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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
August 20, 2013
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 hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala