Let’s be honest: the England side that recently won the Ashes is a very modest one. Dispute this? Well ask yourself this question: who from the 2009 English side would make the 2005 English side? Matt Prior for Geraint Jones,
Graeme Swann for Ashley Giles, while Strauss the 2009 batsman would dead heat the 2005 version (remembering he faced higher quality bowling in 2005). And that’s about it.
Or have a look at where England are in the ICC’s test rankings: 5th, a long way behind the 4th-placed country (which shall not be named!).
So if Australia lost to this mob of Poms, then surely a radical shake-up of personnel is warranted, yes?
I’d like to argue that it’s not so simple.
I have been a trenchant critic of the current Australian selection panel, and in particular its chairman, Andrew Hilditch.
However, for once I am going to express sympathy for them, and admit that they are now confronted by a very unclear picture. While there are many changes they could reasonably make, I would demand only one.
To understand why the way forward is unclear, one first must recognize that the 2009 Ashes series was a highly unusual one: Australia thoroughly dominated almost all of the standard statistical measures of performance, and yet they lost.
In my previous article on this series, I explored some of the reasons put forward for this anomaly. I rejected all these theories, and instead concluded that it was primarily down to good fortune – this from the person about whom Brett McKay once wrote “Greg, I mean this in the nicest possible way, but do you ever tire of being the voice of reason?”
Given such an unusual landscape, how indeed should Australia’s selectors react?
I would argue that only the positions of Ponting, Clarke, North and Haddin are indisputable in going forward.
First of all I will deal with the bowling, because the issues here are most simply stated.
We would love to have a better spinner than Nathan Hauritz, but he showed this series that he is better than we had thought, and the plain truth is that probably there is no-one superior.
I personally had hopes for Bryce McGain, but they have faded. What genuine evidence is there that Jason Krejza would take enough wickets to compensate for all the four-balls that he bowls? And that’s about it. What more can the selectors do about this but wait and hope?
With fast bowling the situation is more or less the other way around: too many options without it being clear which the best ones are.
Lee and Clark have the track records in test cricket, but they are on the wrong side of 30, and they have been through major injuries. Johnson, Siddle and Hilfenhaus did a sterling job against South Africa, but they were inconsistent in England, in particular the enigmatic Johnson.
Who can honestly divine the right mix from this list of candidates, especially when there is little telling which version of a player will show up for a match? The Johnson of South Africa would be the first player chosen, while the Johnson of Lord’s would be relegated to park cricket.
One thing I will say: I do not see any need to go outside this “pack” (to use Troy Cooley’s word). Doug Bollinger is a name that often is put forward. Many of the people who do so were also assuring us a year ago that Beau Casson was the successor to Shane Warne – ’nuff said.
Moving to the batting, let’s open at the top.
On strict numbers, there’s no question that Katich and Watson deserve to be retained. However the cases of Brad Hodge and Phil Hughes evidence a penchant of the Australian selectors to look beyond batting statistics.
Certainly I was not alone in feeling frustrated at the failure of our openers to convert 50s (or thereabouts) into centuries over the last three tests, and in identifying this as a significant factor in the series defeat. Here is what Geoff Lawson wrote in The Roar:
“Please don’t tell me that Shane Watson was a success at the top – when you get away to as many starts as he did you need to convert a fair number of those into big scores, scores that make team first innings big enough for winning comfort.Watson’s consistent failure to go on past the half century was maddening
… The sign of a true opener is one who battles through the new ball and prospers against the old.”
But why does Henry not find his mate Katich similarly culpable? After all, he also got starts in these matches, and he is the senior partner, whereas Watson is – literally – still learning his new trade.
I am a big fan of Phil Hughes – a player who definitely knows how to score a century – but I admit I would be uncomfortable dropping the incumbents, and I really don’t have a firm opinion on what the Australian selectors should do at this stage.
And so to Mr Cricket.
Here is Mr Lawson’s take on him:
“Mike Hussey may have extended his career after the gutsy and lengthy hundred (219 balls for 100) after being dropped four times. A ton in a big losing margin, hmmm, whether this innings will keep a younger man from the middle order must be thoroughly discussed.”
In some ways this assessment is charitable, because he does not apportion any blame for the crucial running out of Ponting.
And yet, at almost exactly the same age, Matthew Hayden saved his career with a hundred at The Oval, an innings that ushered in a purple patch that lasted three summers and saw him score another ten test centuries. Why not Hussey also?
Besides, who would replace him? I guess I’ve always said that Shane Watson is a no. 4, but am I convinced he’s ready?
All of which brings me to my one demand. I have been an unabashed fan of Ponting, but he must be dropped as captain.
This might sound inconsistent with my view that the series was lost primarily because of rotten luck – why hold a captain responsible for that? I do not.
Rather, my view is one of principle. Australia has been the greatest cricketing nation over the history of the game, and it has been top dog for the last 15 years. Its aspiration must be to maintain this status. Retaining as captain someone who has twice lost the Ashes is incompatible with this aspiration, regardless of whether or not these defeats are his fault.
To put it simply, to keep Ponting on as captain is to send a message to the vast Australian cricket community that something less than excellence is acceptable. Do that, and you might as well admit that the game is up.
So, just like Dravid and Tendulkar, his great batting contemporaries, Ponting should resign the captaincy and concentrate his total effort on scoring runs. This is what he does best (which is not to deny that he has been a very good captain), and runs are what his country most needs from him at the moment.
Meanwhile, Michael Clarke should assume the captaincy. I was very disappointed with his soft dismissals in the fifth test, at moments when he really needed to stand up. However he did exactly that in the middle three tests of the series, a sustained period over which he functioned as the leader of Australia’s batting.
It would be folly to guarantee that appointing Clarke will see our fortunes improve, but he is ready to give the job a go, and it is imperative for this necessary statement to be made.
Can the leadership of Cricket Australia recognise this necessity? This is a litmus test of them too. Captain, chairman of selectors, and CEO – with one decision, we’ll know about them all.