The battle is won, the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu propounded, before it is fought.
This insight is the key to understanding the role of selectors in winning cricket Tests. If you select a team that does not have the personnel or the balance to win a Test, your team won’t win the Test.
This brings us to the Australia’s downward and then spectacular upward spiral in Test results this season.
Let us go back to Hobart and a disastrous loss by Australia to day four of a rampant South African side. Take it away Andrew Webster, chief sports writer for the Sydney Morning Herald:
“It was day four of the second Test against South Africa and the hosts were staggering about like the drunken man at the party. They had been rolled for 85 in the first innings, their lowest at home in 32 years. ‘When I flew down the Test match wasn’t over – but we weren’t going well,’ James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s chief executive recalled. ‘But I was hoping to be there for the last stages of the Test match. By the time I arrived, it was all over.”
The Hobart Test loss was the fifth consecutive Test defeat by Australia. Sutherland told Webster that “we knew some decisions needed to be made to restart the summer.”
The key decision was to appoint Trevor Hohns as an interim chairman of selectors replacing Rodney Marsh, a former legendary player but, unfortunately, no great shakes as a head selector.
Hohns came to the role as chairman of selectors following a highly successful previous stint when Australia won 16 Tests in succession and the 1999 and 2003 World Cups.
Hohns, helped by Greg Chappell who has been a great advocate for blooding young players before they become cynical and cautious in their play, brought in a group of mainly untried players to replace the failures in the Tests against the South Africans.
The result is that Australia defeated South Africa and then went on to smash Pakistan 3-0 in their Test series. Two of the youngsters introduced by Hohns, Matt Renshaw and Peter Hanscomb, have had absolutely brilliant starts to their Test careers.
As Australia prised away the wickets of the Pakistani batsmen on the last day of the Sydney Test, the selections made by Hohns and his fellow selectors looked to be obvious. But at the time, this was not what the cricket writers were predicting.
Greg Baum, writing for Fairfax Media in a colour piece that was annotated as analysis, mocked the decision to throw out the failed players and go for new or inexperienced replacements. The piece entitled ‘That selection was fun. Now what?’ was more satire than analysis, actually.
It started with an imaginary scene of chaos, mental and environmental, surrounding the bewildered selection panel:
“When Trevor Hohns awoke, his head was throbbing … Bit by bit, the room came into focus. Paper was strewn everywhere, crumpled and torn. A whiteboard in one corner was covered in thick red crosses and lines, and also something that trickled. Underneath it, sitting on top of a pile of pizza boxes, was an Under-19 tour handbook and a sheaf of cricinfo printouts.”
Then, after more imaginary details about the dark, desperate mood of the selectors, Baum got around to the point of his article which was that the selectors had panicked:
“The public was demanding blood, and blood they got. One minute, the trouble was no young players were knocking the door down. The next, they were storming the barricades … But by Thursday lunchtime, the papers and pizzas all will have been cleared away … There will only be a cricket match between a very green Australian team and a very mean South African team in the ultra-taxing environment of pink-ball, day-night Test cricket. Australia will the greenest where day-night cricket is toughest, in batting. To complete the kaleidoscope, a whitewash looms.
“The Test team was broken, but this isn’t a fix, it’s a fit.”
The evidence suggests that the selectors got it more right than the bewildered pundit.
I have the scoreboard of that “whitewash” Test in front of me as I write this.
Jackson Bird, who Marsh didn’t rate as a Test bowler and needed to improve his batting to deserve selection, took 2 for 57 in the first innings, scored six and took 1 for 54 in the second innings (the dangerous Quinton de Kock). He was not required to bat in the second innings.
Matt Renshaw, the 20-year-old opener, scored ten in 59 minutes in the first innings and 37 not out in 170 minutes in the chase to run down the 127 runs needed to achieve the victory.
Peter Handscomb, with his feet metres apart like a captain on a swaying deck, scored 54 in the first innings and was not out on one in the second innings.
Nic Maddinson made a duck in the first innings and was not required to bat in the second.
Move forward now to the just-finished third Test at the SCG against Pakistan.
The infusion of young blood into the Australian side has clearly worked. Renshaw and Hanscomb have established themselves already as successful Test players. They should be fixtures in the Test side, unless cricket politics rears its ugly head.
Moreover, the rump of the established players (rightly) kept by Hohns have relished playing with the younger players starting on the march towards a long Test career.
In an article in the Australian headed ‘Youthful revival passes the Test as tour of India looms’, cricket writer Peter Lalor made this point going into the last day of the third Test against Pakistan: “Forced to make radical changes after five straight losses by the national side, selectors gambled on young blood and were immediately rewarded.
“Two months ago Australia made 85 in an innings in Hobart. They made that many in 14 breezy overs yesterday for the loss of one wicket.”
Lalor gave some compelling statistics about Australia’s second innings at the SCG to reinforce his argument that the Australian Test team has been re-energised by the young players.
Matt Renshaw now has scored 271 Test runs at an average of 67.75.
Peter Hanscomb has scored 344 runs at an average of 114. And in his last innings of the third Test, he scored a not out 40 off 25 balls.
David Warner, after scoring a century before lunch on the first day at the SCG, the first time this has been done in Australia and only the fifth time in Tests, smashed 50 from 23 balls in the second innings, the second-fastest 50 in Test cricket. Misbah-ul-Haq’s half-century off 21 balls against Australia in 2014 is the fastest.
Steve Smith scored his half-century from 38 balls and Usman Khawaja was “a little restrained” with 79 not out from 98 balls.
I would argue, though, that there are still some selectorial decisions to made by Hohns before Australia has a settled team that can challenge India in India and then against England in the next Ashes series.
There is the tricky number six batting position. Will Hohns continue with Hilton Cartwright, a batting all-rounder? Or a straight out batsman, like Shaun Marsh? Or a bowling all-rounder, Mitchell Marsh?
Cartwright looked like a technically correct and composed batsman on the evidence of his first Test innings. There was some tentativeness against the Pakistan spinners, however.
His bowling looked to be less than lethal and poorly directed, outside the leg stump too frequently. But it did seem that he bowled a heavy ball, without much discernible swing or cut.
My guess is the Cartwright experiment will be continued, at least in the short term. For me, he showed a good temperament. He hit his first ball for four and was never flustered into charging at the spinner, even when he seemed to be tied into the mesh they were weaving around him.
Personally, and these might be famous last words, I don’t think Glenn Maxwell warrants a place in the current Test side. He is one of those players, in my opinion, who flatters only to deceive. He is extravagantly talented without the essential talent for any successful Test player – the talent to understand his own limitations as a batsman.
I am doubtful, too, about the continued presence of Matthew Wade as the Australian wicketkeeper. He came in after the Hobart debacle to give some mongrel to the team’s demeanour. Whether this is necessary now is debatable.
Not debatable, though, is the fact that his keeping is not up to Test standard. Peter Nevill could be restored. My suggestion, though, is for the selectors to consider or re-consider Tim Paine, who made his Test debut back in 2010.
Paine played only four Tests before injuries to his hands forced him out of keeping for some years. He averaged 35.87 in these Tests and looked, at the time, to have the right temperament and ability behind the stumps to warrant re-selection now that he is healthy again, admittedly at the age of 32.
We come now to the matter of the Australian spinners.
Geoff Lawson knows more about cricket as a practitioner of some note and as a broadcaster and columnist than most of the experts put together. He is often blunt in his appraisals, a quality I like. He has literally done the hard yards as a fast bowler and is one of the most distinguished captains NSW has ever had in Sheffield Shield cricket.
Here he is in the Sun-Herald writing about the need for Australia to take two spinners into the Tests in India and his suggestions as to who the second spinner, along with Nathan Lyon, would be:
“Adam Zampa would be my pick for an extra touring turner, but the enigmatic Glenn Maxwell, the burgeoning Beau Webster, one-day international Travis Head or the retention of Nic Maddinson would have been more useful in Sydney and immediately beyond.”
Maxwell and Head have the disadvantage of being off-spinners, like Lyon.
Maddinson is a slingy, non-spinning left-armer in the Steve O’Keefe manner. You would play O’Keefe if you wanted someone to bowl with this method.
Zampa is a right-arm wrist-spinner. He is in the Australian tradition. Trevor Hohns himself was a latter-day Zampa playing, according to Cricinfo, “a handy role in the Ashes-winning 1989 squad, chipping in with some useful wickets …”
Shane Warne, who knows something about these matters suggests that Ashton Agar would be the best choice to partner Lyon in the spin-twin attack in India as he is a genuine spinner of the ball, unlike the “white-ball specialist” O’Keefe: “I would like to see us develop somebody like an Agar and persist with someone like him. I think O’Keefe is just a safety option.”
The point here is that even on turning pitches, particularly on turning pitches that might not help the pace bowlers, Lyon needs another spinner to help him bowl a side out.
A French academic was once asked, “Who is the best living French poet?” He answered: “Victor Hugo, alas.”
Asked about the best Australian spinner, one is impelled to give a similar sort of answer: “Nathan Lyon, alas.”
In his 60-plus Tests, Lyon has rarely been a match-winner. He is, like Victor Hugo, the best of a poor lot that is currently in play.
Lyon does take vital wickets from time to time, as he did at the SCG. But there is something un-threatening about his bowling. Only occasionally is there the loop that takes the ball above the eye-line of the batsman, the dip that deceives, the curve that drags a bat outside the line of the ball and the sharp turn in towards the stumps that the best of off-spinners conjure up.
Lawson made the point that the basis of India’s terrific run of home Test victories, aside from some sensational batting, is a bowling line-up full of spinners: “India have been playing only two seam bowlers in their run of home successes and often open the bowling with spin. They could get away with just a lone trundler when they play three spinners and a part-timer.”
Another aphorism of Sun Tzu comes to mind in all of this for Trevor Hohns to ponder: “Know your enemy.”
Hohns and his fellow selectors have to somehow conjure up a spin bowling pair that can match the array of spinners India will use to bewilder what is becoming a strong Australian batting line-up.
What will that pair be? Is there such a combination practising their art in Australian cricket right now?