The tops had hardly been knocked off the celebratory Carlton Draughts in the SCG dressing rooms last Sunday afternoon when the Australian cricket fraternity started arguing about selection. With Michael Hussey packing the zinc cream away in his bathroom cabinet for good, a revolving door in the bowling department and Ricky Ponting’s retirement *touch wood* putting an end to his stiff-as-an-ironing-board Swisse Ultivite commercials, it’s a discussion that needs to take place – especially with an intensely challenging 12 months ahead, which sees the Baggy Greens head to India for four Tests before a ten-match Ashes stretch. Plus, Aussie cricket fans love this kind of navel-gazing, slamming selectors and their harebrained decisions, hatching master plans over the drip tray and explaining their guileful schemes conceived with eight schooners under the belt. I didn’t want to miss out on all the bickering, so amidst the din of opinions, here’s my take on the Australian XI in 2013, a year shaping up as one of the most demanding in recent history.
Starting at the top, and David Warner is a lock. His explosive Adelaide ton was the highlight of his summer, but equally impressive were four consecutive half centuries against Sri Lanka that point to a newfound consistency. He’s a handy bowler and a razor-sharp fieldsman, and his energetic demeanour is a touchstone of the Michael Clarke era.
Warner’s dour opening partner Ed Cowan lacks that same vitality. The selectors like the idea of pairing the daredevil Warner with Steady Eddie but his record is unimpressive, averaging a mere 32.81 in his 13 Tests. More frustrating is that for a player who prides himself on being hard to dislodge, Cowan developed an unhappy habit of throwing his wicket away – he was twice run out this summer, and his lazy pull shot in Hobart typified his propensity for soft dismissals. In Sydney he scratched his way to a valuable 36 with a series of stilted sweeps before being trapped by Herath leg before wicket, which augurs poorly for India. On the other hand, his correct technique and familiarity with English conditions – to be honed further by a seven-game spell with Notts prior to the Ashes – strengthens his claim to a place. If Cowan misfires in India, whether the selectors should persist with him in more favourable conditions will be a hot talking point.
Phil Hughes is an enigma. Macksville’s greatest export since Greg Inglis, Hughes has copied GI by choosing to ply his trade outside of NSW and since moving to South Australia, his technique appears to have improved, especially his onside play. He still has a peculiar technique – slicing and dicing with extravagant movement of his back leg – which was fine against Mahela Jayawardene’s popgun attack, against whom he scored an 86 and an 87, but could be unravelled by England’s pace battery. A lack of genuine alternatives beating down the selectors’ door probably shores up his spot at first drop, despite not having passed 50 in his five Tests against England to date.
At No.4, I suspect this Clarke fella is a reasonably safe bet (although he hasn’t scored a century this calendar year, tut-tut). Far more interesting is the utilisation of Shane Watson, who’ll return to the side as a specialist batsman to protect his fragile body. It’s fine to quarantine Watson from the donkey work in India but hopefully on England’s greener wickets he’ll be able to bowl some of his priceless partnership-breaking seamers. Where does the vice-captain fit into the batting order? If the selectors are looking for a cool head to accompany Warner against the new ball, Watson is the best option. His critics highlight his terrible conversion rate – two centuries from his 21 innings that have reached 50 – and this is a valid criticism (batsmen are measured in centuries, because those are the rare digs that win games, rather than handy fifties or attractive cameos). But Watson’s almost unerring ability to make a start – his record is peppered with 32s and 38s and 41s – provides a neat foil to Warner. If the basher goes down swinging, at least Watson is there to take the shine off the new cherry.
Filling places 5 and 6 is where it gets tricky. Warner-Cowan-Hughes-Watson-Clarke could fill a top five, leaving one available place before the wicketkeeper and the bowlers. I would prefer a Warner-Watson-Hughes-Clarke top four, leaving room for two inclusions. In either of those scenarios, an all-rounder is mandatory. Twice this summer – in Adelaide and Hobart – Australia was left one paceman short by injuries to James Pattinson and Ben Hilfenhaus respectively. Luckily in Tasmania, Shane Watson shouldered some of the burden but his body has gotten to the point where it’s hard to rely on him for consistent overs. Glenn Maxwell, the off-spinning all-rounder who carried the drinks in the Sydney Test, looks like a smart option for India with no other serious spin options to accompany Nathan Lyon on the subcontinent’s turning tracks. The figures from his fledgling Shield career – averaging 42 with the bat and 34 with the ball – are respectable, and a handful of limited overs appearances already to his name should smooth this transition into a Baggy Green.
Maxwell suits the Asian dustbowls but a seaming all-rounder is required for the green, green grass of England. It’s hard to come up with any other option than Moises Henriques, who is enjoying a good Shield campaign thus far, averaging 18 with the leather and 79 with the willow. If the selectors chose an all-rounder on principle – which appears a sensible policy, considering the vulnerability of the bowlers and the fact that Matthew Wade’s solid batting covers what might be lost by choosing an all-rounder in place of a specialist batsman – Henriques and Maxwell head the queue, ahead of James Faulkner (who lacks runs), and Andrew ‘Ronald’ McDonald (who lacks penetration with the ball).
If there is room for a specialist batsman, Usman Khawaja seems the front runner, especially with Indian conditions suiting his wristy brand of batsmanship. It’s difficult to judge the Pakistan-born swordsman, who has made no great impact on the Shield since moving to Queensland, nor the Australian side in his six Tests since 2011 (albeit in trying circumstances, usually as a replacement who the selectors have recycled quickly). If I was John Inverarity – the chairman of selectors who reminds you of every officious schoolteacher you’ve ever had – I would be agitating strongly for a more experienced head to fill the middle order, to replace the security blanket Mike Hussey provided. I don’t think they need to look further afield than the Hussey family, and brother David. Sure, he’s had a dirty time of the Shield this summer but his permanence in the both international limited overs teams demonstrates his ability, while more than 12,000 first class runs at an average of 53.70 – countless in England for Notts and Sussex – have polished his technique in much the same way a long apprenticeship did for Mike, who himself made a seamless transition into the Test team in his 30s.
Ten years ago, you could read any Sheffield Shield scorecard and there were familiar names peeling off ton after ton. Queensland had Stuart Law and Martin Love, Victoria Brad Hodge, South Australia Darren Lehmann, NSW Michael Bevan, WA Simon Katich, Tasmania Jamie Cox and Michael Di Venuto. If any of those players were firing in 2012-13, they would walk into the Test XI. That depth was helped by the few handy players in front of them – a couple of twins spring to mind, plus a young bloke named Ponting, too. But now, the selectors are either forced to throw a callow rookie in the deep end in the hope that he swims – a Khawaja, a Joe Burns, an Alex Doolan – or bank on an out-of-form older head, like Hussey. When Australia are 3/47 on the first morning at Lord’s and Jimmy Anderson is swinging the Duke a foot and a half, I’d prefer to see the 35-year-old Hussey calmly stride to the wicket rather than a Ben Barba lookalike who’s scored less than a third of Hussey’s 12,000 first class runs.
Behind the stumps is also becoming a problematic position, with Matthew Wade’s sloppy glovework drawing criticism. I get the impression Matthew Wade was one of those kids that was good at everything. He would have come home from the swimming or athletics carnival with blue ribbons falling out of his pockets, he would have been first picked in schoolyard games of footy. And I reckon some junior coach threw him the wicketkeeping gloves one day because he was the best pair of hands in the team, and he was relatively short in stature. Even now, wearing the baggy green, he just looks like an athlete with a decent pair of hands rather than a craftsman in the mould of Healy or even Gilchrist. India will be a rigorous examination; most of Wade’s errors this summer – the most important being Faf du Plessis’ missed stumping in Adelaide – fell to the luckless Lyon, and there will be plenty more spin on the subcontinent.
I would implore Wade’s detractors to remind themselves of Brad Haddin’s own struggles, though. Haddin – Wade’s likely replacement if he were dropped – was terribly prone to a brain fade, both with the gloves and the willow. And a full decade Wade’s senior, I would rather persist with the imperfect up-and-comer than the imperfect fading star. Tim Paine is the other name mooted but coming off a Watson-esque run of injury and a batting record that pales compared with Wade’s, he would be a poor choice. The quality of Wade’s batting is too easily overlooked: in his nine Tests to date, he’s already notched two centuries, whereas it took Rodney Marsh 96 games to collect three, and Ian Healy 119 to score four. And importantly, Wade’s runs are so often scored when they are most desperately needed; he was the only Australian to reach triple figures in last year’s gritty three-match tour of the West Indies, spared our blushes with 68 in the collapse against South Africa in Perth, and played a pivotal role in Sydney last week with the only century in the match. While his batting is polished, his keeping is still rough; but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed, and nothing worth discarding him over without a standout alternative in the queue.
Moving on to the bowlers, and Nathan Lyon deserves a similar defence. Yep, he’s not Warnie. Yep, he could be more attacking. Yep, he struggled in Adelaide and Hobart when he was relied upon to deliver victory in the fourth innings. Yep, he’s unfashionable. But he is the best spinner Australia has, by a considerable margin. The snide panning Lyon copped after being handed the team song duties by Mike Hussey – when he was given the role, you could virtually hear the snickering as knockers sneeringly asked ‘Yeah, but for how long?’ – is unproductive. He’s trying his guts out, he throws his spindle-shanked frame around the field with vigour, and his acknowledgement as chief cheer leader is testament to his central role in Michael Clarke’s team. Incidentally, his summer might have looked a whole lot better if Wade hadn’t grassed three or four chances. The cupboard is completely bare of top-rate spinners – it’s worth noting the Sheffield Shield’s most prolific spinner is Stephen O’Keefe with 9 wickets in 5 games, making him the competition’s 21st leading wicket-taker – so the balding tweaker from Young deserves our support, rather than derision.
In terms of the quickies, Peter Siddle – as both the packhorse, and the strike bowler – chooses himself. The barrel-chested Victorian has become leader of the attack and will be primed for a mammoth 2013 (I’m not sure he’ll be putting his hand up to be rested, after what happened in Perth). James Pattinson, if fit (and for a lot of these pacemen, that is becoming an increasingly big ‘if’), would be the next seed. Like Warner, he oozes swagger and arrogance and aggression, a symbol of Clarke’s cocky Australians. Jackson Bird, in his two matches against Sri Lanka, has almost played himself into Australia’s best XI. Admittedly his appearances coincided with two maulings of a toothless opponent but he displayed the ‘je ne sais quoi’, the mojo, that defines Test match players. His efficient action and unwavering accuracy makes him a good option for India, while he’ll enjoy the fruitful seam-friendly conditions in England far more.
They say there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes – but if you’re an Australian fast bowler, you can add injury to that list. Those three men will not be able to play all 14 Tests in the jam-packed upcoming schedule. How do the others rank? Ben Hilfenhaus started the summer in Australia’s best XI but he’ll be 30 by the Ashes, dogged by a fitness question mark, and carrying the scars of two horror campaigns in 2009 and 2010-11. On the plus side, English conditions suit swing bowling and his personal efforts in the failed 2009 series – 22 wickets at 27 – support his bid for selection. Next would be Mitchell Starc, still raw, still struggling to tame the new ball, but with the useful knack of taking plenty of wickets even if they occasionally come with a price tag.
It’s almost impossible to judge Pat Cummins, whose last first class match was his Test debut in Johannesburg in 2011. He appears to be a phenomenally talented player, but John Inverarity would be taking an enormous risk if he were to expose the 19-year-old to the blood and thunder of Ashes cricket upon his red-ball return. Another long-term casualty is Ryan Harris, who has become somewhat of a forgotten man. He hasn’t laced on a boot since IPL action last May, and at 33 years old, he might have seen the last of the baggy green; hugely regrettable, given his 47 scalps in 12 Tests have come at 23.63 apiece, evidence of Harris’ quality when his body doesn’t fail him.
If you asked Alastair Cook who he would like lining up for Australia, though, he would elect, without hesitation, Mitchell Johnson. Johnson was terrific against Sri Lanka, and would ordinarily deserve to be in the mix with Bird and Starc and Hilfenhaus, jostling for a place in the team. If Australia was heading to South Africa or New Zealand or the West Indies then Johnson would be a shoo-in for the squad at least. But this is England. The side that has inflicted more scars on Johnson than any other. The poor bloke probably still has the Barmy Army ringing in his ears after the 2010-11 capitulation. He takes wickets – 35 in 9 outings against the Old Enemy – but they come at too high a price (34.43). Every single one of the 1,205 runs England have pillaged off Johnson’s bowling would be weighing on his mind, and it’s a risk that the selectors need not take with five (or seven) feasible alternatives.
Of course, this cricketing crystal ball is muddied by the vagaries of form and fortune that make the sport so engaging. But let’s suppose everyone’s fit (that includes Watson and Clarke being able to roll the arm over), and no player experiences a savage peak or trough in India before flying to England, this is the lineup I’d like to see displayed on the Trent Bridge scoreboard on July 10.
DA Warner, SR Watson, PJ Hughes, MJ Clarke, DJ Hussey, UT Khawaja, MS Wade, PM Siddle, JL Pattinson, NM Lyon, JM Bird.
I doubt this will be the side chosen. I suspect Hilfenhaus still sits above Bird in the pecking order, pardon the pun. Also, Hussey is unlikely to be given a sniff, and his place would likely go to an all-rounder, presumably Maxwell in India and Henriques in England. It also assumes that no one will have a break-out finale to the Sheffield Shield season, which kicks back into gear after the BBL finishes. Although unless another Mike Hussey reveals himself in the next month or two, I think the selectors might have to work with the somewhat limited ingredients currently sitting in the pantry.