By Madan Mohan
In August 2011, the Andrew Hilditch era of Australian cricket was ditched following the blessings of the Don Argus review. The role of Chairman of Selectors was redefined and former Australian left-arm spinner John Inverarity beat Geoff Lawson, Tom Moody and Rodney Marsh to bag the post. He took charge of the post from the home series against New Zealand onwards and presided over their first home Test loss to the Black Caps since 1985. But his first big challenge was widely expected to be the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. And Round One, hosted at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), has gone decisively in his favour.
Under Hilditch, Australia approached their transition with uncertainty and lack of clarity. Marcus North was once hailed future captain but disappeared from the mix post the Ashes 2010-11. Phil Hughes was chopped after the tour of New Zealand in 2010 but returned for the Ashes 2010-11. Spinners of all hues were given a go, from old hand Nathan Hauritz to Jason Krezja to Michael Beer.
During this period, Australia were beaten in a home series by South Africa, lost the Border-Gavaskar Trophy twice in India and the Ashes both at home and in England. In all fairness to Hilditch, he headed a committee and one in which the Australian captain also had a say and it would be uncharitable to lay the entire blame for their travails at his doorstep.
The first signs of change appeared after Ricky Ponting relinquished the mantle of captaincy for Michael Clarke. Australia won a series in Sri Lanka and though they only got a share of the spoils against South Africa and New Zealand, they began to show signs of a revival as Pat Cummins, David Warner and James Pattinson made promising debuts.
But the new selection panel truly demonstrated that things would now be different in their response to Australia’s loss to New Zealand at Hobart. Hughes was dropped after a string of poor performances. More stunning was the decision to let go of Usman Khwaja. They decided he had not quite made the most of his opportunities and placed faith in Shaun Marsh and veteran Ponting and Mike Hussey.
The two boldest moves of the new panel were, however, in the selection of Ed Cowan and the recall of Ben Hilfenhaus. For too long, Australia had been attempting to replace the famed opening pair of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer with ‘two Haydens’. Swashbuckling flamboyance was favoured over graft and patience. In selecting Cowan, Inverarity chose substance over style and recognised he would be an ideal foil to the aggressive Warner.
The recall of Hilfenhaus was most surprising. One expected Mitchell Starc to be persisted with, alongside Pattinson and Peter Siddle. But Inverarity favoured the more experienced Hilfenhaus, who has also played before against India. The thinking seems to have been that a strong and experienced foe needs to be countered with an able leader for the bowling pack.
Both selections were more than justified by the performance of the respective players in the Boxing Day Test. Cowan does appear to have the makings of a Langer-like steady, patient opener and at Melbourne, he compiled a solid half century in the first innings, his 68 also making him the top scorer in the innings. Hilfenhaus made a brilliant comeback, nabbing a fifer in the first innings and seven for the match. More importantly, the delivery with which he cleaned up Rahul Dravid in the first innings may arguably have been the turning point of the match.
Ponting and Hussey repaid the faith shown in them and deprived Inverarity of what was expected to be his biggest selection headache of the season. The uncomfortable question of what to make of ageing warriors will be shelved for the time being and the Australian squad somehow appears both settled and inspired.
As Clarke has already observed, though, Australia need to make their winning start to the campaign count and avoid a reversal at Sydney or Perth - the venues for the second and third Tests of the series. This is only the first of many questions that Inverarity will be posed with during his tenure and far from reserving judgment, we must not even venture to consider one at this point.
But as they say, well begun is half done. The Inverarity panel has taken a major step in rehabilitating Australia’s Test side which will now approach the rest of the series on an upbeat rather than a despondent note.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)