Last summer we made a not very bold prediction. Australia was not going to win the Twenty20 World Cup. The reason? Australian Cricket had no plan. Selection of players was based on temporary whims of the selectors with no long-term goal or focus. Australia, did not know what it was trying to achieve. The side picked for the world t20 barely resembled the side that had played for the previous 12 months.
At that time we had no reason to speculate that a similar problem afflicted the test side. The goals of the test side are straightforward. Try to build a side that can win over the long term. Test cricket is played in phases. Australia dominated 1993-2005 because they had a side built to last through that period. Players were picked with a view of being test cricketers for ten years.
Since Coach Darren Lehmann’s reign begun, the selectors have developed a disastrous short-term focus, meaning the side’s success widely fluctuates as they have only been able to tap into short veins of form. Simply, the Australian cricket team is no longer built to last.
Last summer it wasn’t obvious this was a problem. The side had basically spent three months beating a New Zealand side on some of the world’s most anodyne pitches, and then faced a West Indies side that is barely test quality (much like we’re barely international quality in T20 cricket, but I digress). Everything was going to be fine (except for t20s but everyone knows a sport isn’t a real sport until Australia gets good at it).
But the Sri Lankan tour providing a stark reminder of the challenges facing Australian cricket, and the inability of the selectors or the Coach to deal with it.
Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja were dropped because they failed just as much as any other batsmen in the top six, with Shaun Marsh and Henriques brought in. As you are probably aware, turning subcontinental wickets have been a problem for Australia in recent years, and so you would think getting our two youngest batsmen more reps on those decks would be a critical long-term goal. The serious was already lost. Dropping Burns for Marsh was only vindicated by his century. Dropping Khawaja for Henriques was not vindicated in any way, shape or form. Long-term strategy sacrificed to what purpose?
This was revealed further this summer with the picking of Joe Mennie and Callum Ferguson for the Hobart test.
Joe Mennie might be good. He averages 26 in first class cricket, and averaged 21.5 in the 2015-16 Sheffield Shield season. He is 27. He was chosen over Jackson Bird, who averages 24 in first class cricket, 25 in test cricket, and took a 5-for in the last test he played for Australia. Bird averaged 19.5 in the 2015-16 Shield Season. He is 29.
You couldn’t argue that Mennie is in better form. He is averaging 32 in Shield for 2016-17. Bird is averaging 25. You couldn’t argue he has a better first class record, or is a proven test performer as Bird is.
You could however, make an argument that you think Mennie is younger, is hitting his prime and will be better for longer for Australia. Smarter men than us have made that argument (See Collins, Adam). This would indicate a process, a plan that the selectors are looking to build Australian cricket.
Instead of making this argument, Rod Marsh now famously said that they couldn’t separate Bird and Mennie, so chose Mennie because of his batting. Some – including within these pages – have argued that this was fair enough.
This is not fair enough. It reveals a inability to do your job. Rod Marsh should have just said “I am incapable of applying the criteria required to do my job, so I made up new criteria”. If you turned up at work as a shelf-stacker tomorrow and decided you would clean the tea-room because you didn’t know how to stack shelves, you would no longer be a shelf-stacker. Rod Marsh had to pick the best bowler between two and could not. I can do it – it’s Bird.
Australia again chose short-term gain (hopefully getting from 7-190 to 260 rather than 215) rather than continuing to choose who will be a better bowler for Australia in the long-term. It may end up being Mennie, but that luck would only obscure the selectors process error, much like Shaun Marsh’s century in Sri Lanka obscured the error they made in dropping Joe Burns.
Callum Ferguson’s selection only emphasises this. Ferguson has been around the set-up for years. The hope has always been that his talent would be matched by results in Shield cricket. He averages 40 in first class cricket, averaged 53 in 2015-16 Shield, and has two centuries already this summer. He is playing in Hobart in the number six position.
It reveals a stunning lack of long-term thinking. Is Ferguson picked as an extra batsmen on a pitch that doesn’t require a fifth bowler? If so, then why did you waste the opportunity to get an in-form young batsmen a ‘cup of coffee’ at test level. Kurt Patterson, with a century and two half centuries this season (as well as a first class average in excess of Ferguson) would be one option. Chris Lynn (26 years old, averages 46), Jake Lehmann (24 years old, averages 48) and Peter Handscomb (25 averages 38) are others. Or is he the long-term answer at six? If so why him? His record matches many others in Shield. Is he more talented that we realise and only the selectors can tell? Then why was he left out when Burns came in at six two summers ago? The defence that ‘you have to earn an Australian cap’ rather than be blooded is completely at odds with history. Ask Shane Warne, Michael Clarke, Steve Waugh, Shaun Marsh, Steve Smith or Mitchell Marsh about their first class records before they became test staples.
It is important to realise that this short-term focus has been endorsed by Coach Darren Lehmann, who is in charge until 2019. The test side has been infected by the same lack of clarity, lack of direction that has afflicted the direction of the Australian cricket side for more than two summers now. In fact his leadership has chosen this path throughout his reign. From the success it brought with the 2013-14 Ashes and the following tour of south Africa, to the destruction that has been wrought overseas. If Australia don’t work out what they’re trying to achieve soon, it could become a crisis.