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Friday, March 10, 2017

Selection Idiosyncrasies Haunt Australia's Chances

The Mitchell Marsh fiasco, and the selection bungle that followed, is as much to be concerned about as any of this other childish back and forth in regards to the DRS controversy still being played out in India. It is much more at the heart of what still cruels Australian cricket in their hope to return to world dominance.

Mitch Marsh was chosen for the tour to India, more on previously identified talent than performance. He wasn’t the only one (yes I’m looking at you Glenn Maxwell), but his selection came further under the microscope this week, when he was sent home from the tour with a damaged shoulder. Yes, this is apparently the same shoulder that was injured during the January ODI series against Pakistan that meant he was under a cloud to tour. Something that was never mentioned again until the recent Test finished. This surely raises the question as to whether he was fully fit at any time to perform the duties asked of him as an all-rounder in the Test team. As it was, he bowled a total of five overs in two matches. What would have happened had he had to shoulder (no pun intended) a larger burden with the ball? Would he have been able to do it? And if he didn’t would the support staff or selectors have taken the blame for that? It seems a rather big risk to make, given that he hasn’t been contributing anything worthwhile with the bat. Can the selectors fully justify the decision to play Marsh at all, let alone if he is carrying an injury? It is yet another example of the mixed messages the panel is sending to players.

And it continued with the decision to send Marcus Stoinis as Marsh’s replacement in the squad.

No one can disparage what Marcus Stoinis did in that one ODI innings in New Zealand. It was a terrific knock, which fell just short of leading Australia to victory. It should be noted however that it was played without pressure on his back, as the unlikelihood of a victory allowed him to free his arms and swing hard. The boundaries were also very VERY short, such that even if he hadn’t been striking the ball so well, they would have managed to clear the boundary. The wicket was also flat and the white balls were no longer swinging. Everything was in his favour – and he took it, admirably – but the conditions are nothing like he will face in first class cricket, and certainly not in a Test series in India.

This is where Australia’s selection policy must one again be brought to bear. The figures as presented by Brydon Coverdale are significant.

And again, when Chairman Trevor Hohns came out and said that the selectors went for whom they considered the strongest bowler, Brydon was on board again with a logical response.

Which poses the question once again – why are players being chosen in Test squads on form in shorter form cricket or on past form and not current form in first class cricket?

George Bailey was chosen for the 2013/14 Ashes series on the back of scoring a thousand runs on the concrete roads and small boundaries that make up an ODI tour of India. Everyone likes George. He’s the kid who is always smiling and you really want to succeed, but just never quite makes it. And he smiled all the way through that five Test whitewash on home soil. Yet by the end of the series it was shown that his feasting of attacks against deliveries that are gun-barrel straight on flat decks wasn’t able to be transferred to the Test arena, despite his crowd pleasing effort in taking 28 runs off one James Anderson over in Perth – perhaps his most memorable innings. But the experiment of picking a player on one day form came to an inevitable end.
Other players have come and gone in the same fashion for pretty much the same results. Glenn Maxwell has been tried before, and within a week we will likely see him tried again. Xavier Doherty couldn’t convert one day frugalness to Test match success. Ditto Michael Beer. James Faulkner got one Test as a fill in and hasn’t threatened since. Any number of other players could be put forward as examples. Let’s face it – how did Sam Haezlett get chosen on that ODI tour of New Zealand? And how does Usman Khawaja go from averaging 50 in the home series Tests to missing out in India? Stoinis may not play a Test in India, and no one doubts his credentials, but surely form, and the CORRECT form, should be the leading category in selection in the national team.

The selection bungles came thick and fast in the recently completed home series as well. Joe Burns couldn’t regain his place at the top of the order for the first Test against South Africa. He was brought in to replace the injured Shaun Marsh in Hobart, and was wiped out like the rest of the team in that shambles of a Test match, before being shown the door once again. Likewise Joe Mennie and Callum Ferguson. Mennie had form from the previous season on his side, and yet after one Test where he bowled in one innings he was immediately discarded like a piece of rotten cheese. And Ferguson was chosen as much for his maturity and past record as he was for anything else resembling current red ball form. His two innings both ended badly, and again like Mennie he wound up on the garbage heap. Whatever happened to giving a player a chance to find his feet? If every player in history was treated the same way… we’d have lost some greats. It was confusing and abhorrent to watchers and supporters, let alone what the players thought about it. Chadd Sayers kept getting picked in the 12, and then staying as 12th Man. Given his season in first class cricket, surely his form warranted a chance on the field. Hilton Cartwright was chosen out of the blue in both the ODI team and the Test team. He finally got a chance in the final Test as the all-rounder to help burden the load of the bowlers, and got four overs while scoring a respectable 37 with the bat. Not good enough to go to India though, even as a replacement for the man who replaced him in the team. What the hell is going on?!?

Then take the selections after this, for the Adelaide Test against South Africa. The selectors chose Matthew Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson to debut. Renshaw was green, but was averaging 45 in first class cricket, and came off a century and a half century in the Shield game against NSW. He has since proven to be worth his weight in gold. Handscomb had scored a double century against NSW as part of his season tally. He too has been a standout. Both of these players were chosen ON form and IN form. Maddinson’s form was shaky, averaging in the low 30’s, while the man who everyone (well, I did) thought would be selected was Kurtis Patterson, who was also IN form and was averaging in the low 40’s. Maddinson was unable to do what his other two debutants did and score runs immediately, though perhaps circumstances could be mentioned. What should be mentioned was that the selectors gave him THREE Tests (not ONE) to find his feet. When he was unable to do so, he was moved aside for Cartwright to get his opportunity. Maddinson has since gone through a publically tough time following his sacking, though he has now returned to first class cricket, hopefully a better cricketer who will get another chance down the line. One wonder though what would have happened had Patterson been given his chance, ON form and IN form. Maybe we would already have our number six established in the Test team, and wouldn’t even be speaking of this.

And let’s not forget the wicket keeper. Peter Nevill was unceremoniously sacked as keeper after Hobart, with his batting cited as the reason for his being dropped. There was no one who challenged him as being the best keeper in the country, yet now he wasn’t good enough to be in the Australian team. Matthew Wade was reinstated. Wade was generally regarded as the ‘least confident’ keeper in the country. Yes, I should have written ‘worst’. But his batting was what got him back into the team.
When he was dropped, Nevill was averaging 22.28 in Test cricket. This season in the Sheffield Shield he has scored 529 runs at 58.77. When Wade was chosen again, he was averaging less than 20 in Shield cricket. Since his return to the Test team he has scored 118 runs at an average of 14.75. he has also averaged at least one missed chance with the gloves per Test. And yet, there appears no pressure on his position. Indeed, it appears he will be offered one of the highest contracts by Cricket Australia for the next season. This is Selection Criteria Gone Mad.

What is the point of all of this? It is to highlight the inconsistencies in the selection of players for the national team, and it continues with Marsh’s injury and Stoinis being selected over other candidates. It will come again if (when) Glenn Maxwell plays in the 3rd Test, when Darren Lehmann was quoted just three months ago as saying “how can you select someone in the Test team who hasn’t scored a century in over two years?” Well, it’s more than two years now, and he still hasn’t scored a century. But he’s on this tour, and probably about to get another Test cap. If he does, then you can probably expect to hear more from me then.
It is a new world for cricket. Players look to be selected more on instinct and potential than they ever have before. Some players seem to get a hundred chances to perform while others are cast aside after barely a fleeting glance. It can’t be a good way to instil confidence in the teams that are affected if players are always looking over their shoulder the second they get selected. I know it’s easy to say being an armchair critic, but ask Mitch Marsh and Peter Nevill how they feel about their respective selection stories and I think you will find where the truth lies.
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