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)

The Breakfast Club

VegemiteBoof: [cracks open a tinny] Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for meeting me for breakfast this morning. I know you’ll have today’s game on your minds but before we get to the ground I think it’s important we thrash out a few of the issues that have come up these past couple of days.

Pup: No worries, coach. You know I respect you as a man, as a leader and as a humanitarian. I’m at your beck and call.

Watto: [looks up from his organic bircher muesli] There’s a game today?

Boof: Yup, a rather big one, Shane. Don’t worry, you’re opening the batting.

Watto: I should bloody well hope so. Don’t think I dobbed in Davey boy for no good reason. I only had the team in mind, you know; my capacity to reach 40 before loosely nicking off far exceeds his ability to race to 30 before doing likewise.

Boof: I know, I know. We’re all very grateful. Aren’t we, Michael?

Pup: Oh yes, coach! Anything you say, coach!

Boof: Call me Boof.

Pup: Of course! Sorry about that!

Watto: What exactly is a ‘Boof’ anyway?

Boof: Back to what I was saying, the media have been having a bit of a merry old time with you two over the last 48 hours. We need to get this sorted right away…

Pup: Permission to speak, boss.

Boof: [sighs and slumps into his seat] Granted.

Pup: Look, I was just thinking that, what with everything’s that happened, maybe it would be for the best if, well… what I mean is that… you know… Watto – great guy and all – heck, he is a bit of cancer on the team, isn’t he?

Watto: This is what I’m talking about! He’s always had it in for me! Everyone else thinks I’m great, why does he not like me?! I just want to be liked! [sobs into goji berry and roasted partridge semen smoothie]

Boof: The way I see it, you two are the best chance we’ve got of beating the Poms and for us all to return to the colony as heroes. There are 22 million Australian men, women and children imploring you to put aside your differences and focus on what matters – wiping that smug look off Broady’s irritating face.

Pup: Now you’re talking, boss! That Stuart Broad is the real enemy. Why, when he refused to walk in the first Test I was so angry that I stomped so hard I almost crooked my back up. Of course, when I referred my caught behind decision you must understand I really didn’t think I edged it.

Boof: I don’t care about that, Michael. In fact, if you ever walk without being given out I’ll not only strip you of the captaincy, I’ll also make sure you never wear the hallowed baggy green again and are forever forced to carry Warnie’s bag around depressingly cavernous casinos. Is that clear?

Pup: Yes, got it. Am I allowed to apologise for not walking on my Twitter account though? That got me over 5,000 retweets during the Adelaide Test in 2010.

Boof: Absolutely not!

Watto: You know I’d never tweet, Boof. I prefer to say what I have to say behind someone’s back! [cackles]

Boof: Look, we’ve got to leave for the ground soon. I need both of you to look me in the eyes and tell me these issues are all behind you.

Pup: Everything’s fine, boss.

Watto: I’ve forgotten what we were fighting about.

Boof: Good.

Watto: I mean it, what was the problem again?

Boof: Shake hands, both of you.

[Pup extends his hand, Watto puts down his hairbrush and shakes it]

Boof: See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Watto: No, surprisingly soft and tender actually. Like shaking a limp orchid.

Boof: Great. That’s a load off. I really feel we’re shaping up quite nicely to give those Poms a good buggering now. There’s just one more thing I need to resolve before we set off.

Pup: Can I help with that, boss? Please let me help.

Boof: Actually, yes you can, Michael. Go over to Eddie’s table and tell him he’s cut.

Pup: I’d do anything for love, boss. But I won’t do that. I mean, look at his sad little eyes. It’s cruel.

Watto: [grins and rises from table] Leave it with me. It’ll be a pleasure.

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.