The still-smouldering Joe Burns question

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The end of the lost Ashes series in July was always going to bring with it selection angst for some players, and the Australian selectors.

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    The 3-1 thumping at the hands of the Old Enemy meant that the selectors had to make some hard calls on a number of members of the ageing squad.

    Largely, retirements negated that need.

    Chris Rogers, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin would surely have had trouble featuring in any future plans had they not retired, while Ryan Harris’s knee made that decision for him before the previously unthinkable was contemplated.

    Michael Clarke pulling the pin as he did came as something of a surprise, perhaps, while the rapid vacation of so many senior players extended Adam Voges’s career for now.

    David Warner’s injury, too, meant that the tour of Bangladesh in October was going to provide a good old-fashioned ‘bat off’, as used to happened back in the day when the top couple of Sheffield Shield batsmen would be plonked into an Australia A side with the dangling carrot of the Test number six spot in front of them.

    Usman Khawaja, Joe Burns, and young gun opener Cameron Bancroft were to be on show in Bangladesh, with at least two spots in the Australian top-order on offer. It was to be ‘three men enter, two men leave’; a run-making version of the Thunderdome, but more enticing and not quite so brutal or cut-throat.

    However, the Bangladesh tour being called off for security reasons meant that coming into the Australian summer the national selection panel had to do something they hadn’t done for a while: make a couple of genuine selections.

    Warner was always going to be fit for the series against New Zealand, meaning that replacements for Rogers as an opener, and Clarke in the middle order were needed.

    Often in recent years, replacements coming into the side for whatever reason haven’t been that surprising. Players like Shaun Marsh have come in with preconceived ideas of performance not necessarily backed up by current form. Occasionally, sheer weight of runs has meant that a player – Voges for the West Indies and Ashes Tour being a prime example – could simply be ignored no longer.

    Khawaja’s exploits for Australia A in India – consistent in both the unofficial Tests and the one-dayers – made his recall an easy and obvious one. And his selection meant Steve Smith could drop back to number four and shore up the middle order, which had been a concern in England. Khawaja had also had a taste of Test cricket before, and was always expected to return.

    But Burns or Bancroft for Rogers’s vacant opening spot was a touch harder.

    Both had had strong Shield seasons last summer to earn Australia A selection in the first place. On tour, Bancroft cashed in during the first-class games, including 150 in the first ‘Test’. Burns missed out in his one first-class game – batting at number three while Khawaja opened with Bancroft, coincidentally – but then teed off in the one-dayers and earned a spot in the Australian ODI side at the completion of the Ashes.

    Ultimately, the selectors backed the 26-year-old Burns over the 22-year-old Bancroft for the first Test in Brisbane last week, and the stylish Queenslander repaid that faith in spades. His first innings 71 was backed up with his maiden Test century in the second innings, and with twin century opening stands in partnership with Warner, Burns’s place atop the Australian batting order looks assured for the summer.

    After peeling off another Shield century for Western Australia this week, Bancroft contemplated his Test omission.

    “Finding out that I wasn’t going to be in the squad, if anything, just a weight lifted off your shoulders. You don’t have to worry about anything now, you have just got to go out and score runs,” he said.

    He has time on his side, and undoubtedly will play Test cricket in the future.

    Nevertheless, Burns’s spectacular start to the summer has left me with one big, nagging question.

    Why on Earth was he left out of the squad to tour the West Indies and England in the first place?

    Burns played the last two Tests against India last summer, replacing the injured Mitchell Marsh, and made 58 and 66 in Sydney in January. But when the Windies and England Tour squad was named in March, Burns wasn’t in it.

    Voges’s record Shield run-haul left NSP chairman Rod Marsh to say: “I looked at him on four or more occasions and I thought, ‘I don’t know how anyone will get this bloke out’, he was that dominant.

    “Pure weight of runs, the way in which he got those runs; you could see Test player written all over him.”

    Burns was left out but picked in the Australia A squad, with Marsh saying of Burns’s first chance to play in India: “I reckon that will be very, very good for his overall development as a batsman.”

    And it’s hard to argue with that after what Burns produced in Brisbane.

    But if they were happy to make the tough call and pick Voges over Burns, why didn’t they keep Burns and make the tough call on Watson or Shaun Marsh there and then?

    At the point of Burns’s omission, Watson had passed 40 only three times in the past 12 months. In the ensuing two Caribbean Tests and the first Test in England, Watson didn’t get past 30 and subsequently retired. Marsh, like Burns, had a reasonable run against India, also making two fifties, but also with four scores under 30.

    Had either of them really done enough to hold their spots in front of Burns, who – being at least six years younger than both Watson and Marsh – surely had a bigger future in the Australian team?

    Obviously, it’s worked out pretty well for both Burns and the selectors since. But the way Burns batted last week – like he’d played 50 Tests and not just three – I couldn’t help but wonder if a trick was missed over the winter. Voges’s struggles in England and Marsh’s subsequent dropping on arrival in the Old Dart and failure on recall only further underlines this feeling.

    There’s no doubt Joe Burns has a big future ahead of him, even after one Test this summer. But how much better off might he have been if the selectors made the hard call to back youth, rather than hope that some oft-selected and mostly disappointing older players would come good again?

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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