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 As much as it may appear like a huge gamble with all the makings to turn sour quicker than out of date milk and throw the series into a crisis situation, it could also turn out to be the straw that breaks the back of an established Indian side that has been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.

New chapter set to be written in Australia’s long search for an all-rounder

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.

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Hilton Cartwright drives through cover while on duty for WA. Image: Sporting News

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.

Australia v South Africa, Day Four – A Bloggers Lament

I think we can now place Australia in the mediocre category alongside New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In fact, we’re about as mediocre as it gets. We struggle our way to defeat in England, bully the minnow nations, get trounced in the sub-continent before erasing those scars with a comfortable series win at home. Except, this time round, there’s been nothing remotely comfortable about the first two test matches, and when you view the batting performances in isolation, you uncover the true extent of the damage.

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Take a good look, England. It won’t happen too often.

I’m not here to dish the dirt on the Australian batsman. For the most part, their embarrassing performances can be put down to some highly unconventional decision making at the top. They’ve been thrust into this position through the board’s inability to establish a regime that prioritises the needs of test cricket, as I made mention to over the first two days of this test match. The dismissal’s of Adam Voges and Callum Ferguson showed just how little progress the Sheffield Shield is making in creating ready made, adaptable cricketers. Both players forged very respectable careers at first class level prior to their selection for Australia, and both had no answer when the South African bowlers hit their straps. We need changes, as I mentioned a few days ago. Whether or not CA are awake to these deficiencies and are willing to forego a chunk of their t20 broadcast rights to squeeze in extra Shield and second XI matches, as required, is yet to be seen. We travel to India in February. At this stage, given the lack of scheduled preparation, Australian cricket could assume the mantle as international cricket’s new whipping boys.

But not all of Australia’s issues can be pinned on the management’s lack of awareness. The tenacious cricketer tag that for so long followed the Australia cricket side around seems to have gone missing. The dogged determination at the crease and a debonair approach to batting introduced by forefathers Waugh, Border and Bradman – players that embodied each and every value synonymous with the Baggy Green – have also been shunned in a similar fashion by the playing group.

If Sri Lanka was Australia’s graveyard during August, this is surely a manifestation of hell. Both Australian innings were riddled with technical flaws. The top and middle order looked as adept at keeping out the swinging ball as Lyon and Hazlewood down below. The South African bowlers have great skill, but the Australian capitulation made them look far better than they are. Let us not forget that Steyn was injured and replaced by what you could essentially call a second string option. What they did so brilliantly was bowl to a plan. They didn’t try anything particularly adventurous and managed to put the ball on a consistent length that the Australian batsman had neither the patience, nor the temperament, to endure. Sure, there were some unplayable deliveries mixed in among an abundance of wickets that fell to poor strokes. But for the most part they were patient, resilient and had a captain that would persist with them if they erred in line for an over or two, or cut them from the attack if the batsman were at any stage settled enough to play them with ease. You couldn’t fault Faf for any of his decisions as captain thus far, and you might as well say the same thing about the team as a whole. They are thoroughly deserving victors of this series and a team that will cause some sides great trouble over the coming years. When you look down their team list, it’s difficult to spot a weak link.

Changes are imminent in the Australian top order, this we know for certain. If they’re not made in time for the Adelaide test, they will be by the time Pakistan reaches our shores. There are four players in the Australian side who are currently immune to an axing on account of either their current form, or the fact they hold an authority position. The remaining positions are open slather.

Burns, Voges and M. Marsh are all one poor innings away from playing their last test in Australian colours, if they haven’t already, while S. Marsh, Nevil, Hazlewood, Lyon and Siddle aren’t yet dead in the water, but are firmly fixed to the selectors hit-list. Whether or not the players in waiting will stem the bleeding is a separate argument and one I don’t wish to have right now. There’s plenty of talent there, but again, if they haven’t been given adequate preparation, talent is just that, talent.

 

 

Australia v South Africa, Day Three – Will the stars align in Hobart?

You wouldn’t be scoffed at for suggesting that Australia have close to no chance of winning this game. Stating that they are still in the hunt also wouldn’t be far off the mark. A win looks highly unlikely at this point given Australia’s propensity to loose wickets in clumps and the strength South Africa posses in their batting ranks. Any lead over two-hundred, which is still an unrealistic expectation, seems almost a bridge too far at this point for the Australian batsmen and is total that may be easily attainable based on South Africa’s red hot form. But the wicket is starting to play tricks and the Hobart weather has proven more unpredictable than the Australian batting line up. Is there a twist still left in this tale?

Australia haven’t made it easy for themselves though. Some erratic bowling early in the days play from Hazlewood, Starc and debutant Mennie gave Bavuma and de Kock far too many opportunities to score, and that they did. De Kock showed us all just how talented a batsman he is, and how valuable a competent wicket-keeper batsman can be. His innings oozed class. The runs he compiled alongside Bavuma were of crucial importance and enabled South Africa to reach a target that might yet ensure South Africa bat just once. But de Kock’s innings was constructed around capitalising on the loose delivery, rather than a display of patience and elegance. He mistimed drives that would usually cause a batsman great frustration on a seaming wicket. But these lapses in concentration were immediately relieved by a boundary which was hit, more often than not, off an over pitched delivery. All of Australia’s bowlers were to blame, not one can be excused. We own a very talented group of fast bowlers, and these errors in line and length are to be expected at stages when you consider that this one of our most inexperienced attacks in recent years. There’s no Harris, no Johnson and no Siddle. Communication between Smith and his bowlers also seemed to be restricted to the intervals in play. If there is no guiding, mature, level-headed influence, Australia’s young attack won’t recognise their faults. And they certainly won’t attempt to make the necessary adjustments, nor perfect their field placings.

Smith and Khawaja remain at the crease. Burns and Warner are back in the shed. This Australian order has plenty to offer yet but even more to prove to both the public and themselves. Conjuring up a total over 500 to put themselves in with a chance of pulling victory from the thralls of defeat would restore their lost dignity and repay the selectors faith. There’s a long way to go to reach that point yet, and many hundreds to be made if they hope to get near it. A lot will depend on how they approach batting on day four and whether or not mother nature has a say, as it has so far. The innings of 85 in the first dig showed us that Australia are approaching batting with great trepidation. They realise there’s a problem, whether it originated in Sri Lanka or not is irrelevant, and they are batting in a way to ensure these circumstances never rear their ugly head again. Many of the first innings dismissals were representative of their inclination to never overcommit to a stroke. This is the cause of their problems, not the solution.

There’s great pressure on certain players in the middle order and it’s hard to see them making a large contribution to the run tally. A lot rests on the shoulders of Smith and Khawaja to pick up the slack and wear out the bowlers in order to make it easier on the players under pressure. If Australia can press for a lead of 250+, a draw might be a possibility. But the stars must align for this to occur.

Australia’s first aim must be to bat the entire day. Maybe then we will bare witness to a highly unlikely Australian comeback.

Comments on Day Four shortly