The Science of Selection

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

It’s a job I’ve long coveted. What could be a cushier gig than being a national cricket selector?

If you’re lucky enough to be employed by the ECB, you spend the early part of the domestic season touring around county grounds gorging on cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, all the while your centrally-contracted mainstays are wrapped in cotton wool for the international rigours to come.

Once the touring teams arrive and the proper cricket starts, you find a nice seat amongst the members, sit behind dark glasses, and occasionally discuss who’s next in line for the coveted 13th man position behind Steve Finn/Tim Bresnan. Then there’s the exotic jet-setting during the winter months, with all the five star luxury sports administrators have come to expect.

For the four-man[i] panel that have the responsibility of finding eleven good men and true to don the baggy green, however, the job is not so enviable. In the space of two overseas trips to India and England (and Scotland, officially), they have taken a total of 22 different players on tour, all of whom will have played a Test by the end of this current trip (Matt Wade has not played in England, but got three games in India; James Faulkner will debut today at The Oval). That statistic alone is enough to highlight how onerous a job the Aussie selectors are faced with.

Here’s another: Mitchell Starc has played four of the eight Tests against India and England this year, none consecutively. How does that help either his rhythm or confidence?

So, while the selectors are not faced with an embarrassment of playing riches, they’ve hardly helped the team bed in and build a rapport while facing two of the three best Test playing nations.

But to really nut out farce that the selection panel’s work has become, consider the chopping and changing in the batting order in the past 16 Test innings:

Position Players selected against India and England in 2013 Tests, as at 20 August Number of players selected in each position
Openers EJM Cowan; DA Warner; SR Watson; GJ Maxwell (yes, really); CJL Rogers 5
No. 3 EJM Cowan; DA Warner; PJ Hughes; MJ Clarke; UT Khawaja 5
No. 4 PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith 4
No. 5 SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith; NM Lyon (nightwatchman) 4
No. 6 DA Warner; PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; MS Wade; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 7
No. 7 MS Wade; MC Henriques; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 4
No. 8 MA Starc; PM Siddle; GJ Maxwell; AC Agar; MG Johnson 5
No. 9 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; RJ Harris 4
No. 10 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; NM Lyon; RJ Harris 5
No. 11 JL Pattinson; XJ Doherty; AC Agar; NM Lyon; RJ Harris; JM Bird 6
The confused face of Australian cricket

The confused face of Australian cricket

New cap James Faulkner will play at seven today and Starc – the poor lad – will come back in again and play at either eight or nine. Shane Watson will move up to three, a position he has not played in since the Aussie summer, while Khawaja finds himself again cast into the wilderness alongside Phil Hughes and Eddie Cowan; a player who, in the mould of Chris Rogers, they could have persisted with after his horror show in the Trent Bridge Test, in which he was suffering from a virus.

Australia, we are told, need to win this dead rubber so they can build momentum for the return series in three months time. Even if they do so, who can say with any confidence what their XI will be in Brisbane? At this stage, the chances of them fielding the same team in that next Test seem as likely as the four-man selection panel remaining unchanged.


[i] John Inverarity (Chairman), Rod Marsh, Andy Bichel and Darren Lehmann (since June 2013)

Quadruple detention

So, he CAN write...

So, he can write…

Seen through the lens of a partially interested observer, the suspensions meted out to four Australian cricketers for not completing their “homework” initially felt like a huge overreaction. An arbitrary deadline for delivering a written or verbal assessment on how to recover from the first half of what is shaping out to be the most humiliating tour in Australian sporting history was missed by the vice-captain, leading fast bowler, maverick match-winner and great future batting hope (and multicultural icon); now they’re sat on the sidelines, unable to contribute to what looms as the biggest test for the team for a generation.

But that’s the point.

What were the players thinking if they felt like they could take a ride on this? What does that say about a team that is already hugely reliant upon the exploits of its star batsman and captain? They are professionals in the spotlight performing for their country and the sport which has provided them with a very healthy living.

The proliferation of coaches and other support staff in cricket has been a marked feature of the past 20 years. It’s of no coincidence that the opprobrium over the stance taken by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke is most vocal from ex-players from the early 1990s. To them, it’s another example of coaches overcomplicating issues which would, in the past, have been settled (one way or another) in the bar. Players of today are labelled as robots as they’re expected to follow the strict plans devised by staff eager to justify their pay packets. Autonomy, individuality, resilience and innovation are supposedly sacrificed.

Actually, in this instance at least, the coaching staff were giving the players their head. They were given responsibility to pitch in ideas on how to improve; an opportunity to take responsibility has been scorned and it speaks to a deeper sense of drift in this Australian team. For sure this isn’t an isolated incident.

The focus for both Australia and England in the past few months has been too heavily slanted towards the impending 10 Ashes Tests. Perhaps performances on both sides have suffered. Of more importance, I think, is the much longer back story of Australian cricket.

The era of world domination is far behind them. Australian cricket is struggling to adjust to a period – who knows for how long – of middle-ranking stagnation. The Argus report pointed to the thinning of the grassroots and hollowing out of structures to support the game. To recover will take time and no longer can they hope for epoch-defining cricketers like Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist to emerge at once. At the moment they’re lucky to have Clarke and he’s fighting a very lonely battle.

The culture in the team has been identified as lax; too comfortable due to the fame and fortune established players without pressure on their places can command. The world dominating team in the late 90s and early 2000s was almost more notable for the players unable to regularly force their way in – Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Stuart MacGill, Brad Hodge, etc – than for those making the headlines in the baggy green. Today, average players in Shield cricket are failing to push underperforming ones in the Test side.

This issue will sure as hell jolt the players. It may even be a turning point; forcing them to understand that they reap what they sow. It must also act as a time which helps the public recalibrate their expectations for the team. The period of domination is over and it can be hard to adjust. Just ask England football fans before a major tournament whether they believe their team to be an average side. The memories of past glories feed a sense of entitlement. Instead they should feed a fierce hunger to return to the top.

A heavy burden

Australia's Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia’s Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia has just lost to India by 8 wickets. This is despite a first innings century from Michael Clarke and a commendable bowling effort from James Pattinson (6-109). If it were not for two gutsy half-centuries by the Portuguese-born debutant Moises Henriques an innings defeat would certainly have been on the cards.

Much has been made of Australia’s reliance upon the runs of Michael Clarke. Since becoming permanent Test captain he has averaged 73 at a time when the combined team average per wicket has been around half that – less than 37. Without the runs of the retired middle order stalwart Michael Hussey, who has produced 14.3% of the team’s runs over the same period (not including the Chennai Test, of course), not to mention his crucial composure and ability to marshal the tail, the onus on the captain to carry the team becomes ever starker.

Yet the Aussies boast an enviable stock of pacemen. It certainly bears comparison with England’s resources, especially in terms of depth; though there is arguably no-one of the skill of Jimmy Anderson in their ranks. But they need runs to bowl at. Particularly in India. Even more so when the spin bowling department is so threadbare.

And to think Ricky Ponting thought he had it bad…

Ashes Hyperopia

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

As Australia prepare for their four Test series in India, England are in New Zealand gearing up for home and away Tests and ODIs against the Kiwis. However hard you try to block it out though, the challenge which looms largest for both touring sides is the first back-to-back Ashes series since the 1970s. Everything that happens in the next five months must be defined by what the old enemies will encounter at Trent Bridge on 10 July.

Matt Prior is already talking about bullying the Aussies over ten Tests. I’d like to believe this will happen, but I’m not so sure.

Brad Haddin, getting ‘bullied’ at Adelaide in 2010

The 2010-11 series was a dominating one by England, save for the Fremantle Doctor-inspired demolition at Perth, and Australia’s batting line-up has recently been shorn of vital experience with the retirements of Ponting and Hussey. Philip Hughes has recently slotted in nicely at number three (again), but a question mark remains about how his idiosyncratic technique will hold up against top bowlers, having been found out so ruthlessly by Flintoff in 2009, and Bresnan in 2011.

Perhaps unbeknownst to many England fans, the Aussies have steadily been building a formidable pace attack: Peter Siddle has matured greatly, Mitchell Starc is developing into the bowler Mitch Johnson should have been and, in the absence of the aggressive James Pattinson, Jackson Bird has come in to the side and hailed as the latest ‘new Glenn McGrath’. All of the above (excluding Johnson, of course) should thrive with the Duke ball on English pitches.

Ah, the hallowed green tops under leaden skies that await the hard hands of the Aussie batsmen. It’s of no debate that the pitched up, moving ball continues to confound the men from Down Under. Only a month ago the ball nipped around in Brisbane during an ODI against Sri Lanka and the home side slumped to 74 all out (from an even more humiliating position of 40-9), thanks largely to the gentle medium pace of Nuwan ‘KulaShakerer’.

When will they learn? I’m betting they will in time for the first Test. They have to. It’s not rocket science; don’t go hard at the ball, play it under your nose, leave the wide one… India will provide no ideal preparation, but Australia should encounter reverse swing on the subcontinent, before many of their key batsmen play in the ludicrous Champions Trophy at Edgbaston, Sophia Gardens and The Oval throughout June.

In Ed Cowan, Australia potentially has the perfect man to see off the new ball. A studious leaver of the wide delivery, blocker of the good ball and attacker of the bad one; Eddie could be key to giving the Aussies’ innings some much-needed platforms in the first series. His, and their, problem might be that he doesn’t do enough on the rough, low pitches of India to retain his place in England, with Watto coming back into the equation to take advantage of the early attacking fields set by Dhoni.

Meanwhile, England have been a mix of brilliant (home and away to India), hapless (in the UAE) and merely mediocre (at home to South Africa and away in Sri Lanka). Their varying performances since the last Ashes series has underlined how much, despite all the rhetoric about a strong team ethic, England rely upon key performers – just like any top team does, including Australia.

Take out Jimmy Anderson (sufferer of back niggles) and Graeme Swann (dodgy elbow) from the bowling attack and you start to wonder where the twenty wickets will come from. England won the 2009 Ashes without KP for the majority of the series, but, with Bell again looking lacklustre and the number six spot still up for grabs; their middle order impetus looks more dependent upon him than it has been since 2005.

So while England fans will be hoping that their settled team stays together over the next 12 months, Australians will be willing their new look side to gain form and momentum in time for career-defining series.

*****

Five months out, the likely XII’s at Nottingham:

ENGLAND

AN Cook *

NRD Compton

IJL Trott

KP Pietersen

IR Bell

JE Root

MJ Prior +

GP Swann

SCJ Broad

JM Anderson

ST Finn

12th: CR Woakes

AUSTRALIA

EJM Cowan

DA Warner

PJ Hughes

MJ Clarke *

SR Watson

UT Khawaja

MS Wade +

MA Starc

PM Siddle

JM Bird

NM Lyon

12th: JL Pattinson

Ricky Hughe?

A new generation of Aussie fans must get used to seeing a lot of Phil Hughes

Older readers may remember the great Australian batsman Ricky Ponting. It is easy to forget the contributions of the former captain as his heir to the dashing no.3 spot Phillip Hughes piles on the runs against the mighty Sri Lankans.

The selectors’ faith in Hughes’ abilities has led him to be dropped on three occasions in his 19 match Test career, only welcoming him back this time after openly sparing him from the fierce South Africans – where poor Bobby Quiney acted as Hughes’ human shield, picking up a pair in Adelaide.

What inspired management. Hughes is now back and duly filling his boots against the second string medium pacers of Sri Lanka, on his home SCG pitch [at the time of writing he’s just given his wicket away for 87].

With this sort of Ramprakash-esque momentum behind him, Hughes is bound to prosper in the alien conditions of India and, afterwards, in back-to-back Ashes series. If there’s anyone in the top 7 who’s less comfortable against the moving ball than PJ Hughes then Jimmy Anderson et al are going to have a gay old time.

Back in the day, it used to be that Australians raised their games against the old foe while the English wilted under the strain of facing a supremely competitive, chips-on-their-shoulders team from Down Under. Now, it’s more likely the other way round. Mitch Johnson, Shane Watson and Hughes have all grossly underperformed in the Ashes spotlight. More and more, the opposite is true of England; even Ian Bell had one of his Bangladesh type series in Australia in 2010/11. That same series arguably rescued Ali Cook’s whole career.

With Hussey retiring and Ponting long gone, the baton charge against the English must be led by the captain, Michael Clarke. And the bowlers. They’re the Aussie trump card right now. Jackson Bird, James Pattinson, Pat Cummings, Mitchell Starc and the new, improved, Peter Siddle are all likely to prosper in English conditions, as well as back home. When you consider how many runs they may be asked to bowl at in 2013, the selectors’ eagerness to rotate their pack and prevent burn-out is entirely understandable.

Are we there yet?

The ICC mace: not to be confused with a weapon used to subdue wanted war criminals

No. Not yet. Sure, England’s win in India was remarkable given its historical context: 28 years of hurt, as well as the more recent comic failings on the subcontinent. Above all else, it demonstrated their strength of character to come back from the drubbing in Ahmedabad to clinch the series on the back of patient, skilful batting and probing, accurate spin bowling. Oh, and Jimmy Anderson. How good was he?!

But before we get carried away let’s not forget that recent incarnations of the team have risen higher than this level before, only to drastically fall away soon after.

The summer of 2005 is commonly held to be the high-water mark for England teams that anyone still alive can remember. We all know what happened after that. Hubris and complacency contributed to their undoing as the newly MBE-ed players got a pummelling in the Ashes away leg.

Even more recently, England claimed the ICC mace as The World’s Best Team. Rather than being complacent, the team kept doing the things they did to get them to that level, but even more rigorously. More complicated fitness drills and tactical analysis was used to incrementally raise the small percentages of team performance that saw them to the summit in the first place.

This was, and is, necessary for a team with no great players to rally round. But it wasn’t enough to keep them Number 1. Not with the South Africans around. For the Saffers have even more ‘very good’ players than England, and a great one too: Jacques Kallis. The nearest England have to a great player (Anderson, Ali Cook, IJL Trott, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann are all very good – not great) is KP, but he has merely flirted with greatness in his career; he’s yet to cross the Rubicon. Next summer he’ll be 33 years old.

After retaining the Ashes in Australia, smashing India at home and claiming the top spot, Stuart Broad (only ‘average-to-good’, since you ask) talked openly of this England team creating a dynasty to rival the Steve Waugh-era Australians. Oh how we laughed. Back then, a series win in India was proclaimed as the final frontier which would assure the team of greatness. Having achieved that goal, it no longer feels the case. On the back of the 3-0 loss to Pakistan and the drawn series in Sri Lanka (thanks to KP for the save), beating a flawed India can no longer be seen to guarantee the players OBEs in the New Year Honours list.

Ball Control would suggest that England can only aspire to greatness when there are other great teams to beat. India, Australia, even South Africa, would need to raise their games to levels approaching the standards of their former selves before England can vanquish them – home and away – and draw epochal satisfaction. Unfortunately, you can only beat what’s in front of you. And, without wishing to labour the point, England have so far struggled when faced with any teams featuring even one current great player, i.e. Pakistan (Saeed Ajmal) and those darn Saffers.

But until such a time as the post-Argus Aussies, quota-driven Saffers and the naked Emperors of India get their funk on; England can get themselves battle ready. Here are three issues to sort out:

1. Fast bowling

Can anyone name a great team from the past which didn’t have a terrifying fast bowler leading the line? Nope, me neither. Clearly, I’m not just talking about a canny operator in the Jimmy Anderson (who averages 30 runs per wicket, lest we forget) mould, I’m talking about a Joel Garner-esque 90mph plus-er; someone who can strike the fear of the Almighty in opposition batsmen. Even Brett Lee did a good job for the great Aussie sides in this regard. Maybe Stuart Meaker is the one for England. Perhaps Steve Finn. He’s got quicker in the last 18 months, but he’s also breaking down a lot more.

2. The opener’s slot 

England need a reliable Sous-Chef to operate with Alastair Cook at the top of the order. Perhaps Nick Compton is that man. The evidence thus far points to him being an adhesive cricketer who can help blunt the new ball. I’d like to see a bit more of a dasher up front; a Matty Hayden or Marcus Trescothink-type to complement the orthodox Chef. With Trott at three England would seem to benefit more from someone willing to take risks and advantage of the gaps in the field during the first 15 overs. Joe Root is an opener by trade and may grow into this role for the Test team. He’ll be waiting for Compton to slip up in New Zealand.

3. The middle order

This will remain a problem for as long as England suffers from chronic Bell-itis and the number 6 position remains up for grabs. Strange to say that PD Collingwood has left a big hole in the middle order and the aspirants who’ve auditioned so far – Eoin Morgan, James Taylor, Ravi Bopara, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel – have been in and out of the side. It’s now Root’s to lose but, as stated before, he may well be earmarked for another position. Thank Heavens for Matt Prior.

Over the next few years the team will inevitably also lose some of its bigger names. KP, Swann and Trott will all be 35 (Andrew Strauss’s age) before England next tour India in 2016. Bell, Prior and Anderson will be 34. That’s not meant to sound alarming; other players will come through off the county conveyor belt to continue the good work of their predecessors. Whether or not this England side ever lay claim to greatness, they can already proudly boast of remarkable achievements: winning in Australia and India, and holding that precious mace. Snuffing out the twitching corpse of Australian cricket next year would be nice, too.

Farewell, old foe

Punter’s last Ashes stand, Dec 2010, MCG

Like all red-blooded Englishmen, I had hoped that Ricky Ponting would somehow defy his inexorable decline and produce sufficient runs in the South Africa series to ensure he would be a fixture in Australia’s middle order for next year’s back-to-back Ashes series. Alas, we now know that’s not to be.

As a totem of Australian cricketing dominance in their late 90s and early noughties heyday, Ricky emerged from the Steve Waugh era and came to represent a one-man Alamo against a resurgent England team (forgetting 2006/07, of course, as that NEVER happened). In the 2009 and 2010/11 series he would peer out from underneath his tatty baggy green with those piercing, worldly eyes, and you felt almost a modicum of pity that his bowling options consisted of the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus and Xavier Doherty when his predecessor nearly always had Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. The fall from grace was more than English fans were ever prepared for.

But we still loved to beat him and going into the 2013 double header we were hungry for more. Perhaps by falling on his sword at this juncture he has had the last laugh, denying us the opportunity to mock him further. Or, I could be being unfair. Maybe the next stage of his transformation in the eyes of the English public would have been belated respect and admiration – coming full circle from his earlier omnipotence, but without the visceral loathing. This seems to be the path taken by Australian fans, with the applause he received at Adelaide last week quite a stirring sight.

Again from a purely English perspective, there have been career highlights. I have whittled them to five:

1. Harmy cutting him up on the first morning of the Lord’s Test in 2005 (he’s still got the scar). Getting Harmy that pumped up was probably one of the greatest ever achievements of Michael Vaughan as captain and set the tone for the series.

2. Gary Pratt running him out at Trent Bridge, prompting a volley of Punter invective against the unflappable Big Dunc.

3. THAT over from Freddie at Edgbaston, also in 2005. Punter the world class batsman, behind only Bradman, Lara and Tendulkar in the all-time list, couldn’t cope with an on-fire Fred that day.

4. Freddie again. Running Ponting out at the Oval in 2009 when it was just starting look like he might turn the deciding match around.

5. Trudging off at the MCG a broken man with a fractured finger in his last Test against England, as the away team retained the Ashes.

We’ll never see his like again as we’re unlikely to ever witness another once-in-a-lifetime Australia side led by such a grizzled competitor. We hated him so much because he, and his side, were so darn good. We respected him because, despite English inferiority, he too loved to beat us – which made the turnaround in fortunes so sweet to savour. Michael Clarke and Shane Watson just don’t get the blood boiling in the same way.