I have always been a big fan of George Bailey, and always thought he could add a lot to the field of selection.
From the first time I saw him not quite living up to expectations for Australia, I thought to myself, “Here is a man who probably shouldn’t be in this team, but he looks like he’ll have some good ideas about who should be”.
So it has proven, with his native canniness gaining him the job of Australian selector, fresh from the field of battle.
But being an Australian selector is a tough gig, and not just because of the contract they make you sign promising to be wrong about everything every day for the rest of your life.
It’s a gruelling lifestyle of constant business-class travel and free tickets to major sporting events, that few are constitutionally equipped for.
Then there’s the press scrutiny: being a selector means being a target for media opprobrium, and indeed abuse, that is only deserved around half of the time.
Given this, I have come up with a few handy hints for George on how best to go about the business of selection now that that business is very much his.
These are certainly the principles that I would strive to uphold if I were a selector – as, in a just world, I would be. But if George follows these simple guidelines, he’ll go some way to being almost as good at picking winning teams as I am.
Rule one: Ignore the public
A selector is not a politician. He has no need to read the room, gauge the mood, sense which way the wind is blowing, or consult widely with various stakeholders.
The media is going to tell you who should be in the team. Fans are going to tell you who should be in the team.
Remember that the reason you’re a selector is that a) you know more about the players you’re looking at than these babbling randos; and b) you’re better at it than normal people.
The minute you let the phrase “well, Robert Craddock thinks…” enter your calculations, you’re doomed to failure. In fact, expand this beyond the realm of selection: never, ever pay attention to Robert Craddock about anything.
Rule two: Pick players because they are good enough to do the thing you’re picking them to do
This sounds obvious, but of all the selectorial skills, this is the one that has proved the most elusive in Australia in recent years.
It’s simple really: a cricket team has eleven players. As a rule, when picking the team, you need six batsmen who are good enough at batting to bat in the top six, and you need four bowlers who are good enough at bowling to be one of the four main bowlers.
The eleventh spot may go to a wicketkeeper, or, if the keeper is a top-six quality batsman, to an all-rounder, but the basic premise is constant: six top-six-standard batsmen, and four frontline-four-quality bowlers.
This means that if a player is not good enough to bat in the top six, don’t pick him to do so. And I’m not specifically mentioning the name “Mitch Marsh” here, but only out of kindness.
Likewise, if a player is not good enough to be one of the four primary bowlers – meaning a bowler capable of bowling long spells, maintaining line and length, and threatening to take wickets regularly – don’t pick him to do so.
And you can guess I am definitely not mentioning the name “Ashton Agar”.
Rule three: Never ever ever pick a player for just one game
If you believe a cricketer is good enough to play for Australia, you can’t possibly believe that a single failure renders him no longer good enough.
Otherwise you’d have put a line through Bradman’s name after one Test. The greatest absurdity in selection is players picked once and then dropped immediately: think Bryce McGain, Callum Ferguson, Joe Mennie, Chadd Sayers, and so on, and so on.
When this happens, the selectors have done one of two things: chosen a player they didn’t really think was good enough, and so quickly reversed course after one game; or decided that only players who play brilliantly in every single game can be picked for Australia, which nobody sane could possibly think.
So the solution is simple: choose only players you actually believe are good enough, and give them at least three Tests – and unless they look woefully out of their depth, probably a couple more – before deciding they should be kicked back to the lower levels. Any other course is incoherent stupidity.
In a similar vein…
Rule four: Never pick a player for the first Test of a series if he is ‘on his last chance’
Choosing on ability, temperament and form is paramount, but stability should never be ignored. When a team loses the first Test of a series, heads are bound to drop and thoughts turn negative.
The last thing the players need in that situation is selectors fomenting panic and creating the impression of a side in disarray by immediately shuffling the deck.
If the team fails to fire in the first Test, they should – if you’ve picked a side you believe in – be given a chance to reload in the second.
This means no player should be selected in the first Test of a series if failing in that Test means you would drop him.
If there’s a man who is so close to being dropped that one more bad game would see him out of the team, drop him before the series – you’ve really made your mind up already anyway.
Rule five: Don’t be a slave to stats
There are myriad great careers that would never have got off the ground if selectors had based their decisions purely on statistical considerations.
Greats like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Ian Healy, Michael Clarke and of course Marnus Labuschagne would, at the very least, have started their international journeys years later, and in some cases not at all, had the powers that be determined that figures were the be-all and end-all.
A selector must be willing to trust his gut, and more importantly, to trust his knowledge of cricket and cricketers.
The great teams of the 1990s were built on the policy of the 1980s of picking players who had the Right Stuff – the temperaments and instincts that smart and experienced men knew would serve them well in international cricket.
The current Australian Test captain gained his position due to similar considerations. If a player doesn’t have spectacular statistics, but you see a great cricketer in him, don’t be afraid to push his name forward.
Rule six: Don’t ignore stats
Look, stats aren’t everything, but they’re not nothing. If a batsman is racking up massive numbers in state cricket, or a bowler scything through opposition on a regular basis, you can’t just shrug that off.
You can pick on potential and gut feel, but irresistible figures are sometimes, you know, irresistible.
If a player is clearly outperforming all his peers by some distance, don’t be that perverse jerk on the panel who tosses him aside because his technique doesn’t look right or you think he’s a bit weird.
It’s unfair both to the player, who is busting a gut to do his best every day in the belief that performance is the key to selection, and to the team, which will be weakened if selectors always prioritise style over substance.
I think that’s about it. I hope George will abide by these rules always, and if he doesn’t, may we of the commentariat ensure our vengeance is swift and bloody.
I’m sure it won’t come to that: George is a good egg, and I look forward to his youthful vigour supercharging this Aussie team far into the future.