Hilditchian Due Diligence

Posted on February 28, 2011

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By SB Tang

By his own admission, Andrew Hilditch was a mediocre Test batsman who was “extremely fortunate to play for Australia”.

However, there can be no doubt that he is a distinguished and experienced commercial lawyer. He is a partner in a leading commercial law firm with offices in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. He has a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) degree from the University of Sydney. He has acted on multi-million dollar legal claims. He has published articles in distinguished legal journals.

Accordingly, he would no doubt be familiar with the basic legal concept of “due diligence”, the process whereby a buyer of, or an investor in, a company or business investigates the records of the target entity to ascertain its true value. The buyer/investor will typically engage a firm of solicitors to conduct this investigation. So if, for example, during the due diligence process, the buyer’s solicitors discover that the target, say an oil company, is responsible for a series of oil spills then the buyer will be able to negotiate a lower price which factors in the target’s legal and economic liability for those spills. The due diligence process, as many an articled clerk will attest, is a tedious one, requiring patience, thoroughness, discipline and strong research skills. Nonetheless, the competent conduct of the due diligence process is crucial for the buyer-client as it ensures that the correct price is paid for the target and that the client-buyer is not saddled with any unexpected (and costly) legal problems.

Therefore, it comes as something of a surprise that the decision-making of the Australian National Selection Panel (“NSP”) during Mr Hilditch’s tenure as Chairman displays an utter lack of anything resembling due diligence.

At the start of Mr Hilditch’s tenure, the big decision facing the NSP was who was going to replace Andrew Symonds at number 6 in the Test side. The selectors opted for Marcus North, who possessed a first-class batting average in the low 40s and the ability to chip-in with some part-time off-spin, over Brad Hodge, who possessed a first-class batting average in the high 40s and a Test batting average in the 50s. Unfortunately, after nearly two years and 21 Tests, the NSP was forced to drop North midway through a home Ashes series. His batting average after 35 Test innings: 35.48. The cause: a chronic inability to get starts. However, this problem in North’s game should have come as no surprise to the NSP — it was empirically evident throughout North’s entire first-class career. But he was picked anyway over an alternative candidate whose extensive first-class record (and brief international record for that matter) revealed no such problems.

Such decision-making indicates that Mr Hilditch was either unaware of the problem (that is, ignorance caused by a lack of due diligence) or that Mr Hilditch was aware of the problem but chose to ignore it (that is, a very special species of stupidity or, as lawyers like to call it, “wilful blindness”). Either way — not the kind of trait one would want to see in the leader of the body entrusted with handpicking the Australian cricket team.

The biggest challenge faced by the NSP during Mr Hilditch’s tenure has been to find a suitable long-term replacement spinner in the wake of Shane Warne’s retirement. In the four years since Warne retired, the NSP has gone through no less than 10 replacements. They have, amongst other things:

  • picked a 25 year old left-arm Chinaman to make his Test debut in the West Indies then dropped him, without explanation, for the following tour of India after he returned match figures of 3/129 on debut — Beau Casson has since suffered a relapse of chronic fatigue syndrome, been dropped from the New South Wales Shield side and was last seen playing grade cricket in the Northern Territory;
  • picked a batsman, who, as Victoria’s Shield captain no longer bowled himself, as a specialist leg-spinner for a Test tour of India and then dropped him when, astonishingly, his bowling proved inadequate when faced with the world’s best players of spin on their home turf — Cameron White was last seen batting in the top order for Australia in the shorter forms of the game … but not bowling;
  • dropped an aggressive off-spinner one Test after he took 12 wickets on his Test debut in India against a batting line-up containing Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman, on the basis that he took 1/204 against South Africa on a WACA pitch which could have doubled for an autobahn — Jason Krejza spent the next 2 years competing with Xavier Doherty for a place in Tasmania’s Shield side, working on his batting and (successfully) developed a doosra, before being called up to the Australian one-day side and then the Australian World Cup squad in February 2011 after injuries befell both Doherty and Nathan Hauritz;
  • recalled a defensive off-spinner to the Test team when his first-class bowling average was in the 40s and he wasn’t even in New South Wales’s Shield XI, then dropped him for a home Ashes series after he had taken 58 wickets at 36.22 in 16 Tests following his recall (including, saliently, 38 wickets in 9 Tests on home soil at an average of 29.65, and 10 wickets in 3 Tests versus England at an average of 32.10) and the captain had publicly described him as a “lock” for the Ashes — Nathan Hauritz was last seen taking wickets and scoring first-class centuries for New South Wales before being recalled to the Australian one-day side for the World Cup only to be subsequently ruled out with a shoulder injury;
  • picked a leg-spinner with the best recent record in Shield cricket and then dropped him after one bad Test — Bryce McGain was last seen taking first-class wickets for Essex and competing with Jon Holland for the spinner’s spot in the Victorian side;
  • picked a limited overs specialist left-arm orthodox spinner, with a first-class bowling average of 48.26, to be Australia’s frontline Test spinner in a home Ashes series and then dropped him two Tests later after he struggled to take any wickets against a proper Test batting line-up — Xavier Doherty returned to his previous occupation as a limited overs specialist and probably would have been called up to Australia’s World Cup squad after Hauritz got injured, but for his own untimely injury; and
  • called up a 26 year old specialist left-arm orthodox spinner with 7 games of first-class experience for the Test squad in the middle of an Ashes series, purportedly on the basis of his knowledge of local conditions at the WACA, despite being a born-and-bred Victorian who only moved to Western Australia at the beginning of his one, and to date only, season of first-class cricket — Michael Beer was last seen bowling serviceably for Australia on his Test debut at the SCG … a ground which he’d never played on.

The second-biggest challenge faced by the NSP during Mr Hilditch’s tenure has been to find an opening partner for Simon Katich after Matt Hayden retired in early 2009. The NSP sensibly picked Phil Hughes to fill the position — presumably on the basis that, at the time, he was 20 years old and possessed a Shield average of 60.38 after 17 matches for New South Wales. Hughes made his debut in a three Test series in South Africa against a South African side which had just become the first tourists to win a Test series in Australia in 16 years. Hughes notched up 415 runs at an average of 69.16, including twin centuries in his second Test, on green decks against a bowling attack led by Dale Steyn which targeted his perceived weakness against the short ball.

In preparation for the 2009 Ashes tour which followed the tour of South Africa, Hughes signed on for a short-term stint with Middlesex. Despite barbs about his unconventional and ungainly home-spun technique, the boy raised on a banana farm in northern New South Wales scored 574 runs in five first-class innings for Middlesex, averaging 143.50. The names “Hughes” and “Bradman” were used in the same sentence in sports pages across England. He was then summarily axed after a mediocre, but by no means disastrous, return of 57 runs at an average of 19 from just three innings in the opening two Ashes Tests. Hughes has not been the same since. He has been in and out of the Test side as an injury replacement and his average of 26.66 in five Tests after his dropping pales in comparison to his average of 52.44 in five Tests before his dropping. Even his domestic form has suffered. He has been dropped from the NSW T20 side and his Shield average has started a downward trend — before his axing in July 2009, he averaged 62.11 in the 2007–08 Shield season and 68.79 in the 2008–09 Shield season; after his axing, he averaged a still outstanding 56.06 in the 2009–10 Shield season but he then endured the first truly torrid run of his first-class career in the 2010–11 Shield season, averaging just 21.67.

Hughes’s replacement, Shane Watson, has, in addition to an admirable willingness to bat out of position to seize the opportunity to play Test cricket, demonstrated incredible consistency and solid technique since coming into the side. However, he has also exhibited all the classic signs of a lifelong middle-order strokemaker being played out of position as a Test opener — getting out to loose, overly ambitious shots when well-set and not converting his plentiful starts. In 27 Tests, he has notched up 15 half-centuries but just two tons. This problem cannot be seen in Watson’s first-class record where he has batted almost exclusively in the middle-order — if we exclude his Test scores, Watson has racked up 23 half-centuries and 15 centuries at first-class level. A Hughes–Katich opening partnership with Watson slotting in down the order as a batting all-rounder (in place of the tremendously talented but not-quite-ready-yet-for-Test-cricket Steve Smith) would be the obvious solution. But, it’s a bit late for that now given that Hughes’s form and, most importantly, his confidence in his natural ability and home-spun technique, lie in tatters.

It is easy to forget that, before his maiden tour of England in 1930, similar concerns surrounded the highly unorthodox technique of another self-taught, diminutive young country lad from New South Wales who was swatting aside Shield run-scoring records like so many flies from the brim of his hat. A chorus of critics lined up in the London broadsheets to pronounce his turned-in bottom-hand grip and predilection for playing the hook and pull shots inadequate for English conditions. His name: Donald Bradman.

One such critic, a Mr Percy Fender memorably wrote:

he will always be in the category of the brilliant, if unsound, ones. Promise there is in Bradman in plenty, though watching him does not inspire one with any confidence that he desires to take the only course which will lead him to a fulfilment of that promise. He makes a mistake, then makes it again and again; he does not correct it, or look as if he were trying to do so.

Sir Donald’s explanation of why, as a young batsman, he ignored the technical advice of coaches to change his grip makes for instructive reading for Mr Hilditch today:

I experimented — worked out the pros and cons — and eventually decided not to change my natural grip. Throughout a long career my grip caused many arguments but I think it is sufficient to prove that any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style providing [that] he is not revealing an obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong just because he is different.

Turning to the 50-over and T20I sides, the NSP’s choice of openers has not demonstrated any greater degree of logic or reason. Shaun Marsh, with a one day international average of 36.62 at a strike rate of 75.95 and an astonishing IPL average in India of 63.58 at a strike rate in excess of 130, was rightly groomed for two and a half years as one of Australia’s first-choice openers for the 2011 World Cup on the subcontinent. Having done nothing wrong in any form of limited overs cricket, he was abruptly dumped on the eve of the World Cup — omitted from both Australia’s original one-day squad for the home series preceding the World Cup and Australia’s initial 15 man World Cup squad. Bizarrely, the NSP chose to dump Marsh without even selecting a genuine specialist replacement; instead relying on sorta-batsman-who-keeps Brad Haddin to step up to fulfil the role in the only important one-day tournament on the international calendar.

Marsh can’t even get a game for Australia’s T20I side, with the selectors preferring the occasionally superhuman but mostly inconsistent David Warner to fill the second opener’s spot beside Shane Watson. Confusingly, the NSP promoted Marsh to both the Australian T20I and 50-over sides in mid-2008 on the basis of his astonishing T20 form in the 2008 IPL season, but then quickly discarded him from the T20I side in favour of Warner.

So IPL T20 form gets you in the Australian 50-over side but not the Australian T2OI side.

One would think that Warner must possess a vastly superior overall T20 record to Marsh. Sadly, this is not the case — Marsh averages 45.30 at a strike rate of 135.01, whereas Warner averages 28.87 at a strike rate of 142.88 (proof, if it were needed, that his boom-or-bust reputation is empirically justified). Even in T20 cricket, it seems odd to prefer a 7.87 point increase in strike rate at the cost of 16.43 runs per innings.

If Mr Hilditch had conducted his law practice in the same strange and inexplicable manner the NSP has selected players during his tenure as Chairman, he may well have been slapped with a professional negligence suit by now. Sadly for Australian cricket fans, Mr Hilditch’s brand of reasoning (or lack thereof) as Chairman of the NSP has been more Kafka-esque than Dixon-esque. Instead of the logical fairness of “a strict and complete legalism” we have, as Steve Waugh pointed out recently, been treated to blatant departures from precedent.

However, despite all the legitimate criticisms levelled at his decision-making as Chairman of the NSP, it must be emphasised that there is nothing to indicate that Mr Hilditch is anything other than an honourable, honest and decent man.

Accordingly, this post concludes with a plea to those undoubted virtues: please, Mr Hilditch, do the right thing by Australian cricket and fall on your sword.

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