What to do about Australia’s side for the second Test in Bangladesh?

Stephen Vagg Roar Guru

By , Stephen Vagg is a Roar Guru

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    It’s never easy picking a Test side after a defeat, particularly a defeat that exposed a systemic problem, i.e. how to win in Asia and is right before another big series – the Ashes.

    Do you change a little? A lot? Do you make specific changes for that Test or to look to the future? Do you panic and sack everyone? Do you change nothing?

    Australia’s first Test loss to Bangladesh has thrown up all sorts of questions. Is it worth persisting with Matthew Wade? Do you bring in Peter Handscomb as keeper? Is it worth playing two pacemen? Is it worth persisting with Usman Khawaja in Asia? If changes are made what do they mean for the Ashes?

    Do you bring in Steve O’Keefe? Do you bring in Hilton Cartwright and play three spinners even though Cartwright has taken less than one wicket per game in first class cricket? Do you bowl Mitchell Swepson because he’s young and, hey, he could do anything?

    I do feel for the selectors. Mind you, a lot of this mess is their own doing – they gave Khawaja the boot in India despite strong recent form because he was “bad in Asia”, a tour they didn’t even take Cartwright along on. They tried the Marsh brothers again, and again they failed (with a few useful innings from Shaun it must be admitted).

    They picked Matt Wade as a keeper even though Wade’s mediocre form with the gloves and bat has been apparent to anyone who’s been following domestic cricket over the past few years. They over-looked O’Keefe because (they declared publicly) of his age and one or two poor performances but now seem to have changed their mind.

    Good selectors pick and stick – but they pick and stick the right players. The selectors who helped rebuild Australian cricket in the late 80s – the ones after Greg Chappell, it should be pointed out – knew this. They built the side around a core group of solid stars:Allan Border, of course, but also Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, and Merv Hughes.

    They also fast-tracked players back into the side who were obviously match winners (eg Bruce Reid, Tim May), andthey weren’t afraid to call time on a player’s career (eg Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones). They also weren’t afraid to drop them to give them a kick up the backside (eg Steve Waugh).

    They respected unsexy players with good first class records (eg Paul Reiffel) and they weren’t obsessed with all rounders (Australia only got really good when Steve Waugh decided he was a batsman who could bowl a bit).

    Absolutely they made mistakes (eg playing Steve Waugh as a bower in the 91 Windies tour) but Australian cricket never went into a free-fall because the selectors used good solid basic principles.

    Bad selectors chop and change like a panicked drowning rat. The best-known examples are the English cricket selectors of the 80s and 90s, who were probably the worst of all time. If they weren’t changing their minds over who would captain every other Test, they would be anointing new Ian Bothams every other summer, reacting to tabloid newspaper reports, or using what seemed to be a throwing-darts-at-player’s-names-on-a-board approach.

    Our current selection panel aren’t that bad but they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either. For every win – fast tracking Matthew Renshaw and Peter Handscomb – there’s been a stuff up – like the treatment of Khawaja, the mysterious never-ending enthusiasm for Mitchell Marsh, the recall of Wade, the omissions of O’Keefe and Jon Holland, the ignorance of Chadd Sayers, the bewildering one-off trials given to Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie.

    Peter Handscomb of Australia looks at the wicket keepers gloves

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    To help the selectors I’ve prepared a list of some selection principles I believe in that they might find useful. Now I’m aware the selectors get a tonne of unsolicited advice and my cricketing career was well and truly outside the ambit of Darren Lehmann’s “former legends” he’s called upon for help, but I figure that any panel that picked Mitchell Marsh for 21 Tests – 21! –could do with some help.

    Here they are
    1) If you find a good opening combination, stick with it. It’s worth persevering with an opener who isn’t scoring heaps of runs if he’s helping the team get off to a good start. Ditching one half on an opening partner can have a big impact on the survivor: Mark Taylor struggled without Michael Slater and Geoff Marsh.

    Shane Watson was hurt badly by the absence of Simon Katich. Australia had a good combination with Warner and Burns, got bored with that, and threw it away. We’ve got a good team with Renshaw and Warner – can we stick with them, please?

    2) Be careful of chopping and changing batting line-ups
    Picking batsman on a horses for courses basis is foolish. Yes, some batsmen play spin and pace better than others. But it’s not worth stuffing them around. Batsmen are like racehorses – proud, skittish, fragile. Even the worst bowler gets at least six chances per over to take a wicket.

    A batsman’s career can end with one unplayable ball. Batsmen need support and clarity. If they don’t score runs, sure, drop them – but give them a go before your do. Giving Callum Ferguson and Moises Henriques just the one Test in the past year was pointless and dumb; dropping Khawaja in Sri Lanka and then in India was pointless, cruel and damaging.

    Recalling the statistically worst number six in Australian Test history (Mitchell Marsh) was insane.

    3) Make sure there are as many sensible players as silly ones in your side
    Prima donnas can win you matches but you can’t have too many of them or the team risks winding up like the Real Housewives of Jolimont Street. Too many Michael Clarkes and Shane Watsons (who for all their many fine qualities were players very much wrapped up in their own games) and you end up with catfights and homework-gate.

    You need some sensible, selfless dependable types in there was well – the sort of people who get given captaincies. George Bailey, Brad Haddin, Bruce Laird and Mike Hussey-type players.

    4) Players in the top six should be able to bat
    If they can bowl as well, awesome – but their main job should be able to bat. Darren Lehmann’s insistence that players who average 30 or less with the bat at first class level have a place in the top six at Test level has been perhaps the most fatal character flaw of his Test career.

    Maybe you can get way with it – just – if your number seven and eight average around 35, like England have done. But that’s a bloody big “if.”

    5) Wicketkeepers are the heart and soul of a side
    You chop and change them at your peril. It’s not getting rid of a dodgy batsman or pace bowler on a spinning wicket. You really should change your keeper once a decade. But….

    6) Wicketkeepers should be able to keep first, bat second
    The main job of a keeper is to keep. Take catches, stop byes, rally the fielders. Runs are a bonus. If they’re a bit rusty at first that’s fine, as long as they improve. If they don’t, then get rid of them. Dropped catches hurt teams more than the occasional failure with the bat.

    Wade isn’t improving. If anything, his nerves are making him get worse. Australia is blessed with many fine keepers at the moment. I’m not sure what the problem with Peter Nevill was, but if he’s still on the nose to the selectors for whatever reason then have a look at the other options out there like Alex Carey and Sam Harper. And let’s do it before the Ashes.

    7) Look after your spinners
    Australia has a rotten track record when it comes to treating spinners well. Lyon’s had a magnificent career – but never forget he’s been dropped for Xavier Doherty and Agar. Australian selectors have shown dogged determination to overlook the stellar first class form of spinners like Stu Macgill (overlooked for key tours in his prime), O’Keefe and Holland. The fact Lyon has survived and thrived is a miracle.

    Australian spinners need TLC when they’re not Shane Warne – which means, every single spinner who hasn’t been Shane Warne. If Australia is serious about being a real world number one they need not just a spinner who wins them matches, but back up spinners who could win them matches. Or else we’ll only ever win at home or in South Africa.


    (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

    8) First class performances matter
    We have a really good domestic competition. It should be respected. Yes, often players can’t duplicate that form at international level; occasionally they even surpass it (eg Steve Smith). But it’s a pretty good guide.

    Our selectors are getting into a nasty habit of ignoring domestic form lately, and it’s going to hurt them.

    9) Pace isn’t everything
    Fast bowlers are great and the Australian way and all that stuff – but clever medium pacers can win you matches too. And consistent first class brilliances should be rewarded. Chadd Sayers and Jackson Bird should be playing more Tests.

    Pat Cummins is great and everything but since his comeback we’ve lost two Tests and only narrowly escaped with a draw for the third. Pace is not a magic panacea that fixes all your problems.

    10) Captains need good alternate captains on the field
    Someone once said – I think it was Ian Chappell – was the ideal Australian cricket team should hold at least five alternative captains as well as the captain.

    One of the dogged problems in the past decade of Australian cricket has been the lack of senior players who might have made good alternative captains, either through loss of form (eg Adam Voges, Marcus North, George Bailey, Brad Haddin), or silly selection choices (eg Simon Katich, the never-picked David Hussey).

    It’s something always worth keeping in mind, especially with a super green captain like Smith. Extra leadership experience is needed on the field, not in the back room.

    11) Off field people should be more accountable
    David Peever has never been sacked. James Sutherland has never been sacked. Pat Howard has never been sacked. Darren Lehmann has never been sacked as coach. Occasionally an off-field person will get the boot (eg Mickey Arthur) or be allowed to resign without too much sadness (eg Rod Marsh, Greg Blewett) but the people at the top of Australian cricket are fairly unaccountable.

    The next time a disaster hits Australian cricket, maybe we should think about sacking admin or support staff rather than the players? Maybe that’s what’s wrong.

    Lehmann’s been in charge of this side since 2013 and it’s still rebuilding? Still a young side? What’s he been doing for four years?

    Now I’ve got that off my chest, what does this mean for the second Test side?

    Well, I have to admit I’m fascinated by the idea of us going into the match with three spinners, O’Keefe, Agar and Lyon, and opening the bowling with Cartwright. It just has such a 1938 vibe about it, when Stan McCabe used to help take the shine off the ball for Bill O’Reilly.

    Ashton Agar vs Bangladesh

    (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

    But it’s a very same-y attack. Cartwright isn’t much of a bowler and I still have doubts about Agar’s ability at Test level. I also really, really like Jackson Bird and feel he should’ve played more Tests and would love to see him have a go.

    His accuracy could do well. In an ideal world, I’d pick O’Keefe over Agar, but after Agar’s first Test efforts that would be extremely unfair.

    Should Khawaja be dropped for Cartwright? I feel that would be unfair too. You can’t hide batsmen from whole continents. Khawaja’s been stuffed around – he deserves another go. If the wheels fall off and his start to the Australian summer goes badly, then by all means drop him and put Cartwright in instead. But drop him for consistent bad form not historical bad form.

    Replacing Khawaja with Henriques and Shaun Marsh didn’t work out so well did it? Cartwright’s weak little dibbly dobblers should not justify messing with Khawaja’s head.

    What about Handscomb for Wade? Wade’s been so unimpressive that I wouldn’t weep if he was dropped. But I worry about Handscomb coming in – either he’ll make a lot of mistakes (people forget that wicketkeeping is hard), or he’ll do really well and the selectors will be encouraged to use him, and wreck his career like they did with Wayne Phillips.

    I think Wade should be allowed to play his last Test in Bangladesh. Then Australia should look at blooding a new keeper during the Ashes – there are a lot of great options out there at the moment.

    When in doubt, I feel selectors should err on the side of conservatism. Wild and wacky selections occasionally throw up something memorable (eg Agar’s 98) but in the long run you’re better off showing faith in the players you’ve picked.

    So second Test team – I think just bring in Bird for the injured Hazlewood.

    But the selectors need to start having the courage to pick and stick the right people. At the moment they’re all over the shop.

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