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In my time following cricket, I’ve never known such a fevered atmosphere around selection. Belatedly, the national panel has recognised that fact.
Cricket supporters were about ready to march on Jolimont with flaming torches if the men’s Test squad announced today had been substantively unchanged.
Nor was it just the general masses. The Sydney Test attracts plenty of cricket’s more influential figures. From the conversations I had over that week, some surprising names were among those echoing that strong dissatisfaction.
Certainly the jobs of Trevor Hohns and Greg Chappell would have been on the line had they refused to make some concession to the general mood.
It’s not like these selectors have a chamber of riches to choose from during these difficult times in the Australian game. But the inscrutability and opacity, the favourites played, the absurd hunches, the lack of accountability, the high-handed dismissal of questioning, had all added up.
So after a long spell of invisibility in which national coach Justin Langer had to be the face of all the panel’s decisions, notional chairman Hohns fronted the media in Sydney on Wednesday.
The most substantial peace offering was the removal of the Marsh brothers from the squad to play Sri Lanka.
Loved by management and unloved by supporters, even some ferocious Western Australian partisans have given up on Shaun and Mitchell after another wretched year followed their Ashes false dawn the summer before.
The booing at the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, unfair as it was on players who’ve tried their best, was really directed at those who’ve kept choosing them despite the body of evidence of success too sporadic to warrant it.
Another about-face was the inclusion of Joe Burns and Matthew Renshaw, two Queensland openers with Test centuries and more claim to be there on performance and technique than those who replaced them.
But the hill on which these selectors are prepared to perish is the continued non-selection of middle-order batsman Glenn Maxwell. Pilloried by some for his approach to the white-ball game, selectors should know better than anyone of his proven quality in the red-ball formats.
Maxwell was the only batsman other than Steve Smith to make a century on the 2017 tour of India. Three Tests later, after scores in the 20s, 30s and 40s, he was dropped from a team in which players with longer strings of single-figure results would be retained.
On Shield numbers, Maxwell is the second-best available batsman in the country. Even if you don’t accept a purely statistical view, he’s clearly in the top six in terms of ability.
Despite limited first-class cricket thanks to the national white-ball teams, he’s assembled a consistent record over the course of years. His talent tops almost anyone. His ability to play long innings in tricky conditions is a matter of record.
He has years of international experience, and with an Ashes series coming up, years of English county experience, in a green team where experience was always the first excuse for retaining the underperforming Shaun Marsh.
Yet the reserve batsman for the Ashes in November 2017, and the reserve batsman flown into Johannesburg when half the batting order was suspended in March 2018, is apparently not in the best 14 batsmen in Australia.
Marnus Labuschagne, with his Shield average of 33, is apparently a better player than Maxwell with his mark of 44. Ditto Travis Head, with the same number of first-class tons as Maxwell despite playing 19 more matches.
“Glenn hasn’t played Test cricket for us for a while,” said Hohns, as though this was someone else’s choice. “Right now we are wanting him to focus on white-ball cricket with the World Cup coming up.”
Because no one else plays two formats.
Head definitely has potential, but as of now, he lacks the concentration. Too many of his Test innings end in loose shots, and you can’t ride your luck very far in England.
Peter Handscomb is another example of being messed around. He and Labuschagne were both brought in for Sydney, scored 37 and 38 respectively, yet one will be kept while the other is discarded.
Previously, Handscomb played outstandingly in India to bat through the fifth day at Ranchi for a draw, batted for hours in withering heat in Bangladesh for 82, then didn’t make the squad for Australia’s next Asian tour to the UAE.
Will Pucovksi is a gamble. He’s done some standout things, unlike other random guesses from this panel like Hilton Cartwright or Sam Heazlett. He’s also a very young player who’s had multiple concussions and time out of the game for mental health management, meaning you wonder if it’s in his interests to elevate him to Test contention.
The key is whether selectors treat him like other young players who’ve been brought in for five minutes and then dumped and never spoken of again. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll play or is around the squad to soak up the atmosphere.
Matthew Wade has backers after a strong season and a half in the Shield. But it’s understandable to hesitate in trusting that a wicketkeeper who couldn’t make a run during a year in the Test team can turn around and deliver as a specialist bat in the top six. Another ten strong Shield games might change that view.
The other question is how will a playing XI be drawn from the squad? The four bowlers are set – Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, with Peter Siddle in reserve, while the next tier get a chance to impress in a CA XI warm-up.
But that warm-up may also be a shootout between Burns and Renshaw to see who partners Marcus Harris as an opener, given Harris was Australia’s only decent performer in the series just gone against India.
Burns is the in-form player, and people can fairly point to Renshaw’s poor recent Shield work. But Renshaw is the man who dominated county cricket last season, and the one with the game to best cope with Jimmy Anderson in Birmingham.
He’s the one in terms of technique and temperament who you can see opening for Australia in ten years’ time.
Which means both of them need to play, but one has to go down the order. Burns started his career at six, and could revisit it. Or Usman Khawaja could give up first drop again and move to four. Or one of the pair misses out if Pucovski is wanted at six.
Permutations, permutations. In a time of upheaval for Australian cricket, it makes sense that nothing is clear-cut. Including the ongoing Maxwell mystery.
“There is nothing to do with [personality] at all,” said Hohns. “Obviously when a position becomes available in the batting line-up, it depends what that position is and what type of player we require.”
The only positions that have become available in the last year are: all of them. Repeatedly. Yet while the Test batting order is at its weakest since 1978 – anecdotally and statistically – one of Australia’s best batsmen still can’t get a shot.