Australia’s World Cup Squad: Maxi Love and X Scepticism

Posted on January 17, 2015

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By SB Tang

Note: an edited version of this piece appeared on The Guardian Sport Network.

Here’s Australia’s World Cup squad of 15:

Batsmen

  1. Michael Clarke (capt)
  2. George Bailey (vice-capt)
  3. David Warner
  4. Aaron Finch
  5. Steven Smith

Wicket-keepers

  1. Brad Haddin (wk)

All-rounders

  1. Glenn Maxwell
  2. Shane Watson
  3. Mitchell Marsh
  4. James Faulkner

Fast bowlers

  1. Mitchell Johnson
  2. Mitchell Starc
  3. Josh Hazlewood
  4. Pat Cummins

Spinners

  1. Xavier Doherty

It’s easy to be critical of the Australian selectors. And many of us, myself included, very often are. After all, during the Australian summer, selecting the Australian cricket team from the comfort of one’s own living room couch ranks second only to cricket itself as Australia’s national sport.

But, in the case of Australia’s World Cup squad announced on Sunday, it is also easy to empathise with the selectors who were confronted by the unenviable task of having to whittle down 20-odd meritorious candidates to a final squad of just 15. Australia has, of late, been experiencing a glut of world-class limited overs batsmen, keeper-batsmen, quick bowlers and seam-bowling all-rounders. As Channel Ten’s Big Bash League commentary team of Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Fleming and Australian selector Mark Waugh have repeatedly lamented on-air over the past month as they’ve discussed the merits of countless Australians excelling in this season’s BBL: gee, it’s a shame, we can’t pick 20.

That being said, the vast majority of this squad picked itself. No rational Australian humanoid who has ever played cricket could’ve contemplated not including, subject to fitness: Clarke, Warner, Finch, Smith, Haddin, Mitch Marsh, Faulkner, Johnson, Starc, Maxwell and Watson.

Despite their well-established, but undeserved, status as the two bête noires of the modern Australian cricket Twitterati, there is no indication whatsoever that the selectors ever seriously contemplated omitting Maxwell and Watson from the squad.

In the first six months of 2014, Maxwell was in the batting form of his life — he finished the Shield last summer with innings of 94, 127 (after walking out to bat when Victoria were 6/9), 119 and 4, then went off to the World T20 in Bangladesh where he was Australia’s best batsman, scoring 147 runs at a healthy average of 36.75 and the scarcely believable strike-rate of 210, before joining Kings XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League where he was crowned player of the tournament after becoming just the second batsman in IPL history to score more than 500 runs in a single season at a strike rate in excess of 180.

But Maxwell endured a difficult second half of 2014. It started with a stint in county cricket where, like more than a few Australian batsmen before him, he lost his form. That batting slump continued into Australia’s winter ODI assignments in Zimbabwe and the UAE and the early summer ODIs against South Africa. In 12 ODIs, he averaged just 22.50 with the bat. Even his strike-rate dropped — to 112.50, still outstanding by any ordinary standard, but well below what had been his career ODI strike-rate up to that point (124.20).

However, what Maxwell’s multitude of keyboard-wielding critics ignored was that, even as his batting slumped, his greatly improved bowling and consistently phenomenal fielding fully justified his continued presence in Australia’s ODI XI. In those 12 ODIs, he took 12 wickets at an average of 25.75 and an economy rate of 5.22. That included a match against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi when he was tossed the ball to bowl the final over with Pakistan needing just two runs for victory with two wickets in hand. Maxwell calmly bowled a double-wicket maiden to secure a one-run win for Australia.

Then, there is his fielding. Glenn Maxwell is one of the finest fielders in the world. His combination of speed, lateral movement, agility, safe hands and a cannon of an arm that throws the ball flat from the edge of the MCG boundary to the keeper make him quite simply the best outfielder in the history of cricket. As Ben Dunk observed on live national television whilst he was batting during a BBL game at the MCG with Maxwell stationed in the outfield, he is worth “plus 15” in the field. Time after time, the Hobart Hurricanes batsmen had to decline what would ordinarily be twos on the vast expanse of the MCG because, as stump mic overhead them saying, “it’s Maxwell!” If Maxwell is worth plus 15 in the field in a T20 game played at the MCG, then he would be worth, at the very least, plus 25 in an ODI played at the MCG. And there will be plenty of games played at such large grounds, for example, the Gabba, the WACA and the MCG, in a home World Cup.

The good news for Australian cricket is that Maxwell appears to have snapped out of his batting form slump just in time for the World Cup. The day before Australia’s World Cup squad was announced, he hit a match-winning 66 off 44 balls for the Melbourne Stars against the Melbourne Renegades at the MCG, an innings which featured not just the boundaries for which he is famed, but lots of intelligently worked ones to rotate the strike, a virtue that had all but disappeared from his game during his batting form slump. He followed that up with a brutal 136 off 89 balls for the Prime Minister’s XI against England.

Watson’s second half of 2014 was disrupted by a series of injuries. His form with the bat when he returned to the ODI XI early this summer was ok for a top 3 bat: he averaged 33 with a strike rate of 78.94. But that was well-down on his career figures as a top 3 ODI batsman up to that point: in 129 matches, he’d averaged an excellent 42.76 with an even more impressive strike-rate of 93.18.

Watson’s bowling form during this season’s early summer ODIs was downright alarming: he averaged 131 with an economy rate of 7.27. Of equal concern during those ODIs was his running between the wickets. Watson is now 33 with a long history of injuries, which means that his running between the wickets — never a strength of his game — is now a weakness. With Watson at the crease, ones become dots, twos become ones, and threes become twos. This was particularly noticeable when Watson was paired with young, fast-running batting partners such as Faulkner and Smith.

With all that being said, the selectors were absolutely right to back Watson for this World Cup. His career record as a top 3 ODI batsman remains exceptional. His bowling was back to its best during the Test series against India and even his running between the wickets and strike rotation improved during that series.

The last three spots in the 15-man squad that were the subject of intense competition were the last two fast bowling slots, which went to Hazlewood and Cummins, and the sole specialist spinner spot, which went to Xavier Doherty.

This is where I disagree with the selectors. One of the two last fast bowling slots had to go to an in-form specialist death bowler. Death bowling has been the Achilles heel of Australia’s limited-overs sides in recent years and the last year has been no exception. Starc and Faulkner, Australia’s go-to death bowlers last summer, struggled badly at the death at the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh. In the pivotal group game against the West Indies, the duo were assigned to bowl Australia’s last two overs with the West Indies needing 31 to win. Starc and Faulkner conceded 31 runs in just 10 balls to all but mathematically end Australia’s tournament.

Fortunately, Starc appears to have re-discovered his white ball death bowling form this summer with the Sydney Sixers, but Faulkner’s death bowling form remains worrying. He conceded 18 momentum-changing runs when he bowled the final over for the Stars against the Hurricanes and 20 off one over (albeit in the Powerplay) against the Sixers.

Neither of the two men picked to fill the last two fast bowling spots, Hazlewood and Cummins, is the go-to 50-over death bowler for their state, New South Wales. That job belongs to 21-year-old Gurinder Sandhu who is, by far and away, the form death bowler in both 50-over and T20 cricket in Australia at the moment. Sandhu does not possess Cummins’ mind-boggling pace nor Hazlewood’s McGrath-like steepling bounce. Instead, he has a good range of well-disguised slower balls and an excellent cricket brain that enables him to effectively mix up his line, length and pace. Sandhu’s one possible weakness as a bowler — at this early stage of his development, he only bowls at approximately 135 kph — is actually an advantage at the death because it gives the batsmen less pace to work with.

Australia’s weakness in the death bowling department is clearly something that the selectors are aware of. They trialled the South Australian quick, Kane Richardson, a specialist death bowler, in that role in the winter ODIs in Zimbabwe and the UAE with mixed results. Yet, they chose not to allocate the last fast bowling berth in the World Cup squad to an in-form specialist death bowler. That was a mistake. Sandhu should’ve been included in the squad at the expense of either Hazlewood or Cummins.

With the all-rounder Glenn Maxwell set to play as the one spinner in Australia’s World Cup ODI XI unless the team is faced with a raging turner, the selection of the sole specialist spinner will probably have less of an effect on Australia’s performance in the tournament than the absence of an in-form death bowler apart from Mitchell Starc.

Since the sole specialist spinner will only play if Australia gets a pitch that really turns, logic suggests that that position should go to a genuine wicket-taker, not a mere container. After all, given the severe deficiencies demonstrated by all the Australian batsmen, apart from Clarke and Smith, on raging turners, if we’re unlucky enough to be stuck with such a pitch, surely we’ll want and need a specialist spinner who can bowl the opposition out very cheaply?

The selectors clearly don’t. Because they opted for the acme of containment spinners: Xavier Doherty. Now, Doherty’s career ODI economy rate of 4.75 is impressive, particularly in this era of flat pitches, boundary ropes and wonder bats, but his ODI bowling average of 39.18 — just like his first-class and Test bowling averages of 78.28 and 42.58 respectively — is indicative of a gross inability to take wickets. That conclusion is reinforced by his ODI strike-rate of 49.4.

Moreover, there are legitimate question marks over Doherty’s ability to contain the world’s very best limited-overs batsmen. In his one previous appearance in the knock-out stages of a global limited-overs tournament — the 2012 World T20 held in Sri Lanka, where spinners were of crucial importance on turning pitches — Doherty struggled. Badly.

In the semi-final against the West Indies, he returned figures of 1/48 from his four overs. Australia’s then T20 captain and current ODI vice-captain, George Bailey, entrusted his trusty Tasmanian teammate to bowl the final over of the West Indies’s innings. At the start of Doherty’s over, the West Indies were 3/180. A good final over and Australia were in the game — anything under 190 was chaseable at the small R Premadasa Stadium.

Doherty’s final over cost 25 runs. Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard feasted on his flat straight-breaks like a pair of malnourished vampires gifted the keys to a sorority house. And Australia was faced with the not-so-chaseable target of 206 for victory. Australia lost.

What makes Doherty’s inclusion all the more puzzling is that the selectors could’ve had their cake and eaten it too — economy and wicket-taking potency from their specialist spinner. They spent the winter giving Australia’s undisputed number one Test spinner, Nathan Lyon, a run in the ODI XI with excellent results. In six ODIs, Lyon took 10 wickets at an average of 25.30, an economy rate of 4.43 and a strike-rate of 34.2. In other words, Lyon’s economy rate was marginally superior to Doherty’s, his wicket-taking potency was nearly one and a half times greater, and his wickets came at half the price of Doherty’s.

So, of course, Lyon was dropped to make way for Doherty.

Australia will justifiably start the World Cup as one of the tournament’s favourites. Only two things can stop Australia winning a first World Cup on home soil and a record fifth World Cup overall: our patchy death bowling and our batsmen’s weakness against spin on turning pitches. Unfortunately, the selectors declined to ameliorate either of those deficiencies in their selection of the final squad.

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