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CRICKET SELECTION by Bill Fuller

GETTING THE CHOICES RIGHT – Australian Cricket

For as long as I can remember, it has been the Selectors of Cricket teams who most frequently end up taking the blame when the form of the team THEY pick “goes south”.  More often than not, it seems that the Chairman of the Selectors seems to be burdened with the vast majority of this blame, and there is no clearer example of this point than the hasty exit of Rod Marsh as Australia’s Chairman of Selectors following the first two Tests of the recent series against South Africa.

Was he pushed?  Did he walk away?  Who knows?  Who cares?  What we do know is that Marsh had advised Cricket Australia that he would not seek the renewal of his contract when his 3-year term expired at the end of June 2017.  When the team that Marsh had overall responsibility for as Chairman of Selectors performed so badly on the 3-Test tour of Sri Lanka in July/August, (lost 0-3), the 5-match ODI series away against South Africa in October (lost 0-5) and then the first 2 home Tests against South Africa (0-2), it was pretty obvious that things needed to happen, and fast.

Marsh’s call to announce in July of 2016 that he had decided not to seek a renewal of his contract from July 2017 was a particularly selfish one.  Selfish because he knew that some tough times were ahead for the Australian Test team (and for the purposes of this piece, I shall concentrate on the fortunes of the Test team), as the following schedule through to the end of the current ICC Future Tours program shows:

July/August 2016                        –              Tour Sri Lanka  –  3 Tests, 5 ODI’s, 2 T20’s

October 2016                              –              Tour South Africa  –  5 ODI’s

October/November 2016          –              Host South Africa  –  3 Tests

December 2016                         –              Host New Zealand  –  3 ODI’s

Dec 2016 & Jan 2017               –              Host Pakistan  –  3 Tests, 6 ODI’s

January 2017                              –              Tour New Zealand  –  3 ODI’s

February 2017                            –              Host Sri Lanka  –  3 T20’s

February/March 2017                –              Tour India  –  4 Tests

June 2017                                   –              ICC Champions Trophy ODI’s in England

August 2017                                –              Host Bangladesh  –  2 Tests, 3 ODI’s

October 2017                              –              Tour India  –  5 ODI’s, 1 T20

Nov/Dec 2017 & Jan 2018       –              Host England  –  5 Tests, 5 ODI’s, 3 T20’s

February 2018                            –              Tour New Zealand  – 5 ODI’s, 1 T20

Feb/March/April 2018                –              Tour South Africa  –  4 Tests

July 2018                                     –              Tour England  –  5 ODI’s, 1 T20

July 2018                                     –              Tour Zimbabwe  –  2 Tests, 3 ODI’s

October 2018                              –              Tour Pakistan (UAE)  –  5 ODI’s, 1 T20

Oct/November 2018                   –              Host South Africa  –  5 ODI’s, 3 T20’s

Nov/Dec 2018 & Jan 2019        –              Host India  –  4 Tests

January 2019                               –              Host Sri Lanka  –  2 Tests, 3 ODI’s

February 2019                             –              Tour India  –  5 ODI’s, 2 T20’s

Feb/March 2019                          –              Tour Pakistan (UAE)  –  3 Tests

June 2019                                    –              ICC Cricket World Cup ODI’s in England

That’s Australia’s schedule between July 2016 and June 2019 and, for the purposes of this piece, shows Australia will play 26 Test matches in Australia, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe and The United Arab Emirates.

Back to Rod Marsh, and my reason for labelling his decision as selfish to announce his departure a full 12 months ahead of his departure.  I tend to try & look at things in a logical manner, and logic frequently screams out at me when something is “amiss”.  Such was the case when Marsh announced he would be quitting next year.  I thought to myself “why is he announcing this now, a full 12 months ahead?”  I also questioned was he being completely fair to his successor by “hanging around” in the job until June 2018 when England will arrive just 4 months later for the Ashes Series?  I thought “he’s being a selfish little so-and-so ‘coz he’s staying in the job right up to the end, but he can get out any time before the end if things go pear-shaped”.  And pear-shaped they soon went.

Out of the squad of 15 who toured Sri Lanka for the Tests (16 if you include Holland as replacement for injured O’Keefe) there are currently only 7 who still remain in the current Australian Test team   …   Smith, Warner, Khawaja, Hazlewood, Lyon, O’Keefe and Starc.  The remainder have either been dropped because of poor form (Burns, Henriques, M. Marsh, Neville & Voges) or are currently injured (S. Marsh, Coulter-Nile and Holland).  One player, Jackson Bird, is currently in the Test squad, although he is not in the team contesting the 3rd Test against Pakistan.

Between July 2016 and January 2017, therefore, there has been a turnover of 21 players in the space of 9 Test matches.  Additions to the 16 mentioned above are Renshaw, Handscomb, Maddinson, Cartwright and Siddle.  Now that seems rather a lot to me, don’t you think?  What seems to have gone wrong, then?

Firstly, the Test squad which was brought together to face the Proteas in Perth in November included 2 players who were picked on “reputation”, rather than “form”.  For instance, what form did Adam Voges display on the Sri Lanka tour?  None at all.  What form had Peter Siddle displayed in the lead-up to the 1st Test?  Insufficient to convince the average man-in-the-street that he was completely over his back injury, and that he could bowl for a 5-day Test.  There are 2 who played who clearly should not have.

The third who should not have played in Perth (nor Hobart, for that matter) is Mitchell Marsh.  Rod Marsh fell in love with the prospect of “raising” Mitch Marsh to be a permanent fixture in the Australian team as a genuine all-rounder in the Gary Gilmour mould of his own playing days.  Bad call, Rod.  There would be very few Australian cricket fans living outside Western Australia who believe Mitch Marsh will ever achieve the expectations of Rod Marsh and here’s why;  he just doesn’t “cut it” as an all-rounder in today’s modern Test game.  As a bowler, he rates about 4 out of 10, and as a batsman he rates about 3 out of 10.  To see the way he batted in Sri Lanka would make one cringe at the prospect of him touring India.

The disintegration of the Australian team by the time the 2nd Test in Hobart came to a merciful but embarrassing end saw heads roll, as they had to.  Gone were Mitch Marsh, Joe Burns, Callum Ferguson (what a stupid move that one was   …   I’ll come back to that), Peter Neville, Shaun Marsh (injured), Peter Siddle (injured) and Joe Mennie (another stupid move which I’ll come back to).  Also gone was Rod Marsh, who announced he would step down immediately, rather than drag things out until June 2017.  Hooray, selectors got one right at last!  Into the team for the 3rd & final Test in Adelaide came Jackson Bird (about time), Matthew Wade, Nic Maddinson, Peter Handscomb and Matthew Renshaw   …   all of whom had been selected ON FORM, NOT REPUTATION!

The selection of Joe Mennie in the squad for Perth and as the 3rd seamer for Hobart was the clearest indication yet that Rod Marsh had completely and totally lost it as a selector.  His rationalisation that “Joe Mennie has been selected because his batting is better than Jackson Bird’s” was followed one day later with “Jackson Bird was overlooked because he needs to go away and work on his batting”.  At this time, I shouldn’t say this because by now, Rod Marsh has gone off to the Pleasant Pastures Retirement Village to count the millions in his Cricket Australia contract pay-out, but when I heard these two statements from the Australian Cricket Chairman of Selectors, I was tempted to contact Cricket Australia and remind them to remind Rod that THEY’RE BOTH BOWLERS, NOT BATSMEN, NOT ALL-ROUNDERS, THEY’RE BOWLERS!  Oh, dear me!

Then there was the unfortunate Callum Ferguson.  At the age of 32, he must have thought his chances of a baggy green cap had departed with his knee injuries and his form roller-coaster rides, but no, in announcing the squad for Hobart, our Rod Marsh said the selectors thought he was the “best man to fill the role”.  Hello, Rod, the role you were asking Callum to fill was that of the all-rounder, Mitch Marsh, and guess what, Callum doesn’t bowl!  Oh my giddy Aunt, just what was Rod Marsh thinking?  Now back in about 2011 or 2012, there may have been an opening for Callum Ferguson to be drafted into the Australian Test team, but he rode such a form roller-coaster and had so many troubles with 2 knee injuries, it just didn’t end up happening.  So 2016 and at 32 years of age was not the time to make it happen, and it was an embarrassing mistake.

Of the three complete newcomers to the Test squad   …   Renshaw, Handscomb and Maddinson   …   only Maddinson can be regarded as a somewhat ill-timed selection.  This goes back to the old adage that you should never select a Test team based upon one-day form.  That was the case with Maddinson who never even showed a glimpse of the sort of form we have seen from him in previous years.  He simply had no 4-day form in the lead-up to the Adelaide Test, and although he stroked a nice 80-odd in the Shield game between the Adelaide and Brisbane Tests, his form in Brisbane was as bad as Adelaide.

Now, before you all go leaping on me as though I’ve got it in for him, I have not.  Yes, he got the “ball of the match” from Rabada in Adelaide to be skittled for a duck, and yes, he was extremely fortunate to be dropped on 0 in Brisbane before succumbing for 1, and yes, he batted for quick runs in the second dig and “sacrificed” himself, but he just did not look at home at any stage.  He gave every indication that he’s just not ready for 5-day Test cricket   …   yet!  Look out for him to return in the future.

Renshaw and Handscomb have been the success stories of the summer for Australia, and the added bonus to the game of Handscomb (his wicket-keeping prowess) may   …   I only said MAY   …   come to the fore in future seasons, but not this one!

So, who else is “out there”?  Well, first of all we have a new (albeit interim) Chairman of Selectors in Trevor Hohns who had filled that role quite successfully from 1996/7 to 2005/6.  Greg Chappell was co-opted onto the selection panel in an “advisory role” so support Hohns and Mark Waugh.  These are the gentlemen who have been responsible for the massive clean-out following Hobart.  Bravo!  Now, let’s see what you can come up with in the next couple of months with an eye to the long-term future.

It is best we talk about the bowlers first, because that is where the greatest prospects lie.  We have on hand the undeniable raw pace of Pat Cummins and James Pattinson.  These are two men capable of speeds in excess of 150kph, however both have been injury-prone in their brief careers.  Pattinson is 26, has played 17 Tests, taken 70 wickets and has 4 x 5-fors.  Cummins is just 23 and has just that one memorable Man-of-the-Match performance against South Africa when he took 7 wickets and stroked the winning runs.  If we assume that good health follows them in the next 24 months, then it is not impossible to see them joining the current incumbents Starc and Hazelwood in a four-pronged pace attack at some venue against some opponent.

Of lesser pace, but still with enormous potential, are Chadd Sayers and Chris Tremain.  Each has had a fine couple of years without reward, although Sayers toured New Zealand in Feb/March of 2016 but didn’t play, and was a member of the Australian Test squad for Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne.  He is 29, and some say he might not be in the running for anything other than a “fill-in” role but, and I say this with an eye on the future, he would be an ideal inclusion for the Test team (not squad, TEAM) in the home series against Bangladesh in August of this year.  I understand the 2 Tests will be played in Darwin, so with his ability to swing the ball around, he should be considered a must and will enable selectors to have Starc and Hazelwood nicely rested for the Ashes.  Tremain is 25 and has already played ODI cricket for Australia, but is only marginally behind Sayers in considerations as far as 5-day cricket goes.  In spite of having played in the Hobart Test against the Proteas, Joe Mennie is way behind both Sayers and Tremain in my view.

Now we come to the vexing position of an all-rounder!  Does Australia really need an all-rounder in their team?  David Saker, Australia’s bowling coach, definitely believes so, and we know all about Rod Marsh’s predilection with re-creating Gary Gilmour.  From recent utterances, we must assume that Darren Lehmann is unconcerned whether he has or doesn’t have a genuine all-rounder in his Test team.  Hilton Cartwright has made his Test debut in Sydney against Pakistan and has acquitted himself well with the bat (37 on debut) but received limited opportunities with the ball (4 overs, 0 for 15 in 1st Innings, and did not bowl in 2nd Innings).  He has also been left out of the Australian ODI squad for the 5 match series against Pakistan.  Hmmm   …   not sure where he is heading except back to the Scorchers for Big Bash duties and to the WACA for the Shield.

Mitch Marsh has been recalled to the ODI squad for the Pakistan series, so here we go again, we’re going to have more of the same talk of “he’s going to India” and “he won’t last 5 minutes in India”.  I can only repeat what I’ve said in postings and earlier comment pieces; one only has to examine the performances of our two all-rounders in Sri Lanka mid-2016 to see that they will be laughed out of India if they put up the same terrible performances.

I should add, we are only going to India for 4 Test matches in Feb/March   …   no ODI matches and no T20 matches, therefore nobody should place any great store on Mitch Marsh’s performances in the forthcoming series against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.  We don’t play any ODI’s or T20I’s until the Champions Trophy in England in June, then against Bangladesh in the Top End in August.  Our next Test after India is against Bangladesh in August, so in making considerations for India, we should also have a view towards the Bangladesh series (2 Tests) and then the Ashes (5 Tests).

In my view, we should send an Australia ‘A’ side to India for the ODI’s and T20I matches in October, as the timing of this tour is going to present identical problems as the South African ODI tour did last year immediately before the Proteas Test tour to Australia.  Maybe such Australia ‘A’ squad could look like this:

Finch                  (Capt.)                                                Faulkner

Paine (WK)                                                                    Marsh M.

Head                                                                              Christian

Lynn                                                                                Agar

Bailey                                                                             Swepson

Maxwell                                                                          Stanlake

Marsh S.                                                                         Pattinson

How does that look?  There are no Test “regulars” in the squad, there is experience in Indian conditions (think of all those IPL games and previous ODI tours), there are 7 genuine batsmen, one of whom is the ‘keeper and 2 of whom (Head and Maxwell) can provide off-spin), there are 5 all-rounders (Maxwell, Faulkner, M. Marsh, Christian and Agar), there are 4 spinners (Head & Maxwell for off-spin, Swepson for leg-spin and Agar for left-arm orthodox), and two out-and-out quick’s (Pattinson & Stanlake) who can be supplemented by the lesser pace of Faulkner, M. Marsh and Christian.

If we talk about “getting the choices right” as far as our selections go, we can’t afford to send our Test players off to a place like India only 5 weeks out from the start of an Ashes series to go & play 5 ODI’s that mean   …   what?  Just like the 5 ODI’s we played in South Africa late last year meant   …   what?  We fulfilled our obligations under the Future Tours Program, but what else was achieved aside from giving buckets of money to sponsors and TV channels?  So, let’s send our ‘A’ team, along the lines above, to India next October, and have our Test squad all play every Shield game (I understand there will be minimum of 3 and possibly 4) prior to the First Test at Brisbane next November.  At the very least, that will give us a fighting chance of avoiding the dreadful 0-2 start to our 2016/17 Test Summer.

I have racked my brain on this for about 6 months now, and I cannot come up with any solution other than that Australia should perhaps forget the concept of “manufacturing” an all-rounder, and concentrate on a policy of 6 batsmen, one ‘keeper and 4 bowlers for their Test line-ups.  We should adopt the policy of “Oh well, if one of our 6 batsmen can bowl, then that’s a bonus”, but the deployment of 6 specialist batsmen should be the #1 consideration.

When you examine some of the potential candidates for a batting role in our future Test line-ups, there are only two names that would be in consideration and who also bowl (albeit part-time) and those are Glenn Maxwell and Travis Head.  Both would be selected in a Test team primarily as a batsman.  The fact that they can each bowl more than just handy off-spin would be a bonus.  I do not support the view that Nic Maddinson should be encouraged to work on his spin bowling in the hope of returning to selection calculations as an all-rounder   …   that is silly.  As far as Test matches go, he is a batsman and a net bowler, nothing else.

Other batting options which will come under scrutiny during coming months, but which will not feature on the Indian tour would be Kurtis Patterson and Daniel Hughes (NSW), Sam Heazlett and Marnus Labuschagne (Qld), Jake Weatherald and Jake Lehmann (S.A.), Travis Dean (Vic), Beau Webster (Tas) and Will Bosisto (W.A.).  These fellows are going to have their ups and their downs, but they are the future stars of Australian Cricket.  It may take 12 months (as was the case with Matt Renshaw) and it may take 3 or 4 years (as was the case with Peter Handscomb) but these guys will catch the eye of our Test selectors at some stage in the very near future.

There is also the matter of a young 18-year-old by the name of Will Pucovski, who quite literally lit up the National Under-19 Tournament late in 2016 with scores of 139*, 160*, 100 and 120* on the way to collecting a total of 609 runs for the Tournament at the average of 203!  Playing in Grade Cricket for Melbourne against Geelong on 7th January, he starred with 116* in a successful run-chase of 219.  Now we shouldn’t rush him into the Test Team for India, but we should remember his name and hope like mad that he doesn’t get snapped up by an AFL Club!

Since the Hobart Test against South Africa, Australia has won 4 Test matches on end   …   one against the Proteas and 3 against Pakistan.  Our Test line-up is now a) much younger than the first Test in Perth last year, and b) more settled.  I use the word “settled” even though there is talk that one or two members of the 3rd Test team against Pakistan won’t go to India.  It is only talk until the team is selected, then it either becomes fact or fiction.

We face four extremely tough Test matches in India against an opponent who has not been beaten in a home series for many years, has perfected the art of making the most of their home conditions, is brilliantly led by one of the feistiest characters of the modern game, and is currently very much on top of its game.  As a part of the obvious need for Australian Cricket to “re-build” after the disasters of South Africa and Sri Lanka in 2016, there are going to be some falls and “scraped knees” during the re-building process.  One of these falls will probably be India.

We should not get too upset at the prospect of coming home from India with another series defeat on our CV.  Of prime importance on the Indian tour is that we examine every possible option for a Test berth in the Ashes series, to see how they each perform on the sub-continent in those “strange” conditions, against a backdrop of those “manic” crowds, and against an opponent that has God-like status throughout the land.  After the last disastrous 0-4 thrashing in the Mickey Arthur “homeworkgate” tour, Australian heads could not have been lower, morale could not have been lower, and our next few opponents were literally salivating at the prospect of meeting us.  This simply can never happen again, and it all comes down to getting the selection choices right.

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