A little like a broken record, this correspondent has pushed the barrow of Glenn Maxwell whenever discussing the number 6 position in the Australian test side. Throughout the summer The National Selection Panel (NSP) has looked in every other direction possible, seemingly in stubborn opposition to even considering the talented Victorian for the role. It is then perhaps no surprise that I am beyond overjoyed by his century upon return to the test side last week.
His path from the outer reaches of NSP considerations to test match centurion would be hard to believe if we hadn’t seen it all unfold in front of us. It might be fair to say that at certain stages of the summer, his odds of being in a position to graft a career defining Test Match innings in this Indian series may well have been longer than the Pune match being interrupted by snow.
The 2015/16 season ended with Maxwell crowned Australia’s ODI player of the year and the owner of Victoria’s, and the Sheffield Shield as a whole’s, best batting average. The 2016/17 season began with him out of both Australian ODI and Bushrangers XI’s. Never a man lacking in confidence, not even his changed fortunes could persuade him from openly discussing his test match aspirations. Whereas self-confidence and big dreams are usually encouraged, for reasons known only to himself national coach Darren Lehmann went to great lengths to openly scoff at the possibility of Maxwell claiming a spot in his team.
There isn’t any real doubt that the task of the NSP is more difficult than it appears from the outside. A task that is made even more difficult by the dogs breakfast of a schedule that Cricket Australia puts together each year. When the national team are playing the biggest Test’s of the summer, those on the outside of the squad are unable to press their claims in First Class cricket as they are instead plying their trade in the BBL. Despite this, the NSP seem determined to make it even more difficult than it already is by remaining consistent in nothing but their inconsistency and their insistence on choosing pithiness over the long-term interests of the team. There is no greater example of this than in the NSP’s approach to the Number 6 position that Maxwell has so publicly coveted.
In the eight tests prior to finally turning to Maxwell in Ranchi, the NSP used four different players in the position. Starting with Mitchell Marsh, the selectors tried Callum Ferguson, Nick Maddinson and Hilton Cartwright in the position before putting their faith in Mitch Marsh again. In the 12 innings, the quartet produced 142 runs at an average of 11.83. The best score of the period was the 37 produced by Hilton Cartwright in his one trip to the middle before he was cast aside for Marsh’s return to the team.
If Marsh’s return at Cartwright’s expense was confusing, his initial omission was doubly so having lost his spot only days after the NSP’s Mark Waugh publicly proclaimed his position safe. With Marsh’s omission, it appeared that the NSP had consigned to history their determination to shoe horn an all-rounder into the XI at all cost. To be fair to the selectors they did wait a whole 3 Tests, each won by Australia, before the all-rounder urge became too great for them to ignore. Enter Hilton Cartwright. A mere four overs, and the highest score by an Australian number 6 in the 2016/17 Summer, and the NSP’s flirtation with the Zimbabwean born Western Australian was over, not even selected in the squad for the tour of India.
Reduced to a spectator as the Aussies chased a rare series win on the sub-continent, Cartwright would have reason to be disappointed that he was overlooked in favour of Marsh. The decision seemingly based on a belief within the NSP that Marsh offered more with the ball, he wouldn’t be alone in a sense of bewilderment at Steve Smith’s bowling choices. Australia has been called upon to bowl over 450 overs in the series to date, and Smith has thrown the ball to his second stringers for 9 of them. To be fair, even if Mitch Marsh was the second coming of Dennis Lillee, if these abilities are only used for nine overs, it should not see him selected ahead of a man at six who is a much better batsman.
Selecting the worst performed Australian number 6 batsman in history so that he might be able to provide 2% of the overs bowled wasn’t even the silliest part of the NSP’s approach to selecting the Australian squad for the Indian series. Despite there being a number of Sheffield Shield rounds between the completion of the Australian test summer and the Tour of India, the NSP chose to select the squad without the benefit of this body of work. There was the small case of Darren Lehmann and his NSP cronies seemingly determined to talk themselves into dropping Matthew Renshaw despite the fact that the 21-year-old presents them with a long-term opener with temperament seemingly built for Test Cricket. Then there was the small contradictory selection of Maxwell despite him still without a Sheffield Shield century, the reason proffered by Lehmann earlier in the summer as to why he would not be selected earlier in the summer.
It is perhaps ironic then that the century Lehman demanded would only come upon his return to the Test team. It was an incredible statement by the Victorian, joining his captain in the middle with the team in trouble before showing incredible maturity and determination to rescue the innings with a massive partnership. Having been fined by Smith earlier in the year for stating his disappointment at batting below Matthew Wade for Victoria, there may have been a little extra bit of gratification in the knock. With Wade behind him in the batting line up, he was able to display all his abilities on the grandest stage with the man that only months earlier had fined him.
Having patiently bided his time and then performing when called upon, Maxwell now has the opportunity over the next five days to be part of a famous Australian victory. While many had predicted a 4-0 series victory for India before the Tour, Australia heads into the fourth Test with the opportunity to become only the second Australian team to win a series in India since the 1960’s. Whatever the result, don’t expect the NSP to make any sense when they select a team for the task of regaining the Ashes later this year.