SPIRO: Rotation policy has method in its madness

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Australian fast bowler Jackson Bird prepares to bowl to the Sri Lankan batsman on the first day of the second cricket Test match between Australia and Sri Lanka at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), in Melbourne, on December 26, 2012. AFP PHOTO/William West

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I was watching the opening over the Boxing Test at the home of my son Zac and after a couple of balls by Jackosn Bird, I called out to him that Australia has discovered its new Glenn McGrath.

Bird was immediately on the a great line and length. He moved the ball both ways, sometimes with out-swing and then cutting the ball in.

He bowled at a good pace delivering what connoisseurs of fast/medium-pace bowling like to call ‘a heavy ball’. Generally he bowled at a McGrath-like 135km/h and occasionally up to 139km/h

Medium/pace bowling is not really about pace as such but on what a bowler can do with the ball, little movements both ways, and a sort of rush off the pitch (an illusion) that hurries batsmen into their shots and makes the ball hit their bats hard.

The failed hook shot by Dimuth Samaraweera immediately after the lunch interval is a case in point. The batsman was just too late on his hook shot and, as a consequence, merely bunted it to Dave Warner at mid-wicket for an easy catch.

What I noticed immediately about Bird was his springy, athletic run in to bowl, rather like the run up (but much shorter) Michael Holding (a resemblance noted, as well, by Malcolm Knox in the SMH).

The other very notable aspect of Bird’s bowling was his intense accuracy, always on or just outside the off stump and just back of a length, except for the fuller out-swing deliveries tempting the drive from frustrated batsmen.

This accuracy enabled Bird in his 13 overs to bowl five maiden overs. The other four bowlers (Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon) bowled their 30 overs with a total of only 5 maidens.

The point about bowling maiden overs (as Wayne Smith also noted in one of his reports in The Australian) is it puts the batsmen under pressure and opens up the possibility of wickets from less parsimonious bowlers at the other end. As Smith pointed out, Bird’s first 21 deliveries after lunch did not concede a run and that ‘the Sri Lankans happily – and fatally – chanced their arm against everyone else.’

So it is time for a fearless prediction, or probably more accurately, a fearless insistence. When the selectors want to put their best fast bowling unit in a Test, Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird have to be in the mix.

Siddle is better at being the enforcer coming in at first change and banging the ball into batsmen.

Bird is an opening bowler, with his swing and cut, who will bowl into the wind, if there is any. On this reckoning, Ben Hilfenhaus is now relegated to being a back-up for when, or if, Bird is not available.

This leaves open the other opening bowling spot. James Pattison (when fit), Patrick Cummins (when fit), Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson are also contenders. As Shane Warne, the two Mitchells can’t be played together because ‘they both leak runs.’I actually prefer Starc to Johnson as an opening bowler.

Johnson, to my mind, is just too erratic now to be considered as the cutting edge of an Australian attack (unless everyone else is out). He doesn’t just leak runs, they flood off his bowling. By way of comparison, Johnson bowled 14 overs yesterday for 63 runs (something like 4.3 runs an over, using the cricket ratio of the .3 representing three runs) and Bird bowled his 13 overs for 32 runs (about 2.3 runs an over).

We come now to the controversial rotation policy. Is there some method in what is perceived by experts like Geoff Lawson as a cricketing madness?

To begin with, the rotation method has given us Jackson Bird, who I regard now as a permanent starter in the bowling attack, along with Peter Siddle.

I am convinced also by a sophisticated analysis written by Malcolm Know in the SMH. He sees the rotation policy as part of the ‘managerialism’ ideology that has come to dominate the Western corporate world. The essence of managerialism, according to Knox, is that a ‘shared methodology can achieve better results than relying on the brilliance of individuals.’

What this means for the baggy green caps isĀ  this: ‘The cricket managerialist dream is that while individual bowlers can come and go, what cannot be rotated out are the fundamental principles of line and lenth tailored to specific conditions. It doesn’t matter who the bowlers are, as long as they are schooled in the method.’

I find this analysis stimulating, to say the least. When I read Knox’s excellent column I immediately thought of Graham Henry and the All Blacks and their quest for the Holy Grail of a Rugby World Cup triumph.

Henry introduced a similar sort of rugby managerialism into the All Blacks when he took over a coach in 2003. It is history now that the All Blacks collapsed in their quarter final against France in RWC 2007. But it also history that the policy worked in RWC 2011.

The lessons from Henry’s experience is that sooner or later, going into a crucial must-win tournament like the RWC the selectors have to define their starting team and then play it all the time in the crucial matches. At RWC 2007, for instance, Henry did NOT play the same starting XV once throughout the tournament.

In the 2011 Rugby World Cup a starting/best XV was played in the important matches. Rotating stopped essentially once the tournament started. This is what has to happen when the Australian selectors pick their teams in the Ashes series later next year.

The up-side of the rotation policy, though, came for Henry when first Daniel Carter, then Colin Slade, and then Aaron Cruden (actually in the final) all succumbed to injury. Stephen Donald, brought back from his holidays, became the fourth fly half used by the All Blacks in the tournament. He played for 50 minutes in the final and kicked the winning penalty.

Donald had been dropped from the All Blacks squad for RWC 2011. But in the previous few years he’d played 28 Tests for the All Blacks and, therefore, was ready enough to become the super-sub.

Back to the Australian cricket team, what all this means in my view is rotating may be acceptable up to the Ashes series. Then the best unit must be used in every Test on the theory that battles are won with all guns blazing.

Players like Johnson and possibly Starc, though, are there, like Donald, with the background, experience and will to perform if they are forced to come into the starting side with better bowlers out injured.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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