Matt Cleary's excellent article touched on the joys of selecting the Australian cricket team, and it also proved a catalyst for considering current and recalling past selection dramas.
The present Australian selectors were subjected to considerable criticism over their choices for the tour of India. Many of the more considered denunciations actually occurred prior to any matches commencing, and were largely based around the perceived premise that players were selected on the basis of their limited-overs performances rather than either their long-term achievements or current form in the first-class arena.
The art of selection has never been an easy one. A check on the internet shows that this recent critiquing of the national selection panel is not a new phenomenon; a quick search shows a total of around 100,000 hits for the terms "Inverarity", "Hilditch", or "Hohns" with the word "blunder". Former Australia selector John Benaud, who incidentally finished his career with a better Test batting and bowling average than his more famous brother Richie, nominated "form, a player's past record, temperament under pressure, enterprise, all-round flexibility, team balance, playing conditions and the opposition and the gameplay to try and win" as some of the factors involved in making selection decisions. The selectors have to balance the potential of young players with the experience of older heads. There is a very difficult line to be trod - tried and failed does not necessarily mean forever a failure. Matt Hayden, Justin Langer, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke are merely some members of the Australian batting line-up who were dropped for poor performance and had to fight at the first-class level to deserve their chance again.
However, as a selector, how do you know one player will return wiser and better, while another will not? Clearly an element of "gut feel" comes into the complex equation described by Benaud, and this makes selection a very difficult task to quantify. The seemingly universal condemnation of the touring party to India is perhaps not entirely balanced, as it should be acknowledged that the selectors took a chance on two left-field options in Moises Henriques and Steve Smith, who both performed relatively well in a beaten team. Nonetheless, it would appear that selection blunders contributed to Australia's 4-0 drubbing.
Of course, selection blunders are not just the domain of Australia. In the past two decades, England have also churned through players and there have been some particularly interesting choices. While dinky-di Australian Darren Pattinson's selection for England at Headingley against South Africa in 2008 would appear one of the front runners for worst selection blunder, it is worth pointing out that he was actually in excellent bowling form for Nottingham at the time. He has continued to perform well in first-class cricket in both England and Australia and was possibly worth the gamble at the time.
A worse choice would appear to be Gavin Hamilton, who played for Scotland over a period of 11 years. However, his Scottish career was interrupted following his selection for England against South Africa in 1999. He unfortunately failed to score a run in the Test, being caught by Shaun Pollock off Alan Donald in both innings for ducks. He also failed to take a wicket in 15 relatively expensive overs. Hamilton's English Test career finished at the same time as South Africa finalised their victory by an innings and 21 runs, and he then had to wait four years till he was eligible to again turn out for Scotland.
However, probably the greatest selectorial mistake occurred well over a century ago, in the very infancy of international cricket.
An Australian team was scheduled to tour England in 1890, but selecting the touring party was, in many ways, much harder than today. Selectors had to rely, at least in part, on newspaper reports for matches at which they were not actually present. This approach was considerably flawed, with highly biased commentators openly spruiking their favourites and demeaning any competitors. The Commonwealth of Australia was still 11 years in the future, and if current selectors bemoan the parochial nature of state supporters, it is nothing compared to the genuine dislike, distrust and outright hostility that often manifested between Sydney and Melbourne residents.
The various state cricket associations were in thinly disguised open war externally with each other and internally with their own member clubs. This was having a highly detrimental impact upon cricket in Australia, with decreasing crowds just one sign of public impatience with the political wranglings. The off-field fights were being mirrored on the field, and some key Australian players, including George Giffen, Alec Bannerman, Harry Moses and George Bonner, ultimately opted not to tour England in response to varying discontents.
At this point in history, the touring parties were nominally private affairs, coordinated and organised by the players and not any national governing board. The senior members decided amongst themselves, as was the norm, who would be the manager and who would be the selectors. For the 1890 tour, it was agreed that the former Test bowler Harry Boyle would fulfil both roles.
It is not clear now quite when and how it was discovered that Burn, the supposed reserve keeper, had never seriously kept wicket in his life. However, as this information emerged after the ship had departed for London, it was too late to find a replacement
Discussions about potential members of the team had commenced in June 1889, and it is reported that the nucleus of the side had already been decided before the start of the 1889-90 season. Boyle's status as the only selector did not completely overcome the inter-state rivalries, with a lot of back-room deals subsequently reported with respect to the remaining positions.
One of the main points of contention surrounded the second wicketkeeper, required for such a long tour. The legendary Jack Blackham was the first-choice keeper, but his deputy was not so clear-cut. The senior Victorian players insisted on choosing their team-mate John Harry, while the Sydney contingent was adamant that New South Welshman Sydney Deane should go. In an attempt to mediate between the two parties, Boyle and Blackham had a discussion about their options. Blackham evidently said he had heard good things about the Tasmanian keeper Ken Burn, who would be a satisfactory compromise. Boyle duly sent Burn an invitation to join the touring party, which he accepted.
The distances involved in travel meant that the touring party didn't all congregate and jointly leave from the one location. While some of the team boarded the ship Liguria in Melbourne for its departure on March 14, other members of the side joined them later in Adelaide. It was only after the ship had departed Adelaide for England that a serious selection blunder was uncovered.
It is not clear now quite when and how it was discovered that Burn, the supposed reserve keeper, had never seriously kept wicket in his life. It is possible to imagine an almost Monty Pythonesque scenario playing out in which Burn and the other members of the team slowly come to the realisation that he was picked as a keeper rather than as a specialist batsman. However, as this information emerged after the ship had departed for London, it was too late to find a replacement. So Burn stayed with the tour.
This news wasn't the only near-catastrophe on the trip. On April 22 the Liguria collided with two other ships entering Gibraltar harbour. However, no passengers were injured.
What is perplexing about this case is that Burn had performed with some distinction as a batsman and part-time medium-pace bowler at the first-class level and was hardly a complete unknown to be easily confused as a wicketkeeper.
Following a top score of 99 in a non-first class match for Tasmania against the touring English side led by George Vernon in 1888, he had been selected for an Australian XI that took on the same side.
In one of those interesting features of early international cricket, there were actually two separate English touring sides in Australia in the summer of 1887-88, and Burn also played that season for an Australian XI against Arthur Shrewsbury's team. He also had prior touring experience, being a key member of the first team from Australia to tour New Zealand. In early 1884 a Tasmanian representative side captained by John Davies played seven matches across the Tasman, including first-class games against Otago and Canterbury. The pitches were perhaps less than ideal, with team totals often failing to reach 100. Burn top-scored a number of times during the tour, and he underlined his all-round usefulness by also leading the bowling averages with seven wickets at 8.85.
In light of his performances, and with the withdrawal of other key players, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that Burn could have been selected as a batsman for the 1890 tour in his own right. As such, Burn probably thought nothing of the invitation from Boyle beyond the personal satisfaction of being acknowledged in such a way.
However, the story behind this selection blunder gets even more interesting the further it is investigated. It has been stated by historian Jack Pollard and others that Blackham had confused Ken Burn with James (John) Burn, who had reportedly been a wicketkeeper for Hobart and Tasmania. What makes this entire story of mistaken identity even stranger is that the wicketkeeper in the two Australian XI matches that Ken Burn played was Blackham, so the two of them had actually been team-mates only a year before. For Blackham, and subsequently Boyle, to mistake Ken Burn for James Burn is in itself very confusing.
James Burn played a sum total of one first-class game for Tasmania, and that had been over 20 years earlier, in February 1869. Quite how a player who had not played for 20 years could be mistaken for another appears beyond logic, even allowing for the relatively primitive communications of the time. Even more bizarre is that a quick check of the scorecards shows that James Burn didn't even keep for Tasmania in that one game, with the captain, John Arthur, designated as the wicketkeeper. Similarly, a check through other significant matches played by James Burn, such as the annual North versus South games in Tasmania, fails to reveal any sign he ever kept at a high level. It is also worth noting that James Burn was born on July 31, 1849, which would have made him 40 years old. Even allowing for the fact that a few players of that era, such as WG Grace, had very long careers by today's standards, it is uncertain quite why James Burn would have been chosen from almost complete obscurity at such an age.
If the desire was to placate both the New South Wales and Victorian contingents, South Australia keeper Affie Jarvis would have appeared a reasonable compromise candidate, as he had already played five Test matches as a keeper between 1885 and 1886, and subsequently played four more in the 1894-95 season. Therefore, the supposed intended choice of James Burn makes even less sense in light of this information. It is possible that Jarvis had indicated his unavailability, but it still fails to explain why the first-choice Tasmania keeper Charles McAllen was not picked instead.
So not only was there a massive blunder in picking the wrong man in Ken Burn rather than James Burn, the entire argument of why they supposedly had selected James Burn has been overlooked. While his inclusion on the tour was somewhat lucky, Ken Burn performed well enough with the bat early on the 1890 tour to be picked for the first two Tests, at Lord's and The Oval. This meant that he was the first Tasmanian-born player to represent Australia while actually still residing in Tasmania*.
Unfortunately he only scored 41 runs in his four Test innings and never played for Australia again. However, he was undoubtedly one of the most prolific batsmen of his era, and set numerous records in Tasmania. He had a long first-class career, spanning a quarter of a century, and finished having played 48 matches from 1883 to 1910. His first-class batting average of 21.60 appears very low for a specialist batsman, but it compares reasonably well with peers such as Syd Gregory, Giffen and Bannerman, who also only averaged in the 20s with the bat.
Burn scored 41 centuries across grade and first-class cricket, and passed 350 on two separate occasions. In the 1895-96 season, he scored six consecutive centuries, which was an astonishing feat on the pitches of the day. He also took 362 wickets with his medium-pacers. However, in spite of these fine statistics, his name will always be linked to the greatest selection blunder of all-time.
* Sam Morris, who was also the first black man to represent Australia in a Test match in 1885, was born in Tasmania but moved to Victoria to play his cricket.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow