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)

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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

The Drossier

Crickometrics, it ain’t

Ball Control can exclusively reveal that South Africa will target old laggards Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey as the weak links in Australia’s batting line-up, according to a top secret dossier in our possession. The plans, personally drawn up by Head Coach Gary Kirsten, are a comprehensive strategy to combat opposition players’ weaknesses, and nullify their strengths, in the upcoming three-Test series.

Among the many startling revelations is that Shane Watson can be unsettled early in a series if he is denied unfettered access to full-length mirrors in the changing rooms, while Imran Tahir’s bowling tactics against the captain Michael Clarke revolve around wearing a Simon Katich mask and singing the Australian team song during his run-up.

Ricky Ponting, coming off a successful calendar year in which he averages 63 in Tests, is said to be vulnerable to substitute fielding and by having his past captaincy ability compared to all Australian captains before 2004 and after 2010. The dossier intriguingly adds for emphasis that this comparison includes “that whole embarrassing Kim Hughes period”. Ponting’s co-veteran in the middle order, Mike Hussey, is also reserved for special attention in the dossier; noting the acute dry skin areas below his eyes, requiring almost constant application of industrial-grade zinc.

Of Australia’s vaunted bowling attack, the South Africans have clearly closely analysed their many and varied strengths. As one of the newer members of the pack, Nathan Lyon has not gone unnoticed for his talent to make older team members look far younger than they are. The depth of analysis in the dossier is hinted at as it suggests that 68-year old chairman of selectors John Inverarity personally trumpets the selection of Lyon as he enjoys the company of a man who shares his interests in stamp collecting and listening to gramophone records.

Peter Siddle has developed many attributes in the past 18 months and can lay claim to being the most improved international bowler over that period. After undergoing a remedial winter program with renowned primate expert Jane Goodall, Siddle has added the ability to count to six to his impressive armoury; a skill he has successfully employed to keep track of the number of legitimate balls delivered in an over. This new skill has impressed Kirsten, who has devised a cunning strategy: “to confound Siddle the non-striker should blurt out random numbers as the bowler passing upon returning to his mark, thereby flummoxing the great lug and causing extreme mental disintegration.”

The one man in the Australian set-up singled out as immune to efforts of being undermined by opposition tactics is Head Coach Mickey Arthur: “a man with no discernible weakness, whose vast array of strengths are unshakeable due to his Afrikaans purity”.

In praise of portliness

An early lunch for Big Sam

Get in there, my generously proportioned son! Ball Control admits it has a soft spot for Samit Patel. Which is rather fitting, as young Samit has rather a lot of softness about him too – around the midriff (sorry, I had to). Having notched his first ton for England, and getting among the wickets, against India A yesterday, he looks a shoo-in for the number 6 slot in the first Test, which for some time has been the Achilles heel in England’s batting order. Rumours that the Barmy Army’s trumpeter is taking up tuba lessons in anticipation of Samit’s inclusion await confirmation.

As accomplished a player of spin as you’re likely to find on the British Isles, Samit has been earmarked to play in the subcontinent-phobic England side for many years. He was fast-tracked into the ODI side in 2008 due to his very nu-cricket attributes: hard-hitting and tricky to read SLO. Offsetting these desirable qualities was his unfashionable representation of the über modern cricket characteristic: muscular athleticism. He has since been in and out of the limited overs sides as he battles ongoing “fitness issues” in what, for a long time, seemed to be a vain attempt to impress his dedication upon Andy Flower.

The England Team Manager is clearly a big fan though and made known his wish to take Samit to the 2011 World Cup, naming him in the provisional squad, with the expectation that he would respond accordingly. “All we were saying was ‘get into reasonable shape’. It didn’t have to be perfect”, he said afterwards. In private, one can imagine him laying down the law to Samit in terms of: “Look, if Tim Bresnan can fit himself into an airline seat then so can you, buster.” Alas, it was not to be. James Tredwell went instead.

That he has gotten to this point–the cusp of consistent Test selection–without looking noticeably lighter seems, on the face of it, a victory for traditional skill sets over waist measurements.

The undertone to Samit’s travails was always that his corpulence betrayed a lack of desire to get fit; therein his copious puppy fat was a symptom of indiscipline. Thus, without shedding a few pounds, how could he be relied upon to contribute to the cause in an era of obsessively interdependent dressing rooms? This always struck me as a bit unfair. Patel never came across as an Inzamam-ul-Haq type, eschewing working up a sweat and falling back on sublime natural talent. By all accounts, he worked hard in the nets and diligently shuttle-ran with the rest of the team.

That is not to say that the link between a roly-poly appearance and unruliness is entirely without foundation. Also in the world of cricket, the big-boned Jesse Ryder has certainly got himself into a few scrapes. Meanwhile, Freddie Flintoff shed the weight but tales of unprofessionalism continued to follow him till the end of his career.

Similarly, football is littered with barrel-chested heroes who were adored for, not in spite of, their heavy frames; which allowed fans to imagine themselves squeezed into figure-hugging strips and wheezing heavily on the field of play. Frequently, these players were uncoincidentally fond of ‘off-the-field activities’, principally chugging down pints in the boozer.

Those with rotund physiques also often carry the stereotype of being ‘jolly’ and ‘larger-than-life’. Gazza personified this perfectly. In fact, he played up to it and it undoubtedly did him little long term good to continue to ‘perform’ on and off the pitch when behind the façade his life was falling apart. Sorry, this just got dark.

Samit, though. Well, he is a jolly little fellow! The potbellied little scamp is crashing through the glass dessert trolley and on to cricketing stardom! And, with Owais Shah no longer anywhere near the England team, I welcome the prospect of comically slapstick run outs returning to the international stage.

Teeing up the T20

Craig Kieswetter, taking guard

Your correspondent has been an early supporter of the World T20 Championship, having travelled to the first event, staged in South Africa in 2007. Way back then, England showed the seriousness with which they took the competition by selecting Chris Schofield and Darren Maddy in their squad.

India, too, were none too enamoured with a format they deemed as subordinate to 50-over cricket. Winning the inaugural competition – with Yuvraj smacking Stuart Broad for six sixes in one over along the way – changed their perceptions somewhat. Now we’ve had five seasons of the IPL.

As current World Champions, England are forced to take 20-over cricket seriously. But it would be a major surprise if Team Director Andy Flower were to claim that T20 supremacy doesn’t rank third in their list of priorities. The cricket administrators on the subcontinent may also claim this, though their actions speak louder than words.

That international T20 cricket currently plays second (or third) fiddle amongst the players is part of its appeal. It is a ‘hit and giggle’ format which allows for greater freedom and innovation from batsmen and bowlers alike. Tactics evolve year-on-year; England were clearly ahead of the game two years ago and have maintained a cutting-edge approach to strategising success. Gone are the bits-and-pieces players and T20 specialists; orthodoxy reigns, as demonstrated by Hashim Amla in the recent three match series between England and South Africa.

Carrying the hopes of a nation

As the stock of ‘traditional’ style skillsets have risen in T20, the avant-garde strokeplay and bowling deliveries trialled in the short game have increasingly been adopted in ODIs and Tests. Switch-hits are no longer the preserve of T20 and slower ball bouncers have been released from bowlers wearing whites. This crosspollination of approaches has come thick and fast and adds to the spectacle on show in all forms of the game.

And while strategy can play a large part in success, there’s really little a captain can do if an opposing player smashes a 10-ball 32 to completely alter the momentum of the game, as England’s Jos Buttler did this week against South Africa. In a 120-ball innings fine margins will sway proceedings. In Test cricket, captains talk about winning sessions; in T20 teams look to win overs. Though that can lead to one-sided affairs it equally means that upsets are more likely. Beyond single games, natural orders can be reversed. Form fluctuates wildly. For instance, Australia are below Bangladesh in the ICC rankings. Predicting what will happen over three weeks in Sri Lanka is therefore a fool’s errand. Best just to sit back and enjoy the big hitting as you try to silence the voice in your head telling you that T20 will lead to the death of Test cricket.

Group A

England

World Ranking: 1 | Captain: Stuart Broad | Danger Man: Jos Buttler

India

World Ranking: 7 | Captain: MS Dhoni | Danger Man: Yuvraj Singh

Afghanistan

World Ranking: N/A | Captain: Nawroz Mangal | Danger Man: Mohammad Shahzad

Group B

Australia

World Ranking: 9 | Captain: George Bailey | Danger Man: David Warner

West Indies

World Ranking: 4 | Captain: Darren Sammy | Danger Man: Chris Gayle

Ireland

World Ranking: 10 | Captain: William Porterfield | Danger Man: Kevin O’Brien

Group C

Sri Lanka

World Ranking: 3 | Captain: Mahela Jayawardene | Danger Man: Angelo Mathews

South Africa

World Ranking: 2 | Captain: AB de Villiers | Danger Man: Albie Morkel

Zimbabwe

World Ranking: 11 | Captain: Brendan Taylor | Danger Man: Hamilton Masakadza

Group D

Pakistan

World Ranking: 6 | Captain: Mohammad Hafeez | Danger Man: Saeed Ajmal

New Zealand

World Ranking: 5 | Captain: Ross Taylor | Danger Man: Brendon McCullum

Bangladesh

World Ranking: 8 | Captain: Mushfiqur Rahim | Danger Man: Tamim Iqbal