We’ve all been there.
Maybe it’s a text. Maybe it’s a notification from Cricket Australia. One in which even the social media manager seems surprised: “Aussie selection shock for India”. Maybe it’s just a mate cornering you, ready to spit flames at the latest outrage committed by the National Selection Panel.
“I can’t believe it. What are they even thinking?”
We complain. We remember. And we focus on the what. Everyone has a story of some moment the selectors shocked them. For me it will always be dropping Nathan Lyon for Ashton Agar. I complained like crazy on social media. Then Agar scored 98 and I felt dumb.
“Maybe the selectors are on to something here. A rare talent.”
Agar lasted one more test.
But we never seek to understand the most important question. Why is it that our selectors make errors? It is not something that only the current batch are getting wrong. Most of the examples in this piece are recent. But these problems have been an endemic part of our selection process for as long as I can remember.
If there is a serious belief that Australian can do better, we must first seek to understand why the mistakes are made in the first place. We don’t pretend this list is exhaustive. It is the just the beginning of an understanding. Here is our diagnosis.
- There is no plan
Do you remember that heady time just before Christmas when Coach Lehmann said Glenn Maxwell had no place in a test squad because he hadn’t scored a Sheffield Shield century in over two years?
Well good news because now Maxwell is back in the side. Only he still hasn’t scored a shield century. What’s more the national selectors stopped him from playing the last shield round so he could carry the drinks for some meaningless ODIs. So now he won’t have played first class cricket for 3 months and will be expected to seamlessly shift into red ball cricket in possibly the hardest climate on earth. It seems the selectors forgot the India series was on the radar.
This is a major problem. Australia has its two biggest series in the next 12 months – in India and Ashes at home. The selectors need to prioritise these tests and getting the right players ready for them. Anything else will result in losing both.
Right now Australia’s best side includes Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja and Nathan Lyon. In all likelihood those three would be in the best XI come the first Ashes test. If you think all three will last the ever “evolving” plans of Australian selectors in the sub-continent, then I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.
- Style Trumps Substance
Previously we’re called this “he looks like a cricketer”. It’s all about playing the part. If you look like you know what you’re doing, you can find yourselves with a long leash before the selectors decide otherwise. Ashton Agar has bowled well in precisely one shield game in his career and averages mid-20s with the bat. But he’s on the plane to India. Nic Maddinson played tests without scoring runs in 4 years because occasionally his aggressive approach comes off. Listening to selector Mark Waugh gush about him in the Big Bash semi-final was funny until he was bowled by Joe Burns. JOE BURNS. Then it was sad, for Nic and for Mark.
Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than by the selection debate between Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade behind the stumps. Nevill, undoubtedly the better keeper was dropped because of his ‘perceived’ failing with the bat and his lack of ‘presence’. Wade was brought in to provide lower order batting, and to get in the face of the opposition. To be loud. Seriously.
Since then anyone who has a twitter account has jumped on every error that Wade has made (and there’s been a few). In red ball cricket Wade has failed to make any impression with the bat – averaging just 12 since his return.
But, admittedly, his banter is top notch.
- Form and format matter. But form in format doesn’t.
Do you remember how Xavier Doherty got the call up for the first Ashes test in 2011? He took wickets in an ODI against Sri Lanka. The English were very appreciative: he averaged 102 for the series. No doubt this would have not shocked anyone familiar with his first class record.
Chris Lynn recently got a call up to the fifty over side based on his form in the twenty over game. Peter Handscomb replaced the injured Lynn in that side because of a brilliant start to his test career. He does not have a century in domestic limited overs cricket.
On occasion this has worked wonders. Selecting Mitchell Johnson for the Ashes in 2013 on the basis of his IPL form might have seemed odd at the time until he reduced England’s order to a jiberring mess.
But more often than not it leads to disaster – just ask Xavier Doherty.
- Selectors Don’t Watch More Cricket Than You
During a recent telecast of the Big Bash League Australian selector Mark Waugh admitted to not having watched New Zealander and new Sydney Sixer Colin Munro in action. This despite Australia having played New Zealand (including Colin Munro) just a few weeks earlier. Perhaps he didn’t see the three game series? I found this particularly interesting given I had been able to watch Munro, both in Australia, and in New Zealand against Bangladesh.
When Hilton Cartwright got selected for the final test of the summer, I have to admit I was a little bit excited. I’d never seen the guy play, but he averaged over 40 with the bat, and although his bowling record wasn’t that crash hot (he was averaging 72 in first class cricket at the time) I just assumed that given the selectors had chosen him explicitly to be the 5th bowling option, they had seem in bowl.
And with the bat he looked the part. Looking far more capable than anyone who had filled the number six position this summer, his 37 was enough to suggest the selectors hadn’t erred in earmarking the young talent. But four overs of his bowling in Sydney was all it took to decide he was not up to the standard required. But the question remained – how did they not already know this?
- Who you know matters.
Once upon time this would have been known as the New South Wales rule – the idea that if you play for New South Wales you were more likely to get picked. This was for a variety of reasons. Already filled with test players, if you could find a spot in the side, chances are you were pretty good. Secondly, the selectors, coming along to see the existing test side in the domestic competition, were more likely to watch your game.
Nowadays though, aspiring test players spend so much time in development squads and other forms of cricket that they might not necessarily spend much time in their shield squads.
But if there’s one thing that’s clear, particularly in Steve Smith’s Australian side, it’s that who you know matters. Nic Maddinson and Steve O’Keefe have both been given ongoing public and private support by the cricketing hierarchy. Maddinson was given an opportunity in the test side despite not deserving it. O’Keefe was selected for India before the captain even was, having been given the go-ahead by Pat Howard in July of last year. Both were given the personal seal of approval by captain Smith, regardless of their performance.
This obviously contrasts to people like Jackson Bird and Nathan Lyon, who are always one bad series from being dropped. Being on the inside matters.
- Bowl 140 plus
One of the oft-pointed to truisms of the Australian cricket set up is that to be a fast bowler, you have to bowl proper fast – over 140kmh.
Each summer Peter Siddle would be told if he wanted to keep his spot he needed to make sure he kept his pace up around that mark. The theory being that modern batsmen find anything slower too easy to handle. Siddle would duly start his first spell back in the side at around the mark, before settling into the pace at which he’s actually effective.
It’s the same obstacle that has often been placed in the way of Jackson Bird (who takes his test wickets at a lower average (27) than Mitchell Starc (28). Maybe just focus on performance than pace?
- What worked against us will work for us
Remember when Freddy Flintoff has his one brief period of being amazing in 2005, beat Australia and completely changed the course of Australian selection for the future? Ever since we’ve been looking for an allrounder, keeping Shane Watson into the role when he couldn’t get his front pad out of the way, shoe-horning Mitchell Marsh into the role even though his batting wasn’t up to scratch, and then giving the reins to Glenn Maxwell, Ashton Agar and Marsh for the India tour.
We’ve played this game with spin too. We’ll take a whole bunch of spinners to India because India keeps beating us with spin. Of course our spinners aren’t very good, there batsmen can play spin and well, it won’t work out. This is all weird because the only times we’ve won tests in India in recent years has been when we’ve played three pacemen as opposed to spinners.
- There has to be someone that turns it away from the right hander.
Another spin related rule is that there’s got to be someone who turns it away from the right-hander. When we lost to India in 2013 Xavier Doherty played tests. When Steve O’Keefe was injured in Sri Lanka in 2016, Jon Holland got the call up. Before that it was how Steve Smith got his first crack at test cricket, and also Cam White (despite neither being test quality bowlers). This tour that spot is filled by Steve O’Keefe. And by Ashton Agar. Oh yeah, and Mitchell Swepson. You can have your views about whether they are test quality bowlers.
This partly explains the general apathy from the selectors to Nathan Lyon. See, he spins it the wrong away. This is particularly odd given what Ravi Ashwin is about to do to Australia.
- There’s always space for a Marsh
Mitchell Marsh was dropped from the test squad after the first test of the summer, despite assurances that he wouldn’t lose his spot. Since then, he’s gone away and not really done anything much. But he’s back for India.
Shaun Marsh is going to India because he scored runs in Sri Lanka last year. Shaun Marsh has been in and out of the Australian side for years because he scored a century in Sri Lanka in 2011. Somewhere along the line it was decided that he was a specialist sub-continent player. And to be fair to Shaun, in the three tests he’s played in Asia, he averages 78. Proponents will also point to his experience and form in short-form cricket in India in support of this. Whatever you think of Marsh, his position as Australia’s first reserve has been a given despite the fact he has been injured on and off for nearly nine months.
Geoff Marsh is a legend. We should take him instead of Shaun or Mitch.
 Which included getting out when the rest of the batsmen did on some occasions, and being the only one to show some spine on some notable others.
 The notable exception to this rule is Steve O’Keefe. His been considered the ‘next-in-line’ Australian spinner for some time despite his injury issues.