Australia pick team for the future, but at what cost?

Doug Bollinger… among the many shocking omissions © Getty Images

 

By Adrian Meredith

 

Australia‘s selectors named a very controversial squad for the Test series in Sri Lanka in August, controversial because it is missing a number of in-form and quality players, who have been replaced by out-of-form newcomers.

 

With just eight quality players, Australia have given a massive advantage even before the start of the series.

 

Test squad: Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke (c), Michael Hussey, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Trent Copeland, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon, Michael Beer.

 

Player analysis:

 

Shane Watson is a must for any Australian team and is right now the best player in the Australian international scene. He is a solid opening batsman without being remarkable who occasionally bowls, but when he is on song he is remarkable.

 

Phillip Hughes is woefully out of form and has been since the 2009 Ashes series when Steve Harmison found him out in a big way. After two years of averaging around 20 in first-class cricket, he was gifted a spot in the Australian Test team to replace the injured Simon Katich. In spite of failing in the Ashes, he was offered a contract ahead of Katich! Sure, he did well against a Zimbabwe A side, but does that really count? Everyone did well against them! His inclusion, while somewhat predictable, looks very foolish.

 

Ricky Ponting has been out of form ever since his unofficial co-captains Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hayden retired in a heap around 2008 or so. Perhaps it is because he now was forced to focusing on captaining the team, instead of just letting his co-captains do it. Perhaps now that he is free from the burden of captaincy he will actually become a good player again. Or, alternatively, perhaps he is just woefully out of form, is old, and will never recover it. It is a risk to take him but perhaps a risk worth taking.

 

Michael Clarke hasn’t looked in form for years, if he ever really was in the first place, yet just as there are serious questions about his spot in the team, he answers them. Except in T20 cricket, where he stinks. Nobody really cared that he didn’t make himself available for the Big Bash League this year. He has been earmarked for Australian captaincy ever since he was captain of the Australian Under-19 side, and especially since entering the Test side. But is he really good enough? Some say he is, but many others say that there are a lot of better choices. On form, he is a fringe player in the Test side and some of his captaincy errors seem childish errors. But now he is captain we may as well give him the chance, as that is the Australian way.

 

Michael Hussey is one player who absolutely deserves to be in the team. From his amazing start to ODI and Test cricket, Hussey eventually lost form, at least in Test cricket, though somehow still batted well in ODIs and T20s. Statistics may have said that he was out of form in the long game, but few pundits thought that he really was and he returned triumphantly in the Ashes series and has just gone from strength to strength since then. He is one player who can really shake Sri Lankan cricket, a player who can bat forever.

 

Usman Khawaja probably doesn’t totally deserve his spot, as he still has precious little first-class cricket behind him, but his first-class record is good enough to give him a shot and why not! On merit, he probably isn’t in the top six best batsmen for Australia, but he probably is in the top 15. And perhaps the selectors see something in him that suggests that one day he will genuinely deserve the spot. Perhaps in this tour he will come of age. Or perhaps not. Either way, it may set him up in the future, even if he does end up unceremoniously dumped. The good news for Khawaja is that with the squad selected Australia has next to no chance of victory, which means that if he fails it won’t matter so much.

 

Shaun Marsh has done well in the one-day and T20 games, but his first-class pedigree suggests that he is very unlikely to do well in Test cricket. Perhaps he is in the squad as a back-up for Hughes, just in case Hughes continues to stink. Marsh, however, did surprise by just how well he did in ODI cricket, after not being all that good domestically, and there is a suspicion that the same may be true in Test cricket, that he may be a “big game player”, whose first-class average in the 30s may somehow transform into a test average in the 50s. It is a bit of a hunch and probably worth giving it a try at some stage. If it works, it’ll be great. And if it fails, realistically with such a weak squad it won’t be noticed.

 

Brad Haddin, rightly or wrongly, is the incumbent in the wicket-keeper position. At least he has captaincy experience and, with Hussey and of course Ponting, can help Clarke to make decisions in his first full series as captain. Haddin is more known as a batsman than a ‘keeper but, sad as it may sound, there are worse international ‘keepers out there. And, depending on whether his opposite number is Kumar Sangakkara or Prasanna Jayawardene, Haddin could even win the wicket-keeping battle.

 

Mitchell Johnson is an enormous talent who, like Watson a few years ago, is being very poorly utilised. Perhaps Clarke can utilise him properly, using him as a shock bowler and batting further up the order. But, as we have seen, when used poorly, he stinks. But I suspect that if he is used properly, he will become the best bowler in the world, and will surpass Watson as the best all-rounder in the world. Johnson and Watson could become like Pollock and Kallis for South Africa, one bowling all-rounder and one batting all-rounder. This is the series to do it and it all gets down to Clarke as to how well he utilises Johnson.

 

Ryan Harris is the only consistently good bowler who is named in this squad. After the odd omission from the Ashes squad apparently due to knee soreness, Harris proved that he is still the best bowler in Australia, alongside Doug Bollinger, who, somehow or other, managed to get out of favour with the Australian selectors and is, absurdly, not even in this squad, apparently because he claimed to have “hit the wall” in the Ashes after being used totally incorrectly. Anyway, at least Harris is there. Absurdly, not even Clint McKay or John Hastings is there either. Harris may be left to do it all on his own but, luckily, he has at least a few times been good enough to do that. He may find himself trying to get the most out of the inexperienced Trent Copeland or the generally hopeless James Pattinson. Or, if he is lucky, he will get to partner the out of form Peter Siddle.

 

Peter Siddle managed to make the squad, in spite of being woefully out of form, ahead of Bollinger. How this happened, one may never know. He is a real trier, which is a bonus for a struggling team. That he makes the side ahead of actual quality bowlers is mystifying. You never know though, perhaps he will surprise with a hat-trick and five wicket innings and then do absolutely nothing else for the entire series. Or perhaps he will just do nothing at all the whole series long. He may plod along with a wicket or two here or there though. You never know. But there were so many other better options that should have made the squad ahead of him.

 

Trent Copeland isn’t terrible. In a few years he may even be Test quality. A bit like Usman Khawaja, it isn’t terrible for him to be in the squad, as, while he isn’t in the top 4 bowlers in the country, he is at least in the top 15. But how on earth can we justify playing him ahead of McKay or Hastings? If we are insisting on going for youth, why we are ignoring in-form and better quality youth? Oh, well. Like with Khawaja, no matter how terribly he goes, Copeland is bound to use this as a stepping stone for the future. Such a pity that such experiments will come at the expense of any chance that Australia has for the series. Perhaps he’ll get a couple of wickets and even have one good performance in the entire series. It is a bit much to expect him to do any more than that.

 

James Pattinson has to be the worst pace bowler chosen. I try to think how we can justify having a player who isn’t good enough to play for his state (except when the better players are off playing for Australia) to be in the Australian test team. Oh yes, I got it, his brother Darren Pattinson played one Test for England. Thus it’ll create all of that excitement that two brothers played for different test countries. And that is about it. He is not quality. But, of course, as some may remind me, McGrath wasn’t quality when he made his Test debut either. You never know and perhaps Pattinson is going to be that one in a million player for whom this kind of bizarre experiment works. But right now it just doesn’t seem likely.

 

Nathan Lyon had a fairly good end to the season last year. Probably fair enough to give him a shot. But um, how many spinners is that in the three years since Shane Warne retired? Why aren’t Jason Krezja, Nathan Hauritz or Xavier Doherty on this trip? Or even Steve Smith? Surely Steve O’Keefe was next in line. But no it is Nathan Lyon. Apparently in spinning circles it is enough to have had three or four good games in a row in order to play a Test match for Australia. Heck, it might work and there is more chance of this working than some of the other bizarre choices but you just have to wonder why they keep going for more. Are they going to keep going until one of them gets 5 wickets on their debut?

 

Michael Beer was the choice approved by Shane Warne. Well, that’s it really. Except that Steve Smith was approved by Warne too. Beer had a horrible debut (though Warne tried his best to talk it up) and is still a very ordinary cricketer. Oh, he did do well against Zimbabwe A. But so did everyone! Oh well at least his last name gives a few jokes.

 

This team just defies belief. No Katich, no Smith, no Doherty (who did so well against Sri Lanka), no Hauritz, no Dan Christian, no McKay, no Hastings and, worst of all, no Bollinger. It is apparently a team for the future. And what we can imply from that is that this team is expected to lose.

 

But why does Australian cricket need to do that? Do we need to deliberately lose series just to give youth a chance? And does it really help their development to be put in teams that have no chance of victory?

 

(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)