By SB Tang
The result of the Ashes — 5-0 to Australia — was surprising. But the manner and causes of that glorious Australian whitewash, just the third in the Ashes’ 131-year history, told us absolutely nothing that we didn’t already know about the current state of the Australian cricket team. Even before the commencement of the first leg of the two-legged 2013/14 Ashes in England, it was hardly a secret that “Australia has a strong, well-rounded pace attack which is more than good enough to take the wickets needed to win the Ashes” (hence England’s preparation of a succession of dry, slow turning pitches) and that Australia has “a batting problem”.
Both those propositions are still true. The truth of the former was one of the primary causes of Australia’s victory. Fortunately, the continuing truth of the latter did not cost Australia victory — but that was due to a combination of luck and the timely individual interventions of four batsmen (Brad Haddin, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and David Warner) that is unlikely to repeat itself in the future, especially not in South Africa where Australia will face a pace battery far superior to England’s.
The nub of Australia’s batting problem is this: since roughly 2009, Australia’s batting line-up has demonstrated an alarming propensity to collapse, like a male tennis “spectator” at the sight of Ana Ivanovic, in their first-innings. Starting with the inexplicable, series-changing collapse from 2/103 to 215 all out at Lord’s in 2009, Australia recorded the following first-innings totals: 160 at The Oval in August 2009; 127 against Pakistan at the SCG in January 2010; 88 against Pakistan at Headingley in July 2010; 245 against England at the Adelaide Oval in December 2010; 98 against England at the MCG in December 2010; 136 against New Zealand at Bellerive in December 2011; 163 against South Africa at the WACA in November 2012; and 128 at Lord’s in July 2013.
That problem was never, at any point, ameliorated during this Ashes series. In four of the five Tests, Australia slumped to 5 for less than 145 in their first innings. But, on each and every occasion, Brad Haddin, acting in concert with the tail and/or Steve Smith, rode to the rescue. In truth, Australia was very lucky — there was nothing in Haddin’s Test record before this Ashes series to suggest that he could or would perform such superhuman feats with such consistency. In his 49 Tests before this series, Haddin scored 2514 runs at an average of 33.97 with three hundreds and 12 fifties. During this summer’s five Ashes Tests, Haddin scored 493 runs at a series-topping average of 61.62 with one hundred and five fifties. In addition to scoring runs at approximately twice his career Test average, Haddin, in the space of one Ashes series, expanded his career Test run tally by 19.61 per cent, his career Test hundreds by 33.33 per cent, and his career Test half-centuries by 41.67 per cent.
For the first time in his Test career, at 36 years of age and nearly six years after making his debut, Haddin consistently reproduced his Shield form (where he has long been a dominant force, averaging in excess of 40) at Test level. It was a heart-warming tale and a just reward for one of the good guys of Australian cricket, who earned his Test spot back through hard work and sheer weight of Shield runs after losing it to the younger Matthew Wade for over a year when he rightly chose to fly home from a tour of the West Indies in March 2012 to sit beside the hospital bed of his seriously ill young daughter.
But it would be unrealistic and unfair to expect Haddin to maintain the superhuman form he showed in this summer’s Ashes series throughout the rest of his career. The trouble is: if he does not, then, in the immortal words of Jabba the Hutt, Australia will be “bantha poodoo”, for the reality is that, in the absence of Haddin’s consistent superhuman feats this summer, it is highly likely that Australia would’ve been bowled out for 250 or less in four of their five first innings and, consequently, lost the Ashes. No matter how good our bowlers are — and make no mistake, they are very, very good — they need something resembling a platform to bowl from.
Australia’s regular first-innings batting collapses are indicative of chronic problems in the top-order that the current John Inverarity-chaired National Selection Panel inherited in October 2011, but have failed to rectify during their reign which has already lasted over two years. The top three is, as Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer were fond of saying, the “engine room” of any good Test batting unit. The trouble is that the only engine that Australia’s current top three resembles is that found in an early model Kia Carnival. Two of Australia’s current top three have empirically demonstrated a remarkable capacity for getting-in-and-getting-out — always the biggest sin that a Test batsman can commit — in crunch time when Test series are on the line that is matched only by their capacity for heavy run-scoring once the result of Test series have been decided.
Perhaps the most misleading statistic that spread throughout the Twitterverse in the afterglow of Australia’s whitewash was the somewhat triumphalist statistic that the 36-year-old opener Chris Rogers, parachuted into Australia’s Test XI for the two-legged 2013/14 Ashes series, was the series’ leading run-scorer over the two legs.
That statistic is true.
But so is this one: in live rubbers during the two-legged 2013/14 Ashes series, Rogers played 12 innings and scored a paltry 341 runs at a sub-normal average of 28.42 with zero hundreds and four fifties. By contrast, in dead rubbers during the two-legged 2013/14 Ashes series, Rogers batted just seven times, but scored 489 runs at a phenomenal average of 69.86 with three hundreds and one fifty.
Two of those hundreds and that one fifty were scored in this summer’s final two Tests against an England side that had surrendered the Ashes inside 14 playing days. Frankly, by that stage in the proceedings, scoring runs against that Anglo-Irish bowling attack was, in military terms, akin to a soldier shooting a dead body — repeatedly, at close range, with a high-powered assault rifle handed to him by his mates after they’d killed the enemy combatant whilst he was off enjoying an extended coffee break.
Cricket is a team sport. The raison d’être of the Australian cricket team is, and has always been, to win Test matches and series. Therefore, it is always salient to ask when a batsman scores his runs — does he score them when his team needs them most, that is, when Test series are on the line, or, does he score them when the fate of the Test series has already been decided?
A cursory examination of the empirical evidence reveals the uncomfortable truth that Rogers scored relatively few runs when the Ashes were on the line, instead scoring most of his Ashes runs in what American sports commentators call “garbage time”.
Unfortunately, Australia’s chosen number three, the all-rounder Shane Watson, did not perform much better with the bat in the live rubbers. Watson’s form, or lack thereof, with the bat in the Test arena has been a serious concern for over two years now. During that period, Watson, batting predominantly in the top three, has scored 1390 runs in 24 Tests at an average of 30.88 with just two hundreds and seven fifties. That prolonged form slump has caused his Test batting average to decline from 41.55 to 36.33. However, given that both of those hundreds were scored in the space of the last six (Ashes) Tests from his new, apparently permanent, station at number three, the conventional, rose-tinted narrative of this victorious Ashes summer is that Watson’s Test batting has turned a corner.
The first of those Watson hundreds was scored in the final, dead-rubber Test of the English leg of the Ashes, with England 3-0 up and fielding an experimental bowling attack featuring two debutants: Chris Woakes, a 24-year-old bowling all-rounder who had an ODI bowling average of 37.13, and Simon Kerrigan, a 24-year-old left-arm orthodox spinner who’d bowl so badly on debut that his captain would only give him 48 balls in the entire Test. Therefore, that hundred was not only meaningless from a team perspective, but of dubious value in and of itself because it was scored against a blatantly sub-Test-standard bowling attack.
To be fair to Watson, the second of those hundreds was scored in a live Ashes Test — Australia’s second innings of the third Test at the WACA, with Australia 2-0 up and seeking the series win that would reclaim the Ashes. But even there, the pressure was off and the match scenario that Watson faced was more akin to a limited-overs game than a Test match. When Watson walked into bat late on the evening of the third day, Australia was 1/157 in their second innings — they already led by 291 runs with just over two days left to play. The prospect of defeat had practically been eliminated. Thus, the pressure on Watson to score runs was relatively light and his assigned task was simply to score runs as quickly as possible (in order to give the bowlers as much time as possible to take the 10 remaining English wickets needed to reclaim the Ashes).
That Watson was able to perform that task with distinction should come as absolutely no surprise — even as his Test batting form has dipped, he has continued to score freely and heavily in both limited-overs formats where he has long been, and continues to be, one of the pre-eminent batsmen in the world. This, then, was yet another instance of this Ashes series merely telling us something that we already knew — Shane Watson is one of the best top-order limited-overs batsmen on planet Earth.
What that innings didn’t tell us was whether Watson — who is 32 years of age and has never, throughout his two year plus Test batting form slump, been dropped from the Test XI on the basis of form — is actually capable of consistently scoring a satisfactory number of runs for a player batting in the top six of a Test team.
Let us be crystal clear on a fundamental point: when Inverarity was appointed Chairman of Selectors in October 2011, he inherited one of the finest crops of fast bowlers that Australia has ever produced. He had little to do with the development of that crop, but he has most certainly reaped the benefits of it.
The challenge facing Inverarity’s NSP was to rectify our longstanding batting problem. Over two years down the track, we have the same batting problem still. Indeed, the progress made in rectifying that problem could barely be described as non-zero. Much like the Andrew Hilditch-chaired NSP before it, the Inverarity-chaired NSP’s apparent preferred strategy for rectifying that problem has been to back a succession of “twirtysomething” batsmen with unspectacular career first-class records to the hilt whilst declining to show anywhere near the same degree of faith in young batsmen with manifestly superior first-class records.
That strategy has failed.
That should have come as little surprise to the selectors — each of the twirtysomething batsmen they backed had flaws empirically evident in their extensive career first-class records, which was why their records were moderate in the first place. Less surprisingly still, those flaws were precisely replicated at Test level.
Marcus North, a fine state captain and all-round good bloke, was elevated into the Test XI to bat six as a 29-year-old in early 2009 and given a 21 consecutive match run in the Test side by the Hilditch-chaired NSP despite having, throughout a first-class career that was already nearly a decade old, consistently registered an abnormally high percentage of low scores. The final result of that run in the Test XI was exactly what North’s pre-existing first-class record suggested it would be — a mind-boggling preponderance of Test scores of less than 20 (21 in 35 Test innings) interspersed with a good number of classy Test hundreds (five), resulting in a less-than-satisfactory career Test average of 35.48.
Unfortunately, the Inverarity-chaired NSP appears to have learned nothing from the mistakes of their predecessors. This summer, they picked a 31-year-old batsman with an unconvincing first-class career record, but a well-earned reputation as an excellent state captain and a terrific bloke to have in any dressing room to bat six in Australia’s Test XI.
On this occasion, the twirtysomething good bloke who was the recipient of the selectorial largesse was the captain of Tasmania, George Bailey. The flaws in Bailey’s career first-class record were substantially more severe and evident that those of North’s. At the time of his selection, North had averaged in excess of 50 in a first-class season on five separate occasions; Bailey had only managed that feat once, hence his possession of a career first-class average which didn’t even touch 40. North never had any major flaws in his batting technique; Bailey had a crippling technical deficiency so obvious that even obscure freelance writers on Twitter were able to identify it before he made his Test debut — Bailey is “all bottom hand” which enables him to hit powerfully through the onside, but renders him utterly incapable of driving fluently through the off-side, a skill that is largely optional for a middle-order international limited-overs batsman, but is a sine qua non for success as a Test batsman.
Thus, England’s pace bowlers did what any competent Test bowling unit would do — they bowled at Bailey’s fourth stump or wider. Without a fluent cover drive to speak of, Bailey was left with only three shot options: leave the ball, play a defensive prod, or attempt to pull or hook the ball. Only the last of those options — the pull or hook — offered any possibility of scoring a run and that came with enormous risk because the pull and the hook are difficult to control when the ball is wide of off. If he chose not to hook or pull, then the only possible outcomes would be a dot ball (from a leave or defensive stroke) or a nick (from a defensive prod).
Both the end result — Bailey became passenger number three in Australia’s top six for the duration of the home Ashes, finishing the five match series with 183 runs at an average of 26.14 — and the manner in which it was reached were sadly predictable: of the seven occasions on which Bailey was dismissed, he nicked off thrice and was caught — hooking or pulling — in the deep on the onside three times.
That wasn’t the first time that the Inverarity-chaired NSP had backed a twirtysomething batsman with a moderate first-class record, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Before Bailey, there was Ed Cowan, the courageous, hardworking and defensively watertight opening batsman brought into the side as a 29-year-old in late December 2011, despite having only scored 12 first-class hundreds in a career spanning over eight years. Nevertheless, the Inverarity-chaired NSP picked him for 18 consecutive Tests with predictable results — Cowan showed tremendous grit and character in occupying the crease, but could not consistently make enough big scores to succeed at Test level. He managed just the solitary hundred and finished his 18-match-run with a Test average of 31.28.
Rogers is a slightly different case. His extensive first-class record is outstanding. But, as Ian Chappell highlighted on Channel Nine’s coverage, Rogers often does not get his front elbow up and fully bent when he’s playing a shot, instead keeping it low and semi-bent. As we saw repeatedly during the live Ashes Tests, that causes him to scoop shots in the air through the regions of gully, point and mid-wicket even when he’s well-set. It will be difficult for a 36-year-old with a tried-and-trusted technique to fix such a substantive technical issue.
What makes the Inverarity-chaired NSP’s patience with respect to twirtysomething batsmen with self-evident flaws in their moderate first-class records even more puzzling is that they have refused to afford such patience to much younger batsmen with manifestly superior first-class records.
Phillip Hughes has just turned 25, but he has already compiled a run-scoring CV that would be the envy of any batsman in any era in Australia’s rich cricketing history. Over 8000 first-class runs, including 24 hundreds spread across four continents. The youngest batsman in Test history to score centuries in both innings of a Test. The first and, to date, only Australian batsman to score a hundred on ODI debut. The fourth youngest Australian to reach 1000 Test runs, behind only Sir Donald Bradman, Neil Harvey and Doug Walters. A Shield average in excess of 50 as an opener in an era of green, seam-friendly pitches and excellent fast bowlers.
Yet, Australia’s best-performed young batsman has never been picked for more than three consecutive home Test matches. He has never been picked for more than 10 consecutive Test matches period. He has been batted in every position in the top six except for number five. In his last eight Test innings for Australia his position in the batting line-up was changed four times, before he was dropped for the third time in his career. On each and every occasion, he’d made a match-turning score of 80-plus no more than three Tests before being dumped.
The most recent axing was the most egregious of them all — Hughes was dropped after the second Ashes Test at Lord’s in 2013, at a time when he was Australia’s leading first-class run-scorer on tour and had made the highest Test score of any specialist Australian batsman, an unbeaten 81 in Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge that, along with Ashton Agar’s 98, piloted Australia from a perilous position of 9/117, still 98 runs in arrears of England, to a healthy first-innings lead of 65.
Three low-score Test innings later, Hughes was axed from Australia’s Test XI. Never, in the history of Australian cricket, has so little faith been shown in a batsman who has achieved so much at such a young age.
After his most recent dumping, Hughes was told by the selectors to go score runs. Hughes, as is his wont, did just that, almost single-handedly leading South Australia to the top of the Shield table with 549 runs at an average of 61, including a double-hundred (which secured the first-innings points against Western Australia at the Adelaide Oval) and two match-winning hundreds on bowler-friendly decks at the MCG and the SCG.
The selectors’ response?
First, they dumped Hughes from the ODI squad, then they omitted him from the original 15-man Test squad to tour South Africa in favour of yet another duo of twirtysomething batsmen with distinctly underwhelming career first-class records: Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh.
Doolan is 28-years-old, has a career first-class average of 37.92 and six first-class hundreds. His current season first-class form isn’t crash hot either — he is averaging 38.36, has scored just the one hundred, and has passed fifty only once in his last eight knocks.
Shaun Marsh’s record is even worse. The 30-year-old has been playing first-class cricket for nearly 13 years now. Yet he’s only managed eight first-class hundreds. His career first-class average currently stands at 35.02. And it’s been in freefall for the past two years — since the 2012/13 season, he has scored just 480 first-class runs at an average of 24. During that time, the selectors, undeterred by the quaint notion of empiricism, have continued to pick him to play first-class cricket for Australia A. On their winter tour of southern Africa, Marsh averaged 13.25 in first-class cricket.
Phil Hughes averages 53.20 in Test cricket against South Africa in South Africa with two centuries, a 75 and an 88.
The media release and press conference in which Inverarity attempted to justify the selections of Doolan and, especially, Marsh over Hughes were lessons in illogicality and self-contradiction. Inverarity said that Doolan “looks a very good player — good technique, time, plays pace bowling well.” (emphasis added) The key word there is “looks” — for Doolan’s recent and overall first-class records in no way prove that he is nearly as good a batsman as Inverarity says he is, and the only specific piece of empirical evidence that Inverarity referred to to support his bold proposition — “a most impressive 165 not out” that Doolan scored for Australia A against South Africa at the SCG — is now well over a year old.
On the subject of Marsh, Inverarity started contradicting himself as soon as he opened his mouth, first saying that Marsh’s last two ODI innings — 55 and 71 not out against England — were “very important” to his selection in the Test squad for South Africa, before immediately adding: “although we did decide finally on the side on Saturday afternoon, that was before that.”
Yes, you read that correctly — Marsh’s ODI knock of 71 not out, scored on the Sunday — was “very important” to the Inverarity-chaired NSP’s decision, made on the Saturday afternoon, to select Marsh in the Test squad. And, to think, Inverarity was a schoolteacher and the Headmaster of Perth’s elite Hale School for some 14 years. One can only presume that rudimentary logic wasn’t on their syllabus.
Inverarity proceeded to explain: “he’s in a good space at the moment Shaun, he’s playing well. And we all know that when Shaun plays at his best, he’s a very good player and it seems to us as though he’s in that space at the moment.” Quite how Inverarity can peer into Marsh’s mind to divine that “he’s in a good space” he does not say, but what we do know for certain is that Marsh’s occupation of that space has not enabled him to score even an above-par amount of runs in the first-class or ODI arenas for over two years. It is as if the Enlightenment passed John Inverarity by.
I can say, with absolute certainty, that I’d be in “a good space” too if I knew I could spent over a decade performing my job to a barely acceptable standard, occasionally breach my employer’s rules on alcohol consumption, and then be bequeathed a promotion ahead of colleagues who have consistently performed better than me for years. Of course the fact that the promotion happened to be handed to me by a gentleman who was the headmaster of the elite private school where my father is a notable old boy is entirely coincidental.
Inverarity’s claim that “when Shaun plays at his best, he’s a very good player” is meaningless — because it is true of every single professional cricketer in Australia. The difference between an ordinary professional cricketer and a Test cricketer is that the latter consistently plays at his best. The trouble is that, in a first-class career that is now nearly 13 years old, Marsh has never done so.
Inverarity only referred to two pieces empirical evidence to justify his extraordinary selection of Marsh.
Firstly, he described Marsh’s last two ODI innings as “very important”. Those two garlanded innings were played in games two and three of a five match home ODI series against an England side which was already 1-0 down, having just surrendered the Ashes 5-0. Crunch time this was not.
In game two, Marsh, batting at three on a batman’s paradise of a Gabba strip on which both sides scored 300, did what 30-year-old mediocre Shield batsmen do: he got-in-and-got-out for 55 off 69 balls — to a part-time off-spinner. Marsh’s strike rate of 79.71 was the worst of any top six Australian batsman who got off the mark. If it hadn’t been for James Faulkner’s late-order heroics that got Australia over the line with just three balls to spare, Marsh’s brain fade would’ve cost Australia the match.
In game three, Marsh made an unbeaten 71 off 89 balls at the SCG as Australia chased down England’s below-par target of 244 with 60 balls to spare. This was a decent knock, but, given that it was Marsh’s first meaningful ODI contribution since his 70 in Colombo in August 2011, it hardly justified his selection in the Test squad.
In any event, Marsh shouldn’t have been playing in this summer’s ODI series against England in the first place. At the time that he was picked in that squad in late December 2013, his ODI record, excluding games against Scotland, read as follows: 39 innings, two hundreds, a strike-rate of 74.97 and an average of 34.33. He hadn’t scored an ODI hundred against a Test playing nation for nearly three years. In his last 19 ODI innings against Test-playing nations, he’d only passed 80 twice and averaged just 31.47.
Here’s the ODI record of the 25-year-old batsman dumped to make room for Marsh: 19 innings, two hundreds, a strike rate of 74.57 and an average of 36.66. Both the hundreds were match-winning and, ultimately, series-deciding. Both, in addition to another two 80-plus scores, had been scored in the past year against a Test-playing nation. The batsman’s name, as you’ve probably guessed, is Phil Hughes.
Thus, the selectors screwed Hughes — the 25-year-old described by Ricky Ponting as “clearly our best young batsman” — not just once, but twice in rapid succession. First, they axed Hughes from the ODI team to make room for Marsh even though Hughes clearly had the superior recent and overall ODI record. Then, they used Marsh’s performances in that ODI team — which were no more than mediocre — as a putative basis on which to rob Hughes of his place in the Test squad even though Hughes’s recent and overall career first-class record was so self-evidently superior to Marsh’s that one would have to triple Marsh’s current season and career first-class hundreds just to equal Hughes’s. It was the most perverse of double injustices — further proof, if it were needed, that the Australian selectors’ treatment of Phil Hughes over the past five years makes the Dreyfus Affair look like a paragon of justice.
Secondly, Inverarity highlighted Marsh’s performance on Australia’s last Test tour of South Africa: “That first Test match that he played … at Cape Town … in the first innings Michael Clarke made a century and Shaun made … 44 and played exceptionally well against that attack.” Until hearing Inverarity’s utterance, I never realised that a 44 — otherwise known as a wasted start — made in a losing Test over two years ago could justify selection in a Test squad today. Curiously, Inverarity failed to mention that nine days later, in the second and final Test of the series, Hughes walked out to open at the Wanderers and scythed a fearless 88 off just 111 balls in a brutish opening stand of 174 with Shane Watson that set Australia up for a famous two wicket victory.
Apparently, an 88 in a winning cause is now worth less at the Australian selectors’ table than a 44 in a losing cause. That kind of reasoning wouldn’t fly in the third XI of a Victoria Premier Cricket club.
The effects of such irrational selection policies on Australia’s best-performed young batsman are potentially deleterious; the potential long-term effects of such policies on Australian cricket are nothing short of horrifying. The most important sine qua non for Australia’s standing, for most of the past 136 years as the most successful cricketing nation in the world, is the Sheffield Shield, which is, and has always been, not just the best first-class competition in the world, but the highest-standard competition outside the Test arena.
But Shield cricket is hard work. It is, as Gideon Haigh once pointed out, a “Darwinian” world. Matches last for four hard days, putting an immense strain on the players’ bodies and minds. No quarter is given. Short-pitched bowling and sledging are rife. And the financial rewards, especially calculated on an hourly basis, are slight vis-à-vis modern T20 contracts. At present, the minimum Australian state contract (covering Shield and domestic 50-over cricket) is worth $50,000, whereas the minimum Big Bash League contract is worth $20,000. The former requires four-and-a-half months of work from a player (excluding the pre-season); the latter only requires seven weeks of work from a player. On a weekly wage basis, a minimum-contract BBL cricketer is now paid better than a minimum-contract Shield cricketer.
Moreover, there is a much higher potential financial upside for the BBL cricketer than the Shield cricketer (assuming that he, like most Shield cricketers, does not go onto play for Australia) because state contracts are capped at $150,000, whereas no such ceiling has been imposed upon BBL contracts. When one adds in the possibilities of year-round T20 freelancing in the Indian Premier League, Bangladesh Premier League, Sri Lankan Premier League and English domestic T20 competition, the financial calculation for an Australian cricketer who does not believe that he’s got a reasonable chance of playing Test cricket for Australia is a no-brainer — quit Shield cricket and go play T20.
However, with the exception of a handful of veterans and fragile-bodied fast bowlers, Australian Shield cricketers have not made that seemingly obvious, income-maximising choice. The reason for that is simple: the vast majority of them play the game not for money, but because they dream of playing Test cricket for Australia and believe, based on over a century of practice by Australian selectors, that the only way to realise that dream is to perform consistently at Shield level.
Thus, the selection of Marsh — a player who has never, in a first-class career spanning over a decade, scored first-class runs consistently — in the Test squad was an insult to every single Shield cricketer in the country, many of whom have consistently performed better than Marsh at Shield level, only to see him be chosen ahead of them. Never, in the history of Australian cricket, has so much been given to a batsman who has done so very little for almost 13 years.
Any Shield cricketer who listened to Inverarity’s press conference would’ve been left in an even more confused state of mind because, even as he announced the selection of Marsh in the Test squad, Inverarity spoke, with tongue apparently nowhere in the vicinity of his cheek, of the importance of “experience”, “current form” and “performances” to selection and the desire of his selection panel to see “lots of competition from players — players performing and doing really well, showing us their wares and really pushing for claims.”
The fact that Marsh subsequently got injured and was replaced in the squad by Phil Hughes, a batsman who has consistently dominated in the Shield, is irrelevant, because, in microeconomic terms, the market signal had already been broadcast, loud and clear, over official Cricket Australia channels by the selectors to the Australian public: we will pick a 30-year-old batsman who has never performed consistently at Shield level over countless others who do.
The long-term consequences of the broadcast of that signal are almost too terrifying to contemplate. Upon receipt of that signal, the rational thought which must have flashed through the minds of the 29 Australian batsman who scored more Shield runs than Marsh this season, but weren’t picked in the Test squad, is: why bother playing Shield cricket? Why bother with the long days, the average pay, the mental grind and the physical injury toll when, at the end of it all, the Australian selectors will just pass you over for Test selection in favour of a bloke who you’ve consistently outperformed for years at Shield level, but has a fully sick IPL and BBL highlights reel?
If that thought were ever to become permanent in the minds of Australia’s Shield cricketers then Australian cricket would be doomed forever. Without a strong Shield competition there would not be anything resembling an Australian cricket team.
Furthermore, as with all matters of public policy, we must, as the benevolent cliché goes: THINK OF THE CHILDREN! What lesson would the hundreds of thousands of cricket-loving children around Australia draw from the selectors’ treatment of Shaun Marsh?
Perhaps something along the lines of: do not score Shield runs — that’s hard yakka and entirely unnecessary. Instead, just focus on scoring runs in the BBL and the IPL — because that’s what will get you picked to play Test cricket for Australia, just like Shaun Marsh.
If such a belief, which is no more than a rational response to the Australian selectors’ behaviour, ever becomes widespread and ingrained in the minds of the children of Australia, then Australian cricket as we know it will cease to exist.
That is why the Australian selectors’ obsession with Shaun Marsh is so dangerous — each and every time they pick a batsman with such a consistently mediocre Shield record, they broadcast a message to every child and every Shield cricketer in the country that imperils the very health of Australian cricket itself. A few days ago, they picked Marsh again in the Test squad when Watson sustained a calf injury.
It is — metaphorically at least — apposite that it was Phil Hughes who was passed over to make room for Shaun Marsh because these two men embody the two faces of modern Australian cricket’s Janus.
Hughes represents the old ways — what Australian cricket always has been and still (just) is. In a nation that is now 89.34 per cent urbanised, where nearly half the population resides in two major cities, he was born in a country town with a four digit population and grew up on a banana farm. He is a direct descendant of what Gideon Haigh calls the “Australian tradition of autodidactism”: like Bradman, McCabe, Walters and Hayden before him, Hughes was raised in the bush “always being the youngest [in his cricket teams] playing guys that are always older” and his batting technique — homemade, heterodox and not exactly easy on the eye — reflects that upbringing.
He has earned every chance that he’s ever been given through sheer weight of runs scored. He scored a hundred on his debut in Sydney grade cricket. He scored a half-century for New South Wales on his first-class debut. He scored his maiden first-class hundred in his debut Shield final at the age of 19. By the age of 20, he’d scored 75 in the second innings of his debut Test followed by twin centuries in his second.
He is hardworking, self-made and self-learning. As his erstwhile teammate and flatmate, Nick Compton, observed in 2009, Hughes has “a highly attuned brain” and is “a fast learner with an immediate understanding of technique.” Back then, Hughes could neither hook nor pull with power. Now, he’s developed those shots to such an extent that he can pull Pat Cummins for a flat six at the WACA.
Yet, despite these empirically proven and historically resonant virtues, there is no batsman that the Australian selectors have trusted less over the past five years. Hughes is, as ESPNCricinfo’s Brydon Coverdale pointed out, the perennial “first dropped”, and in the process he has become, as Jon Hotten so astutely observed, the paradigm for modern Australian cricket’s loss of trust in itself.
Shaun Marsh represents the new — what Australian cricket has to an alarming extent become and, if we are not careful, threatens to be forever more. He is the son of a former Australian Test cricketer and coach. He grew up in the rarefied air of the Australian dressing-room; as a boy, he got his throwdowns from Justin Langer. By his own admission, he “probably took [playing Test cricket] for granted”. Despite nearly 13 years of consistently mediocre (and diminishing) first-class returns, he has been picked to play 65 international matches for Australia, including seven Tests, over the past five-and-a-half years. He has been backed like no other Australian batsman of this era. Marsh was picked in a Test squad after averaging 24 in first-class cricket for the preceding two years; Hughes was first axed from the Test XI when he was still averaging over 50 in Test cricket.
But the Australian selectors, like some relentless fool in a Shakespearean comedy, are determined to thrust greatness upon Marsh. And, like so many a Shakespearean fool, the Australian selectors have been utterly seduced by a cosmetic virtue that disguises a multiplicity of fatal flaws. Marsh’s batting technique is aesthetically pleasing and pristinely orthodox. He stands tall, upright and elegant at the crease. He does not have “a single unsightly trigger movement in his stance, standing as still as a Gelug monk in a state of nirvana” until the moment that the ball reaches him, upon which he brings his fully straight or fully horizontal bat down to meet the ball with a full face. But Marsh’s stillness at the crease — the fountain of so much of his undeniable elegance — has a profoundly negative technical consequence that Marsh has never ameliorated: the presentation to the bowler of a front pad that is the approximate size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. In modern Australian cricket terminology, a front pad of such size is referred to simply as a Watson.
That technical flaw is one reason why Marsh has never, despite the abundant opportunities gifted to him by selectors over the years, scored first-class runs consistently. The other is that batting, especially at first-class level, is a mental as much it is a physical or technical discipline, and Marsh’s consistently sub-normal first-class performances over nearly 13 years strongly suggests that he has a mental weakness that, by this stage of his career, it is too late to rectify.
The centuries-old tradition of great Australian batsmanship has never been about looks or technique as an end in itself. Sir Donald Bradman had a turned-in bottom hand grip. Ian Chappell was a hooker of such psychotic compulsion that even his grandma asked him to stop playing the shot. Early in his innings, Steve Waugh’s feet were about as mobile as a pair of bridge pylons. Matthew Hayden appeared to in a permanent state of half-front-foot lurch. Allan Border seemed to get by with about three shots in his entire repertoire. Ricky Ponting lunged forward like a Neighbours starlet at the sight of a recording deal.
None of those great Australian batsman had a pristinely orthodox, aesthetically pure technique. What they did have was the mental strength and hunger necessary to score runs prolifically at first-class level and razor-sharp cricket brains that enabled them to self-analyse and develop their own heterodox batting techniques. Hughes possesses those virtues; Marsh does not.
Those distinctly Australian common virtues have been passed down through the generations of great Australian batsman — from Trumper to Bradman to Waugh to Ponting. This can be seen in Ponting’s recently released autobiography, At the Close of Play, which contains a passage on his philosophy towards batting technique (“there’s no such thing as perfect technique … some of the greatest players have had completely different techniques … great batsmen … hold the bat differently, have different backlifts … Having unusual technique does not mean a player can’t be one of the greatest ever”) that is eerily reminiscent of that found in Bradman’s Farewell to Cricket (1950): “any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style providing he is not revealing an obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong just because he is different.”
If their obsession with Marsh and aversion to Hughes is any guide, that very Australian philosophy of batting technique is something that the current selectors appear to have entirely forgotten. We are poorer for it.
That isn’t the only Australian cricketing tradition that the current selectors appear to only honour in the breach. Australian cricket has always backed young batsmen with outstanding first-class records. A 20-year-old Steve Waugh was given 42 consecutive Tests, despite not scoring his maiden Test hundred until his 27th Test. A 26-year-old Ricky Ponting was, following a three Test series in India in which he averaged 3.4, promoted to number three for the next Test series: the 2001 Ashes in England. As Ponting himself explained in his autobiography, it is the young who are in particular need of patience from the selectors: “I’d been reasonably confident when I made my Test debut, but from the moment you’re dropped the game becomes another proposition and the older you get the harder it becomes to deal with those mental pressures. For that reason I have always been wary of axing young players … you have to understand the profound effect it will have on the person and be aware that it can genuinely set people back.”
Ponting and Waugh earned, via their consistent first-class run-scoring from a young age, and received, such patience from the selectors. Hughes has earned such patience in the precise same way that Ponting and Waugh did — but he has never received it from the selectors. As Tina Arena, another Australian prodigy who earned the opportunity to fulfil her enormous talent (and seized it), put it recently: “it is very easy to judge, it is unbelievably difficult to nurture.”
The relationship between selectors and cricketers, especially young cricketers, is one of trust and confidence. Seventeen summers ago, a 22-year-old Ponting found himself in a situation almost identical to that which Hughes found himself in at the beginning of this summer — axed from the Test team just one Test after making a crucial 80-odd and told by the selectors to go back to the Shield and score runs. Both young batsmen held up their end of the bargain. Hughes was actually a tad quicker than Ponting in doing so, scoring his first post-axing Shield hundred in just his second Shield match following his dumping, whereas Ponting didn’t score his first post-axing Shield hundred until his fourth Shield match after his dumping.
In 1997, the Australian selectors, chaired by Trevor Hohns, honoured their end of the bargain, picking Ponting for the 1997 Ashes tour over numerous other young batsmen — including Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Michael Hussey and Murray Goodwin — who also enjoyed impressive 1996–97 Shield seasons. As Ponting himself admitted in his autobiography, he always suspected, but never confirmed, that “what got me over the line” in a strong field of young batting candidates for the Ashes tour was the selectors’ sense of obligation “to honour their side of the bargain by giving me another go.” Ponting made the best of that go, becoming one of Australia’s greatest ever batsmen, but he would not have been in a position — both literally and mentally — to do so had the selectors not acted honourably, thereby preserving the relationship of trust and confidence that must exist between selectors and a young player in order for the latter to be in a mental state to succeed at Test level.
In 2014, the Australian selectors, chaired by John Inverarity, did not honour their end of the bargain, omitting Hughes from the original 2014 South Africa tour squad in favour of two middle-aged batsmen with vastly inferior overall and 2013–14 Shield season records. Perhaps the only person in the country who was not surprised by that decision was Ponting himself.
In the summer of 2011–12, Ponting was nearly a year retired from the captaincy and trying to arrest an ODI form slump following a strong home Test summer against India. Both the captain, Michael Clarke, and the vice-captain, Shane Watson, had gone down with injuries. Inverarity rang Ponting — twice — to ask him to stand-in as captain. Initially, Ponting declined, reasonably pointing out that the job should have passed to the then 25-year-old David Warner (who’d been named vice-captain when Watson got injured) and assuring Inverarity that he’d “help Dave any way I can”. Eventually though, Ponting, always one to put the team first, relented as Inverarity pleaded that they needed his help and underscored how important he was to the team.
Less than a week later, Ponting received another call from Inverarity. “Ricky,” he said, “we’ve decided to drop you.” There had been no warning, not even a hint in any previous conversation that the place of Australia’s greatest ever ODI batsman was under threat. Ponting was “seething” inside. His typically honest and forthright concluding remarks on the matter in his autobiography paint an unflattering portrait of Inverarity’s communication skills and character:
These blokes [ie the Inverarity-chaired NSP] had been appointed as the result of the Argus Review, a document that stressed the need for better communication between players and selectors. John Inverarity’s new selection committee never gave me the chance to retire from ODI cricket, which — after 375 games, 50 more than any other Australian — I think I deserved. … It wasn’t about getting a lap of honour, just departing with dignity. Instead, they used me up, by getting me to captain the team for a couple of games and then flicked me when Pup and Watto were available again.
As we reach the tail-end of an Ashes whitewash summer, the conventional and superficial narrative is that everything’s rosy in the eucalyptus green garden of Australian cricket. The reality is that the Ashes merely told us what we already knew — that Australia is blessed with a bountiful crop of fast bowlers and that, since 2009, the Australian batting line-up has had a propensity for catastrophic first-innings batting collapses. This summer, the superhuman heroics of the few temporarily disguised the fact that the latter problem is as frequent and pervasive as it’s ever been. And if that problem is not rectified soon, then Australia risks wasting one of its finest ever crops of fast bowlers.
The current Inverarity-chaired NSP has now had over two years to rectify the problem. Their remedy — a refusal to back young batsmen with quality first-class records coupled with a fondness for backing twirtysomething batsmen with redoubtably mediocre first-class records and thirty-something batsmen who have mastered the fine art of getting-in-and-getting-out in live Tests — has failed. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that the team is succeeding in spite of, not because of, the selectors. It is important to remember that this is the same selection panel that dropped Nathan Lyon — our best-performed spinner in the post-Warne era and an integral part of our Ashes-winning bowling attack — twice in 2013: once for a bloke with a first-class bowling average in the low-40s and an ODI bowling average in the high-30s; the second time for a teenager. Lyon was reportedly the last man picked for the Gabba Test.
The selectors were lucky — lucky that Lyon, like Hughes, is a humble, hardworking country lad who cops such selectorial slights on the chin without ever dropping his bundle. Just like they were lucky that on the four occasions during this summer’s home Ashes that their cobbled together batting line-up collapsed in the first innings, Brad Haddin and/or Steve Smith donned a superhero costume. It is doubtful whether Inverarity is even aware of the scale of that luck — he said, after the Ashes, that “a lot of the Test matches weren’t as demanding as they might have been, we won quite comfortably”.
But that luck will not last forever. If Inverarity continues with his attempts to thrust Test greatness upon mediocre twirtysomething Shield batsmen like Shaun Marsh at the expense of young batsmen with Shield runs on the board, then it’s likely that it is he who will end up the fool, “cross-gartered” and “yellow-stockinged”, having wasted what is arguably the finest crop of fast bowlers that Australia has ever produced.