Rotate sports scientists, not players

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James Pattinson will play a key role in the next-gen Australian Test side. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Rotation policy. Informed Player Management. The idea of the first causes many to rise up in furious anger. The mention of the second by anyone associated with Cricket Australia makes all of us die a little inside.

Are they one and the same? Does the first even exist? Should the second?

Behind these new age expressions and questions lingers the suspicion that the oft-mentioned but rarely seen sports scientists, apparently infused with the wisdom of a thousand Dumbledores and owners of Harry Potter’s invisible cloak, are selecting Australian cricket teams, or at the very least dictating who should be available, for how long, and how much ‘loading’ their fragile bodies can take.

Apart from anything else, there’s no evidence to confirm these people, with seemingly enough power in sporting organisations to give God an inferiority complex, know what they’re doing.

James Pattinson injured himself in three separate Tests in 2012, forcing him to miss eight matches. Ben Hilfenhaus was ‘player managed’ out of the Perth test this summer, only to injure himself in Hobart eleven days later.

John Hastings played one Test and missed a month of cricket.

As an aside, Essendon is one of the richest clubs in the AFL, and we imagine they spent millions of dollars on their sports science department in 2012. First they endured one of the most soft-tissue injury ravaged seasons we’ve ever seen in 2012, and now…well…let’s just say if you don’t love the Bombers you hate them, so all we can do is watch on and laugh.

But back to the cricket – what is fact and what is fiction? I certainly don’t know, but for every connected cricket insider or ex-player that swears one thing to be true, you’ll find a CA representative to dismiss such an idea with nothing short of contempt.

Of course, it’s hard to get to the bottom of any of this now that chairman of selectors John Inverarity is on public record admitting that lying to the public about why a cricketer might miss a match is preferable to telling the truth.

So, where do we go from here?

My take is quite simple: The rotation policy is nothing short of an absolute disgrace. It is also completely essential if implemented correctly.

Allow me to expand on this apparent contradiction.

With Test matches being the pinnacle of cricket (with the exception of the BBL, IPL and Champions’ League of course) the Australian Test team should always be beyond compromise, and not subject to any form of manipulation that doesn’t involve selecting the best team to win a match at the given time.

The thing is, the Test side has always had a form of rotation policy. If a batsman was under-performing and there was a better option available, he was dropped. If a bowler was injured and unable to take part, he wasn’t selected.

Does it need to be any simpler than this? Not in the opinion of this humble observer, if we’re to avoid repeats of the farce that occurred in Sydney against Sri Lanka.

As we all now know, Mitchell Starc was rotated out of the MCG Boxing Day test while being promised reinstatement for Sydney (and don’t even get me started on a player being promised a Test cap ahead of time).

The problem was that the fast bowling brigade in Melbourne were all, effectively, ‘un-rotatable’.

Jackson Bird was arguably the most impressive of the three and, as a debutant that struck all who saw him as a perfect fit for Test matches on English soil, he needed more exposure at the highest level.

Mitchell Johnson got the figures, made the runs, and was hostile enough to injure as many as he got out on his way to the Man-of-the-Match award. Peter Siddle, sparingly used in Melbourne, had taken 9/104 in his previous test, and in any case was seen as the mythical ‘leader of the attack’.

Nathan Lyon was the spinner all summer, and none were as safe as he heading into Sydney.

So who was dropped to accommodate Starc?

None of them of course. With CA now standing for ‘Compromise Australia’, the selectors decided that hard decisions weren’t required. Rather than give Glenn Maxwell exposure at Test level to see if he could cut the mustard in India, or to bring a clearly identified future batsman like Usman Khawaja back into the fold, they would go in with five bowlers.

The game was won, completing a series whitewash, and no doubt at CA headquarters pats on the back were being thrown around like confetti. But the ends didn’t justify the means and a valuable opportunity to glimpse the future was thrown away because the selectors had painted themselves into a corner of weakness.

So, after all of this, when is rotation ‘completely essential’ as I had written earlier?

Any series of one-day and T20 internationals would be the answer, although I’d call it rest rather than rotation.

There isn’t a cricket fan with a mouth who hasn’t decried the amount of meaningless ODIs that get played throughout the cricketing calendar. The same people were up in arms about David Warner, Michael Clarke and Matthew Wade being rested for the first two matches against Sri Lanka.

So they should have been rested, and frankly it wasn’t for long enough.

Resting established Test match personnel from limited overs cricket after a long and exhausting series is where the rotation policy can come into its own. Squeeze every ounce of effort, skill and mental application out of these guys in the Test arena, and give them a break when it’s over.

I’ve long been a fan of potential Test players getting exposure to international cricket though ODIs, with Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke, among many others, all examples of this thinking.

Resting senior hands gives the ODI side a freshen-up, both internally and to the cricket public. For many fans, it’s the first time they’ll see a player who they’ve heard is tearing it up at Shield level.

Watching a player bowl or bat during a 50 over match can give one an insight into whether his technique, concentration and skill are transferable to the Test arena.

Based purely on Glenn Maxwell’s first class averages, I was thinking he would be well worth taking a punt on.

Having seen him with bat and ball in hand for the first time during recent ODIs, I’ve now got huge reservations. Not as huge as Maxwell’s bank balance I must say, but big enough all the same.

As for T20, I’m of the opinion that no Test player should be considered for selection in the format. If the workloads are so strenuous, as we are constantly told, and Test cricket is the most important, as we are constantly lied to about, then there can be no issues with such a stance.

As for those thinking that what the public or broadcasters want should have any impact on selection (ie – Warner to play all ODIs and T20), if that were the case, Dean Jones would still be named in every Australian match played at the MCG.

The sanctity of Test cricket must remain absolute, and selection should be treated accordingly each time an Australian Test XI steps onto the field of play. By all means, rest, rotate, have a look at other players in the shorter forms, but let natural selection take its course in tests.

And if anyone can nail down a sports scientist, rotate them out of the sporting infrastructure for me.

Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for there's nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.
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