Western Australian ace Hilton Cartwright is set to become the latest member of a long and esteemed list of Australian all-rounders when the boxing day test begins next week.
Australia have cast their net far and wide in search of an all-rounder capable of consistently producing runs in the number six position, but have come up short in recent years, forcing them to settle on a full-time batsman who adds stability in times of crisis – as Nick Maddinson’s selection showed. It was an overly protective decision and one which shows how close Australia are to being exposed for the second time in just two short months.
The selectors are still on the defensive and won’t be willing to make any rash decisions during a major series until the wounds inflicted by South Africa and Sri Lanka begin to heal.
The revolving door of all-rounder selections, which has seen Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh, Moses Henriques and James Faulkner (to name a few) pass through without making themselves household names, continues to swing violently with each entry and exit of another potential applicant, showing the spectrum of Australia’s long and unsuccessful search.
The Hobart test, which saw Australia bundled out for 85 in just over two sessions, changed the selectors mindset towards the all-round role and saw them opt in favour of a batsman rather than an extra bowling option. A move totally against the grain of what has worked so well for Australian sides in the past with the likes of Miller and Waugh, who forged long and successful careers as Australia’s designated all-rounder. But the near miss at the Gabba, coupled with Nathan Lyon’s hot and cold form and the need to prioritise the wellbeing of Australia’s fast bowlers in the lead-up to the Indian tour, has made them reconsider the value an extra seamer could have in the remaining two test matches.
Cartwright is a legitimate all-round option with a bright future whose Shield credentials place him in the top echelon of young talent. But his shock selection is less an unprecedented call up and more a carefully considered plan when you consider how he will be used.
Australian selectors have one eye firmly fixed on India already and are well aware that sub-par performances in the sub-continent will compound the issues lying just below the surface. They’re also aware that they won’t be able to thwart the effectiveness of spin-twins Ashwin and Jadeja, nor take the wicket of batting colossus Virat Kohli, without anything other than their first string side.
Cartwright can be seen then as the guardian of Australia’s fast bowling brigade in Melbourne and Sydney – a workhorse to take a load off the shoulders of Starc, Hazlewood and Bird – and could be made the scapegoat who unsettled the side if Pakistan take out the series. A no-win situation in a side who have long stuck with a batsman at number six.
But he will remain on the Australian radar even if these circumstances do eventuate, and will become a regular fixture when the Australian selectors decide to come out of hiding and regain full confidence in their players and the systems that groom them.
Their fear of reliving the Hobart disaster is inhibiting them from making rational decisions and it’s the kind of uncertainty that can derail a tour to India where losses are inevitable.
There is a school of thought in the cricketing world at the moment that all-rounders add the balance and versatility required to avoid regular failure. They are also the glue that binds a well-oiled machine who are unlikely to ever replicate Australia’s performance in Hobart because they bat right the way down.
England are a side packed from top to bottom with all-rounders. They’ve hit a roadblock of late but have shown how valuable a second line of defence can be in saving the sides bacon in the event of a top order collapse. A quality Australia could use going into a challenging year with an inexperienced side.
The logic behind taking the all-round route is obvious: the more competent batsmen you have, the more likely you are to rack up big totals. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that specialist batsmen and bowlers are condemned, it means you have more players skilled in both arts at key positions in the order. Moeen Ali is ranked fifth on the 2016 run scorers chart and is valued as much for his bowling as he is for his batting – even if some will contest this statement.
Since the mid 2000’s, Australia’s all-rounders have been more prolific in one suite than the other, or poor altogether and are yet to achieve the perfect balance between bat and ball.
Watson was a flash in the pan that lasted ten years while Marsh showed glimpses but was ultimately underwhelming. Could Cartwright buck the trend to become the first all-rounder since the enigmatic Andrew Symonds to average above 40? It’s a sad indictment of Australian cricket and its systems that this average still stands. But then again, you can count the number of all-rounders who have been in the Australian side since Symonds’ departure on one hand.
Cartwright looks to be a once in a generation cricketer who made a blip on the Australian radar through sheer weight of numbers in the first-class arena where he averages 44.50 with the bat and 41.93 with the ball – albeit in just 16 matches.
Australia have been crying out for an all-rounder for years and its been one of their weak points on tours away for the last decade. Not since the unearthing of Steve Waugh have they struck pure gold in this department.
Youth has proven to be a successful policy for the Australian side this summer and it may continue if Cartwright is given his chance. But without the selectors backing and support, it’s likely he’ll end up like the mistreated Mitchell Marsh and the selection musical chairs will continue.