starc anyway...they must rely on smith and lyon as frontline bowlers and watson as backup...that way they can have six batsmen, wicketkeeper and four bowlers...that australia seem to crumble at crucial times shows that they do not have strong leadership which is necessary for team confidence...Lehman should drop politics as a strategy and focus on removing batting flaws...england is usually able to handle a political confrontation better...ricky ponting even when he was batting poorly and australia were crumbling was always a captain who stoodup to tide...micheal clarke risks being overtaken by teh tidal wave without as much as whimper...a captain must front as a captain...no matter what his straartegy and tactics

Posted by   on (August 21, 2013, 8:43 GMT)

First up, I'll admit bias in stating that I rate Faulkner highly and think he should have played earlier in the series. However, as much as the media is going on about this NOT being a dead-rubber, I wouldn't read too much into this test for the following: Eng have won the series already, so for them it's all about putting the icing on the cake. A loss for them (even a draw) will simply remind them of what they need to focus upon when they come to Oz. They certainly won't feel like Aus has any momentum when the travel down their in 3mths time! Aus can use this test to try things out - deep down they know they've been a lot closer to Eng than the results suggest and for them it's about fine-tuning things. They will also be thinking that the series in Oz will be totally different (different conditions, home crowd, greater sense of comfort). And finally, they will believe that this series will count for nothing if they win the Ashes at home - it's 3yrs until they're up for grabs again!

Posted by ravi_hari on (August 21, 2013, 7:46 GMT)

Aussies have nothing to loose. 3-0, 4-0, 3-1 it does not make any difference. They have already lost the series and the urn. This test was the best opportunity to test the bench strength. I thought Wade and Faulkner should have come in for Khawaja and Harris and Starc for Bird. That would have given enough balance to the side. Wade has been more effective with the bat than Haddin. He could have done much better than Khawaja, Hughes and Cowan. He along with Faulkner would have brought back the fighting spirit in the team. The present team has only 3 batters - Warner, Rogers, Clarke. That is a huge risk. If they go early the side will fold up under 100. The only hope is that Starc with the help of others might take the score to 200. However, if one of the three batters get a big score then Aussies will be looking at 400+. Watson is probably playing his last test. If he scores big he will get one more chance otherwise this is the end for him. Hope JF brings luck to the side and they win

Posted by jonesy2 on (August 21, 2013, 6:52 GMT)

cant fathom whats happening anymore, not because Faulkner is playing because hes a superstar and should be the next captaoin, but because usman gets dropped yet somehow smith, haddin and Watson all of whom are directly responsible for Australia losing the series are still getting picked. actually what am I talking about, Australia never came to try and win the series. when you pick brad haddin as your keeper and vice captain before the series, youre only going to lose. australias batting team for the summer should be: maddinson, warner, khawaja, Clarke, hughes, mitch marsh/Faulkner, wade.

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.
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