By Adrian Meredith
It is well-documented that the problems with Australian cricket right now are primarily the fault of the selectors. They were going great guns while Trevor Hohns was chairman of selectors and John Buchanan was coach, but things went into disarray after they left. The leadership group on the cricket field, of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hayden covered some of those holes, but when they left it exposed Ricky Ponting, who was never a real captain - more a director of traffic - and his own batting form suffered as well.
The future for Australian cricket cannot begin while Andrew Hilditch is chief of selectors and Tim Nielsen is the coach. These men are not qualified for their respective positions. If Trevor Hohns could return as chief of selectors, then that is ideal, but whoever is the chief needs to be someone who knows what they are doing.
Former players who have proven records of doing a good job are ideal. Tim Nielsen is an inexperienced coach who is not cut out for international level. Why not Geoff Marsh or Tom Moody? If Australia must go with an inexperienced coach, then why not Steve Waugh? There are a myriad of other options out there. I don't know how many have made themselves available, but I do know that we could do better. Having Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee involved in the coaching and/or the selecting would be a plus, as it would if Allan Border was involved. We also need to get rid of Greg Chappell – now national talent manager - from having anything at all to do with Australian cricket - instantly, if not sooner, never to return again, as he is a plague on the game.
Once we have the right personnel at the top, what should they do?
The first thing is to focus on our best players. Thankfully, after some six years of being used incorrectly, about a year ago, purely by luck, Shane Watson was put in his correct position as an opening batsman and occasional shock bowler, something that was obvious to all experts was his correct place from the very beginning. The fact that he kept breaking down when made to bowl long spells should have been a hint, or the fact that suddenly batting at No 8 he didn't know what to do should have been a tip. But, alas, Tim Nielsen and Andrew Hilditch are so out of touch with what is actually required that they meant that this great talent, who is now indisputably the greatest all-rounder in the world and the best that Australia has ever produced, was until recently regarded as a bits and pieces player who shouldn't be in the team.
Two other players are right now in the same situation that Shane Watson was in and, under the current coach and selection system, they cannot achieve. Those two players are Mitchell Johnson and Steve Smith. They are both outstanding talents who should right now be, alongside Watson, Australia's three most important players. But, like how Watson was being used stupidly for six years, the same is true for Johnson and Smith. They do their best, but they need to be coached, captained and selected correctly.
Mitchell Johnson needs to bat in the top order, at No 6, so that he can have the confidence in his own batting ability. No, Johnson probably won't average 50 as a batsman in Test cricket, but he could average high 30s to low 40s, and the important thing is that if he bats at 6, it extends the tail and gets the most out of him. Johnson also needs to be used as a shock bowler, like how Watson is used, not as a line and length bowler, because that is not him. On his day, Johnson can bowl for the entire innings and take seven wickets, indeed one day he may take all 10. But this should not be expected of him. Johnson and Watson, bowling wise, can mostly work in combination - if one of them is off likely the other one is on. Johnson will overall bowl more than Watson but he is not a line and length bowler.
Steve Smith needs to bat in the lower order, at No 8. Yes, he is a batting talent but he has shown that wherever he bats in the order he still bats just as well and, in fact, he bats better with pressure on, such as the pressure involved with farming the strike and helping out the tail. Yes, Smith will probably finish his career averaging 50+ as a batsman in Test cricket, but that doesn't mean he should bat at No 6. The important thing is that when Smith bats at No 6, his bowling suffers. Batting him lower down the order, his bowling magically becomes good quality. We know what he is capable of as a bowler and it needs to be utilised better. He is a bowler who can bowl long spells and he should be used in this way.
We also must not forget our elders.
Ryan Harris and Doug Bollinger are still Australia's two best bowlers. They need precious little direction as they are experienced and know what they are doing. They provide the perfect support for the likes of Watson and Johnson who can come in as shock bowlers afterwards. Unless there are injury concerns, these two bowlers should be the opening bowlers at least in Tests if not in all three formats. They can bowl forever and have ideas to get batsmen out. Dumping them after one bad game, especially if it was the fault of the coach or selectors for not using them properly, is stupid. They are both in incredibly good form and the only question is which of them is best and which is second best.
Simon Katich, Michael Hussey and David Hussey are still Australia's three best batsmen. The fact that for some stupid reason David Hussey is still yet to make his Test debut is irrelevant as he is very easily Test quality. It is all well and good to try young players, but they should be trialed in the T20 or ODI format, not thrust suddenly into tests. And certainly not dumping your best batsman to try some young player who is out of form and has major technique problems.
Australia should utilise the young players with proven records before we look to untried youth.
Clint McKay and John Hastings have done very well in their limited opportunities so far and have proven themselves to be bowlers of the future. If Ryan Harris or Doug Bollinger gets injured, they should be the next two in line. They have both done very well for Australia and have proven quality records.
Aaron Finch has thus far done very well for his country and, while he is far from experienced, he should be persisted with, not thrown out the window.
Steve O'Keefe, similarly, has done very well for Australia in his limited opportunities, and should be persisted with. While neither is currently in line for a Test berths that should be kept in mind for the future.
The youth that we look at should be those that are in form and true quality.
Dan Christian had a stellar season and should be the first player to be picked, if looking at youth.
Mitchell Marsh looks to be a player for the future and I would hope that he makes his international debut within the next 12 months at worst.
Daniel Harris is also in form and looks to be quality.
Usman Khawaja probably warrants another season before being seriously considered (though he has already made his test debut) but if he continues going as he has done so far, he should be considered.
Players who were discarded should not be forgotten if they are now doing better.
Andrew McDonald is one of the best players in the country right now and should be playing for Australia again within the next 12 months at worst.
Xavier Doherty and Jason Krezja have the best bowling partnership in Australian domestic cricket and if they could play together for Australia then that would be marvellous.
David Warner has recently started adapting to the longer game and should be considered for Test match honours.
Other fringe players who are still doing well enough can be considered too.
Shaun Marsh has done well for Australia and could be a big game player.
Callum Ferguson has had a great ODI career so far and similarly could be a big game player.
Peter Siddle never looks like much, but has taken some good wickets.
Ben Hilfenhaus, while slightly out of form right now, certainly should be considered if going to England.
And of course the big change needs to be in the wicket keeper. We should end the debate right now, pick Matthew Wade, and never look back. He should play from now until he is ready to retire, in all three formats. The longer we delay it, the worse it gets.
Cameron White is out of form but still has potential to do well in the future.
Michael Clarke doesn't look like he belongs but it is hard to think of another who should be captain so for now at least he should remain.
Ricky Ponting on merit doesn't deserve his spot, but the theory that his batting form only suffered because of his captaincy should at least be given a shot, at least giving him this one series in Sri Lanka to prove if that is why he has stunk - if he still stinks without the burden of captaincy then he should be dumped forever.
Not that Nathan Hauritz needs to be forgotten, of course. But he was never international quality, just a stop gap player really, and I think he always knew that. With proper planning, a better prospect can be considered.
Trent Copeland, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson might do well, and heck maybe even Michael Beer (though I seriously doubt it) but they are huge risks and realistically shouldn't be in the side to Sri Lanka right now. Taking them there is in effect conceding the series before it has begun, which is no good for anyone.
In conclusion, there is talent in Australian cricket. Oodles of it. But with the current coach and chief selectors, not to mention the influence of Greg Chappell, it is hard to get anywhere. Replace them with competent leaders and then Australia can build a great cricket team of tomorrow.
(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket - from Tests, ODIs, T20 - at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)