By SB Tang
Australia’s 2012 T20 World Cup campaign ended with a crushing 74 run semi-final defeat at the hands of the eventual champions, the West Indies. Winning the T20 World Cup has become a priority for Australia for the same reason that Olympic football gold has become an obsession for Brazil — it is the one and only prize that a sport’s most successful international side has failed to win. Much like Scrubs’ Dr John Dorian, successful teams always want what they can’t have.
Australian cricket has been in this position before. In 1996, winning the 50-over World Cup being held on the sub-continent that year was a big deal. Australia had just crowned themselves the unofficial Test world champions after knocking the West Indies off their perch with a 2-1 Test series win in the Caribbean in 1995 — the first time that the West Indies had been defeated in a Test series since 1980.
But, Australia needed and wanted some kind of official imprimatur for their coronation. The World Cup offered them that. Australia had won it once before, but that was back in 1987 when the 50-over World Cup was still played in whites and the final wasn’t even televised live back home in Australia.
By 1996, things had changed — one-day international cricket (or “Oh-Dee-Ayes” as they would soon become known in India and England) had become big business, nowhere more so than on the subcontinent, and the World Cup was a serious event, televised live around the cricketing world and featuring international uniforms which weren’t just coloured, but were bejewelled in sponsors’ logos — Coca-Cola on the shirts’ sleeves and Wills (a cigarette brand) on the shirts’ breasts.
So, an Australian side packed with future legends of the game — Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and the Waugh twins — jetted off to the sub-continent as one of the tournament favourites. They had a brilliant tournament — the epic 287 run successful chase against New Zealand in the quarter final (achieved with 6 wickets and 13 balls to spare), and the miraculous 5 run win over the West Indies in the semi-final when the West Indies looked to have the match won at 2/165 chasing 208, remain two of the greatest games that the Australian cricket team has ever played. But they were soundly defeated in the final by Sri Lanka.
Following that defeat, although their Test form remained excellent, Australia fell into a prolonged slump in the one-day arena. The selectors acted decisively, enacting a policy which, at the time, was not just revolutionary, but borderline heretical. “Horses for courses” they called it. In general terms, this policy entailed picking one-day specialists for the one-day team. Of course, to make way for these newfangled one-day specialists, existing Test players had to be dumped from the one-day team. The first two to go were the Australian Test captain and vice-captain — Mark Taylor and Ian Healy.
Cue the outrage from the fans (myself included) and the media. Never before had the captaincy of the Australian cricket team been split between different formats of the game. At least Taylor’s dropping as a batsman from the one-day outfit was explicable on the basis that he was as stodgy an opening bat as there ever was and after playing 113 one-day internationals as an opener, he had scored just one century and averaged 32.23 at a strike rate of 59.46. Healy’s dumping, however, felt like “a bloody outrage” — he was, at the time, the best pure wicketkeeper in the world (in a team which boasted the best spinner in the world) and a handy, free-scoring number seven batsman with a one-day strike rate of 83.84.
We were wrong. The selectors were right. They saw what we had not — that the one-day game had evolved at international level: scoring rates had exploded and teams such as Sri Lanka were deliberately hitting over the in-field in the opening overs when field restrictions were in place. Australia’s tried and trusted strategy of keeping wickets in hand, before attacking at the death wouldn’t cut it in this brave new world. We had to adapt. And thanks to the “horses for courses” policy, we did.
Healy’s replacement in the one-day side was a relatively unknown 26 year old named Adam Gilchrist who’d played nine first-class matches as a specialist batsman for his native New South Wales before crossing the continent to claim the gloves for Western Australia. (He opened his first-class account for his adopted state with a nine-ball, 45 minute duck.)
Taylor’s replacement as one-day captain was a quiet, diary-writing batting all-rounder who wasn’t even captain of his state. His name: Steve Waugh.
The rest, as they say, was history. Together, Waugh and Gilchrist changed the game of cricket for the better — the former’s captaincy philosophy of turbo-charging scoring rates with the bat and relentlessly aiming to take wickets with the ball expanded the boundaries of cricket by making winning from situations previously thought unwinnable a routine occurrence; the latter’s speed and volume of run-scoring re-defined the role of a wicketkeeper.
As a direct result of the “horses for courses” policy, Australia proceeded to win an unprecedented three consecutive 50-over World Cups using players such as Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Mike Hussey, Andrew Symonds, Brad Hogg and Shaun Tait, none of whom were Test regulars at the time of their introduction into the one-day side.
Now, Australian cricket is once again faced with relative underachievement in a limited-overs format of the game. An updated horses for courses policy must form part of the answer.
The current John Inverarity-led selection panel has done a tremendous job in the Test arena thus far, but they could improve their application of the horses for courses policy to the T20 team. More weight needs to be given to players’ performances in the world’s leading domestic T20 competition, the Indian Premier League (“IPL”), especially when an international T20 tournament is taking place on the sub-continent. If the selectors had done so, then they would not have omitted the following three names from Australia’s 2012 T20 World Cup squad: Shaun Marsh, Brad Hodge and Steve Smith.
Shaun Marsh is one of the greatest domestic T20 batsmen the world has ever seen. If that sounds like hyperbole, then take a glance at Marsh’s domestic T20 record — in a cumulative total of 85 matches for Western Australia and Perth in the Australian Big Bash, Glamorgan in the English domestic T20 competition, and Kings XI Punjab in the IPL, Marsh has scored close to 3000 thousand runs at an average of 40.77 and a strike rate of 133.03, notching up 21 fifties and two centuries. In the crash, bang, wallop world of T20, Marsh is a model of old world consistency — he reaches 50 once every 3.61 innings. In four completed IPL seasons, he has never had a season average of less than 30 or a season strike-rate of less than 120. Just prior to the 2012 T20 World Cup, Marsh scored 209 runs in six T20 matches for Glamorgan at an average of 52.25 and a strike rate of 129.81.
Yet, Marsh has never been picked in an Australian T20 World Cup squad. Even more bizarrely, despite having a mediocre first-class record (averaging 36.10 with a paltry 7 centuries from 75 matches), Marsh has played more Test innings (11), than T20 international innings (8), for Australia. Marsh’s presence in Australia’s top five at the 2012 T20 World Cup would have gone a long way to solving Australia’s well-documented over-reliance on their top three of Shane Watson, David Warner and Mike Hussey.
Brad Hodge is the unluckiest batsman in Australian cricket. Despite consistently churning out runs for Victoria in all three formats of the game for close to two decades, Hodge has, through a mixture of untimely injuries and national selectors’ discretion, played just six Tests, 25 one-day internationals and eight T20 internationals for his country. He last played a T20 international in February 2008. Now 37 years of age, Hodge is a highly sought after T20 freelancer, plying his trade in the Australian Big Bash League, IPL, Sri Lankan Premier League, Bangladesh Premier League and the New Zealand domestic T20 competition. His recent form is as good as it’s ever been — he averaged 30 at a strike rate of 140 in the 2012 IPL season batting predominantly at number five and he averaged 47.50 at a strike rate of 136.69 as an opener in the last Big Bash League season. Hodge’s advanced age shouldn’t be a factor — after all, the 41 year old Brad Hogg played in every match in Australia’s 2012 T20 World Cup campaign and David Hussey, a 35 year old international limited-overs specialist with no Test prospects was not only included in the World Cup squad, but awarded one of just 17 full Cricket Australia player contracts.
Hodge can bat anywhere between one and five. He has the rare ability to play, with equal proficiency, both types of innings that win T20 matches — he can bat through a T20 innings whilst maintaining a rapid scoring rate (a la Chris Gayle) or come in cold, late in the innings and immediately lift the scoring rate (a la Eoin Morgan). Most of the leading international T20 batsmen can only play one of those two types of match-winning innings, not both. Throw in the fact that Hodge bowls handy part-time off-spin and his exclusion from Australia’s 2012 T20 World Cup squad becomes a mystery worthy of the attention of Copenhagen’s Detective Chief Inspector Sarah Lund.
It seems like an eternity ago that Steve Waugh called Steve Smith “one of the most exciting players in Australian cricket in 20 years.” But, actually, Waugh’s compliment was delivered in March 2010, less than three years ago. Smith may never become the Test leg-spinning all-rounder many hoped he’d be when he made his Test debut in July 2010 at the age of 21. But, whatever one thinks of his ability to take wickets at first-class level or his idiosyncratic batting technique, there can be no denying that he is a genuine, world-class all-rounder in the T20 format — he merits selection in any T20 side as either a specialist batsman or a specialist leg-spinner.
Compare Smith’s domestic T20 bowling record with those of the two specialist spinners picked ahead of him in Australia’s 2012 T20 World Cup squad — an average of 19.05, an economy rate of 7.6, and a strike rate of 15 versus Brad Hogg’s average of 21.89, economy rate of 6.69 and strike rate of 19.6, and Xavier Doherty’s average of 39.27, economy rate of 7.85 and strike rate of 30. The superiority of Smith’s international T20 bowling record over those of Hogg and Doherty is even greater but, to be fair to the selectors, I have used the players’ domestic T20 records for the comparison because, prior to this year’s T20 World Cup, Hogg and Doherty had each played less than seven T20 internationals.
Yes, the much-maligned Smith has a better T20 bowling record than both Doherty and Hogg. We don’t need to develop and pick pacey, doosra-equipped finger spinners to win a T20 World Cup — we just need to pick our best spinner for that format of the game.
As far as the three spinners’ batting goes, in the last Big Bash League season, Smith racked up 166 runs at an average of 23.71 and a strike-rate of 130.7, including a nerveless, unbeaten 21 off 11 balls to steer the Sydney Sixers to victory in the final. He then backed that up with a strong debut season in the IPL, averaging 40 at a strike rate of 135.58.
By contrast, Hogg, since making his T20 international comeback as a 40 year old in February 2012, has not batted any higher than 10. The only batsman in the side worse than him is Doherty who batted at number 11 in the T20 international match where Hogg was elevated to the exalted position of number 10 in the batting order.
Many technical fetishists still cringe when they see Smith play his favourite shot — an agricultural, half-front-foot swipe across the line to a ball pitching short of a length, which bears greater resemblance to the work of a lumberjack than an international batsman — but, in T20 cricket at least, it works.
And therein lies the moral of Australia’s tale of international T20 woe — instead of attempting to reanimate a happy go lucky 41 year old postman as an international T20 bowler, we just need to start picking our best practitioners of that peculiar format of the game in the conditions in which the World Cup will be played.
If we do that, the players will take care of the rest, as they generally have done throughout Australia’s long and proud 135 year history as an independent cricketing nation.