Homework-gate Confidential – #02 – the selection circus returns

If we were to judge the Australian selectors on the success rate of their last five years, what grade would they receive? Over this period, the Ashes have been lost three times and won just once. The tour to India in 2013 had more scandals and selection backtracking than Australia had wins. And there seems to be less understanding now around why a player is selected, and the grounds on which he was given an opportunity, than ever before thanks to the decline of Shield cricket and the failure of selectors to acknowledge and reward standout performers with a spot in the test side. Which probably explains why their hit-rate, as in the number of players they’ve unearthed who have found success at test level versus the number that were unsuccessful in their attempt and subsequently dropped, has reached an all time low and the out of favour fan looks at their selection methods as if they were made on a bingo card under a big top – intended of course, as they are, to find competent test cricketers, not irritate fans to the edge of enrolling in an anger management class.

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Trevor Hohns – Australia’s interim chairman of selectors

The sixteen-man squad to tour India, which was announced yesterday morning, included another selection that has the potential to make the selectors look foolish, being that this particular player – Mitch Swepson – was selected based on his performances in the BBL rather than his fourteen game first-class career, which, might I add, looks promising, but by no means prolific. Just as Matthew Renshaw’s did at the time of his selection. As much as it may appear like a huge gamble with all the makings to turn sour quicker than out of date milk and throw the series into a crisis situation, it could also turn out to be the straw that breaks the back of an established Indian side that has been troubled by touring spinners on just one occasion in their past twenty home series. So, you’ve got to try something, right? And this approach just about sums up the happy-go-lucky selection committee, who take more risks than a gambler but manage to stumble upon the odd winner from time to time. Mitch Swepson’s selection, though, may be based more on logic than any of those made in the aftermath of the Hobart test which saw Australia slump in a humiliating fashion to their second loss in a three match series.

I mentioned in the first Homework-gate confidential that Australia needed to consider taking a leg spinner to India if they wanted to challenge them. England gave Adil Rashid the opportunity on their most recent visit in December of last year and he let no one down, including those who were advocating he be left out of the side for reasons ranging from ability and discipline, to personal vendettas. 23 was the number of Indian wickets he took in a series that exhibited to the world that Kohli and his men can be beaten at their own game.

There is also little vision on Mitchell Swepson, other than the odd Big Bash over, and in an age where much of the teams preparation relies on visual examination, the lack of footage may unsettle the Indians and the element of surprise will pay dividends for selectors.

But just as you’re about to praise them for their bravery in taking the path less traveled by selecting a mystery leg-spinner, they go ahead and second guess themselves by leaving out Sydney test bolter Hilton Cartwright and re-selecting Mitchell Marsh in a move that makes them look less confident in their ability to choose a side than they do in finding a permanent chairman. Why choose Cartwright for a sole test match when your intention was always to go back to Mitchell Marsh in India? Maybe he was selected so that they could prove themselves right, by proving themselves wrong. Or maybe his white ball form for the Perth Scorchers was so red hot that it would look idiotic to leave him out now that t20 cricket forms the ideal barometer for test match selection. If that is the case, they must have missed how he was dismissed at the Gabba in the first ODI game against an off-spinner who would struggle to spin the ball less than a tenth of what Ashwin or Jadeja can in conditions that barely resembled the Indian dust bowls he will have to negotiate with his hard hands and penchant for scoring at a quick rate that, by virtue of the alien conditions, is fraught with danger.

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Australia’s selectors are putting their money on red and riding their luck when it comes to picking players for the Indian test tour.  

If this bizarre conundrum isn’t enough to make you think twice about the selection circus, maybe this will. The man who turned heads three and a half years ago at Trent Bridge, where he waltzed out to bat at number eleven and showed up the Australian batsman by thrashing the mighty English seam attack around the park to finish on 98, has also been included in the squad. Ashton Agar’s inclusion all those years ago will go down as the most brazen and unanticipated selection moves of the last decade, if not all time. The selectors went weak at the knees when they heard about this fresh faced off-spin bowler England had never heard of and took a huge leap of faith, handing him a Baggy Green in an Ashes test to give him a dose of reality. And now, as if by clockwork, he’s making his return after a few seasons plotting a career path back into the Australian side with Western Australia where he has taken sixteen wickets at 27.81 in the first half of this year’s Sheffield Shield. Only John Holland has tallied more wickets as a spinner, but the chance he was given in Sri Lanka, and the unfavourable results he produced, has made him undesirable in the sub-continent this time round.

All of the above says we should be saying kudos to the selectors for their rewarding of sterling performances at domestic level. Because at times this season, it seemed as though they were going with their gut feel when deciding between two potential candidates rather than using Shield performances as the deciding factor. Nic Maddinson being picked over Kurtis Patterson and the desperately unlucky Callum Ferguson is a case in point.

The selectors have also gone with a spin-heavy squad, which suggests that they have learnt from their mistakes and are looking to make amends for their past errors in judgement which have seen Australia on the receiving end of multiple sub-continent maulings. On the flip side, however, they’ve given a lifeline to Glenn Maxwell and, as previously mentioned, Mitchell Marsh who have both been poor in the sub-continent when given an opportunity previously. This says three things about the selectors: they’re more forgiving of past sins than a Catholic saint; have memory spans akin to that of a gnat; or perceive a lack of all-round depth at first-class level and are unwilling to explore all their options during a series against the other two big three nations because the fourth estate guillotine looms large and threatens to drop in a heartbeat if things go wrong. Even though they have taken this risk in the past and have come out the other side wounded, but alive to tell the tale. Maybe this is another example of them righting a past wrong in the most obscure way possible.

They’ve made it difficult for themselves to be liked by a rapidly disillusioned public who are sick to death of seeing them dig in the same spot without striking oil, but persevering anyway. If the slipper doesn’t fit, it generally means they aren’t right for test cricket. Even if the prevailing illusion is that their Prince Charming can squeeze into the mould and make it work with Cinderella if given enough opportunities.

At the moment it feels like the selectors are working on the notion that a successful selection call counteracts the devastating effects of a draw dropping and unwarranted one. Take, for example, the selection of Matthew Renshaw and the picture his early detection paints of the panel that threw him into the middle of the Indian Ocean with nothing but a life preserver named David Warner and told him to find his way back to dry land. Of course, it looks like a masterstroke, but it could have so easily gone haywire if Renshaw was not up to the task given that he was contracted to repair a sinking ship as an apprentice, under lights and in a test match that would have sent shock waves through the Australian camp and put them on high alert for the series against Pakistan if it were lost. You even forget for a moment that he was replacing Joe Burns, who was thrown a lifeline following an injury to Shaun Marsh for the second test against South Africa in Hobart, only to be sorting through the wreckage of a South African torpedo three days later. But how long can the pin the tail on the donkey exercise of squad selection remain and how many nauseating swings and roundabouts will we go through before things change? There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to selection, but there should be consistency and a willingness to cut players loose if they’ve been given multiple opportunities but have never stepped up to the plate as far as performance is concerned.

Homework-gate Confidential – #01 – caught in a spin

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Glenn Maxwell – will he return in India?

I’ve decided that in the lead up to India, which is still a full two months and a bit away, I would devote some posts to the forthcoming tour in a mini blog series entitled “Homework-gate Confidential”. This test series holds such enormous importance for Australia, not least because of the tumultuous time they had in 2013 and the unhappy returns in the sub-continent during 2016. They’ve beaten Pakistan, to the surprise and excitement of few, and a whitewash is well and truly on the cards. Whether it eventuates is totally dependent on what the wicket is like and where the players heads are at. Is the first test in Pune and the positions up for grabs already beginning to distract them from the task at hand?

Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe have been added to the squad for the Sydney test in anticipation of a turning track, but this looks like a move designed to asses their spin options for the sub-continent given the series is already sewn-up. This is where the first “Homework-gate Confidential” ties in nicely to pose the all-encompassing question – who should we take to India in February? This edition will be based on our spin bowlers as who is currently our most skilled and competent is still up in the air. They hold the keys to victory on the spinning tracks in India and how they perform is as important, if not more, than the number of runs the batting unit score. If Kohli is let off the chain to score game winning hundreds in the first innings as he was allowed to against England, Australia can kiss goodbye to their chances of an odds-defying series victory.

England didn’t possess the spin bowling stocks to outclass Ashwin and Jadeja and neither do Australia. But to give themselves a fighting chance of walking away from the four-test series with their reputations intact, the selectors must first choose the right men for the job and conditions. It will be like setting loose a wolf among the cattle if they fail to get this combination right.

England went on tour with five spin bowlers and, such was the chopping and changing of bowlers on a game-by-game basis, only two managed to eclipse the efforts of their fast bowlers which didn’t put them within touching distance of Ashwin (28 wickets) and Jadeja (26 wickets). Rashid was the one glaring exception and was outstanding in a series where the next best spin bowler took just two wickets a game. Australia should take notice and consider the effectiveness and impact a leg-spin bowler – of which their are none currently in the Australian squad – can have with their ability to rip and spin the ball more than the finger spinners they have persisted with for the past six years.

The last specialist leg-spin bowler to be selected in a test match for Australia was the current captain who is now scoring runs for fun at number four. The selectors have not traveled down the wrist-spinning route since due to the effectiveness of Nathan Lyon, and are unlikely to reach into their bag of young leg spin aces at any stage during the series. But the brilliance of Rashid shows that India’s batsmen have a weakness that is waiting to be exploited by a world class wrist-spinner. And this cannot be replicated by the left arm finger spin of Ashton Agar or Steve O’Keefe. Australia’s selectors must take a leap of faith.

Nathan Lyon endured a lean wicket taking patch during 2016 but he will, barring injury, be the first picked and much rides on his ability to match it with India’s all-conquering spin twins and bowl Australia to victory on the final two days where the wickets will be at their most volatile. Two weeks ago his position was under threat but a spell in Melbourne under immense pressure has repayed the selectors faith. He underachieved in Sri Lanka snagging just sixteen wickets at 31.93 when Australia needed him most and hasn’t been the wicket taking weapon that we’ve come to expect lately. There’s no doubt that he is Australia’s most accomplished off-spin bowler and it’s high time he puts his name up in lights with a career defining tour.

There is no greater stage for a spin bowler. India may break the resilience Lyon has shown to keep his spot amidst growing uncertainty around his position. But by the same token, it may be the scene of his resurrection and put him back on the map as someone to be weary of at home as well as abroad.

The test career of Glenn Maxwell, which unraveled in just three short test matches in the sub-continent, should be given a chance to blossom once again. Moeen Ali was a vital cog in the English wheel during their recent tour and it is this role that Maxwell should seek to undertake. Putting a full-time batsman or a seam up all-rounder at number six on a tour to India would be a monumental mistake. The more spin bowlers Australia have at their disposal, the greater chance they have of bowling India out for a total that is attainable with their current crop of inexperienced middle order batsmen. Kohli, Pujara and Vijay know their own games better than the back of their hands and in Jadeja and Jayant they have a lower order capable of taking the game away from Australia in one innings.

England, with Jake Ball and Chris Woakes alongside stalwarts Anderson and Broad, were unable to blunt the effectiveness of India’s batsmen and were the human equivalent of a bowling machine when the ball lost its shine and the batsman were set. Throwing soon to be test newcomer Cartwright into the deep end under these circumstances and asking him to bowl a side out on the final day when the wickets aren’t conducive to swing or seam movement is destined to yield unfavorable results.

Maxwell is more than capable of batting in the number six position with his sub-continent wrists and abundant knowledge of local conditions having toured once before and through his yearly participation in the IPL. But it is his spin bowling that will prove to be his most valuable asset if he is given an unlikely call-up to the scene of his career stunting crimes with bat and ball four years ago.

Australia have a conundrum but the answers to their queries are hiding in plain sight. A great deal rides on how the selectors use the players they have at their disposal.

The next installments of “Homework-gate Confidential” will be posted periodically in the lead up to the tour. Not all will be as long as this and some posts will be there purely for your comments.

Happy New Year!