Extended thoughts on team selection
Russell Degnan

Previewing the forthcoming series can wait for the moment, not least because the Australian side is so stricken by poor form, injuries and general malaise that it is almost impossible to predict who will make the touring party, let alone the result.

The One-Day series hasn't helped. They rarely do, test players who aren't in the ODI squad are forgotten, ODI players on the fringe push their chances forward, and crises of form carry from one to other even when the playing personnel is different. Australia's formerly dominant one-day side has become a mere shadow of its former self in the wake of the test side's collapse. The malaise in the Australian side has become so deep that both Tony T and Nestaquin have both argued for a serious look at the incumbent side, and a rebuild, of not just personnel (who, in general, probably are our best options), but of approach, attitude and application.

Team selections need to follow a strategy that will rebuild the team. The days when a lineup of superstars could chase down any score, and defend any total are gone. The real beauty of the batting of Gilchrist, and the bowling of Warne and McGrath was that they were effectively all-rounders, the former because of his batting and keeping, the latter because they could effectively attack or defend as the situation required. The ineptitude in playing defensive cricket in losses to India and South Africa highlighted clearly the team's inability to react to different situations, and the need for players who, while not the game changers of yore, can play a specific role.

The aim of this post then, is to not so much list the 11 players (and more) that I like, but to determine why one is a better fit. I'll start on the edges and work in, not least because the biggest problem is always the number 6 and the fourth bowler.


The fast bowlers

First reality check. There isn't a spinner in the top ten (probably twenty) best bowlers in the country, let alone the top three. The selection criteria for your opening bowlers is their ability to take wickets at the lowest possible average. That sounds obvious, but keep in mind that the selection criteria for the third and fourth bowler is more complex than that.

Second reality check. There isn't a bowler in the country that will consistently take wickets for just over 20. This matters. Teams who have a player like that should be looking to complement and support that player first and foremost, a task the bowlers singularly failed to do for Warne in the 2005 Ashes. (Oh how we missed Paul Reiffel)

Third reality check. For Lee and Clark, read Hughes and McDermott circa '93-94. They may play, they may add something to the side (Clark more-so than Lee). But they are well on the wrong side of 30, coming back from injury, and not far from retirement. The South African tour won't include either, the Ashes are an unknown, and anything beyond that is luck. To the extent that each played a specific role, their replacements should replace that role, and hold it, if they prove superior.

With that in mind, here is a list of the top performing bowlers in Shield cricket, columns, from left, being 07/08 wickets/average, 08/09 wickets/average, career average, age, and a complex formula that weights the previous columns.


7/8W 7/8A 8/9W 8/9A CA Age Rank
McKay 16 24.75 21 21.19 24.93 25.94 26.08
Nannes 22 28.54 28 19 24.54 32.71 26.69
Johnson 31 37.8 31 19.16 29.47 27.24 26.84
Siddle 33 17.06 15 33.86 27.04 24.18 27.2
Cockley 2 60 14 17.71 23 22.82 27.51
Magoffin 35 25.48 25 23.96 28.42 29.16 27.61
Hilfenhaus 28 43.82 24 18.66 29.13 25.88 27.69
Noffke 51 19.03 16 20.43 28.04 31.75 28.37
Butterworth 15 45 17 20.7 26.85 25.25 28.57
Bollinger 45 15.44 16 27.56 30.88 27.52 29.01
Dorey 20 24.9 23 28.73 25.91 31.32 29.25
Geeves 37 33.27 25 20.8 34.57 26.63 29.93
Bracken 22 21.22 10 23.3 25.98 31.38 30.5
Harris 37 29.86 27 26.59 32.98 29.3 30.57
McDonald 13 38.76 18 24 30.02 27.62 32.01
Lee 45 25.57 13 39.3 28.4 32.22 32.3
Clark 35 30.4 7 23.85 27.14 33.46 33.4
Tait 11 34.09 13 40.76 28.59 26.29 33.51

Sometimes we get lucky (Clark) but it seems to take about two seasons before a bowler settles into the side. Johnson is there now, Siddle is on the way. Given they may yet fail, and in likely view of the need for a third (and possibly fourth) fast bowler, we can probably rule out anyone over 30 without either an outstanding case (form and need), or some international experience.

Noffke and Nannes then, could count themselves unlucky. Their career and recent form are very good, but at 32 (ish), they'll likely be past it by the time they find their feet. As an outside chance to tour South Africa and England however, their name should be in the mix. Dorey, and to a lesser extent Magoffin are younger, but also unlikely options.

At the other end of the scale, Cockley is 22, and only played four games, McKay is also inexperienced (though no more than many others before him), but seemingly not rated (See JRod for more, but note the absence of his name from any dispatches). Like Bracken, this stems partly from his low economy rate (2.5 ish), which improves his average, but means long spells for his bowling partners. More on that shortly. Butterworth's description as an all-rounder, while flattering, probably dooms him to wanton career destruction as he shuffles up and down the order and gets under-bowled. Geeves may be something for the future, but one good season doesn't make a test player, so like the others he'll need to wait.

Not surprisingly that leaves Johnson and Siddle as the likely leaders of the attack, both likely to average around 25-27, and concede runs at 2.6-3.0 rpo. The former has improved markedly over the past year, though he faded in the latter tests against South Africa, and needs to work on a ball that comes in. Siddle has impressed with his work-rate and aggression, even in India, though his tendency to bowl too short and below pace worked against him in Melbourne; fitness will be the key to his career, because he looks vulnerable to injury, and reports of stress fractures aren't a good sign.

The third and fourth bowlers must therefore complement their strengths, and hide their weaknesses. They are neither attacking nor defensive bowlers, Siddle is handy against the tail, Johnson has an uncanny ability to get set batsmen out (often to a rubbish ball). Neither are great swingers of the ball; obviously too, neither are spinners. That's a lot of roles to fill, but we can deal with each of these in turn.

An attacking bowler (Lee, Tait, MacGill) has the advantage that, when on song, they can roll a side quickly and allow a team to press for the win. They, in general concede more runs, but pick their wickets up more quickly. To the extent that conditions will favour an attacking bowler, there is a case to be made for their selection, and it is always necessary to have a bowler capable of removing tail-enders. In all other cases however, if the attacking bowler's average is worse than the attack leaders (and by definition it is), then their tendency to give up runs makes them less effective (as a combination) than a defensive one. Both tactically, because it is harder to build pressure, and because their wickets are more costly than that of their team-mates, even if they take more.

Although we've often scoffed at the Hauritz, Giles and Harris's of this world, they perform an essential defensive role that you need to have, whether it is in wait of a new ball or a session break, or most importantly, in support of a bowler who running rampant at the other end. However, there are limits to the tolerance paid to a worse average. Hauritz's average of 45 @ 2.0 rpo may be superior to Krejza's average of 40 @ 4.0 rpo, but it is substantially worse than any pace bowler would be, and at least some of the medium pacers above are capable of long spells.

Given that, the best make-up for the attack, to me, is to couple one moderately attacking bowler as support for Johnson and Siddle, with one defensive one.

The attacking bowler should come from (in order) Hilfenhaus, Bollinger or Lee. Lee, if fit and firing, is capable, but for much of his career, and certainly this summer, he hasn't been so good that he should be an automatic selection. If he never played for Australia again, it would not be a huge loss. Incidentally, Tait's inability to go for less than 4 an over likewise makes him a huge liability, regardless of his strike-rate. Hilfenhaus, as a genuine swing bowler would complement Siddle and Johnson well, and his season and career average, economy rate, and age all put him ahead of Bollinger.

On the defensive front, the choice is between (again, in order) Bracken, Clark, McKay and McDonald. Bracken's exceptional economy rate (below two), ability to swing or spin/cut the ball, and control should have got him into the side years ago. He isn't young, but his control is his strength, not his pace. Clark's lack of cricket leading into the Ashes will work against him, but assuming he is fit enough, his presence will be useful (even as a backup, because injuries always happen).

The spinner question is still open. We need one, preferably a real one, not Clarke or Katich, but we don't have one that can comprise a four-man attack. I'll leave that question until after the batsmen.


The keeper

Needless to say, this should be straight-forward and isn't. Haddin is clearly the best batsmen of the wicket-keepers in Australia. But it is quite possible he is also the worst keeper. He give chances, he lets through byes, he looks stiff, poorly positioned and upright taking balls, and his occasionally spectacular efforts often come in situations when the routine would have been sufficient. His batting, attacking and dangerous, is an asset, but is also often rash and disappointing in situations when a player of his experience should have had a calm head.

In a really good bowling side, his keeping errors would have been forgiven for his batting ability. But in a side that needs to take every chance, Haddin is a liability, and the 30 odd runs you lose on the batting ledger is more than made up for in the fielding. Who to replace him with, however, I am not sure of. I don't see enough state cricket to judge, and the obsession with the batting side of keeping is not limited to the international ranks (or the cricinfo descriptions). It isn't a decision you want to take lightly. England's chopping and changing of keeper's provides a case study in destabilisation with no end in sight.

Except for Ronchi, the obvious choice for the one-day side, and to a lesser extent Paine, there isn't terribly much between the batting of the other contenders. By reports, Hartley and Crosthwaite are the best glovesman, but their batting (particularly the latter) doesn't cut it in the modern game. Haddin is unlikely to be dropped of course, no matter his problems. But if his glovework doesn't improve in South Africa, the calls to take someone else to England will become more persistent.


The top order

An area where the Australian selectors should be most competent, and yet have been most lax. The demise of Hayden's career was most notable for how long the run of bad form was allowed to persist, and how stubbornly the selectors held to the hope of his redemption. The downside comes now, with complete uncertainty over the second opening position, and the lost opportunity to blood a player in the dead final test.

In the past, the opening combination has tended to be one fast, one slow, providing a mix of attack that unsettles opponents with greater solidity. One of the few positives of the past year has been the form of Katich. While I've been critical of the size of his scores he has provided rare solidity in a top order that has been wanting in that area. I still have doubts over Katich's long term future. The fact that he isn't making big scores bodes poorly for him when the inevitable loss of form occurs (notwithstanding the fact that he is almost 34).

As for his partner, the good thing is the selectors are spoilt for choice, even of all of them are flawed. Jaques is the obvious choice, having been the incumbent before a combination of Katich's form, injury and Hayden's return pushed him aside. The problem is a complete lack of any cricket this season prior to this weekend. His performances last season were exemplary, barring two things: an odd tendency to play ridiculous shots after reaching a milestone; and the manner of his play that suggests getting out at any time. His first class record suggests he'll prosper, but you never know how a player will perform at the highest level.

In the Shield, top order players dominate the runs table, with Klinger, the stodgiest of them, leading the way. His problem is his past, not his present, having spent several years doing nothing at Victoria, the worry is he'll regress again, or (perhaps worse) also take several years to settle at the higher level.

Rogers, also in rare form, is the only other opener with test experience, albeit a single unsuccessful game. He has an extensive career of run scoring behind him, but he is also almost 32 in a lineup with several players too far past that point. The chance to settle on a youngster or two is too alluring for Rogers to overcome.

And then there is Hughes. Australia has plenty of past history playing teenagers, but it is rare they succeed, and rarer still that they go straight into the opening slot. Only Archie Jackson could be considered a real success, and his career was cruelly curtailed. The temptation is to play Hughes in the middle order and push Hussey up to the top. Until recently, the idea that you'd move Hussey was madness, given his average, but now his form is so poor, the chance is available if the selectors want it - albeit, perhaps, by replacing one out of form left hander with another.

Finally, the one-day form of Shaun Marsh has raised his chances of touring substantially. His uncomplicated but fast-scoring style, his age, and his ability all work in his favour. His lack of hundreds at all levels, and poor first class form do not.

The smart money is on Jaques and Katich, with no other changes to the Australian line-up. But other options are available. Players need not be pigeon-holed, and movement up and down the order used to be fairly common as the selectors struggled to tie down the opening slot and number three. Ponting's own form has been poor for most of the summer, coming good in hard-working knocks in the first test in India, and in Melbourne, but otherwise struggling.

Ponting is proud, so surrendering the number three slot is against his nature, but the number of collapses in the past year has been alarming. If Hussey were to go, then the opportunity arises to play (effectively) three openers, then Ponting, opening up the top order to the in-form batsmen. Katich is the most likely number three, with two of Jaques, Rogers and Marsh opening (preferably the latter two), Ponting at four, then Clarke.

In the long term, if their form holds, Hughes and Klinger could move into the top three, and Clarke move up to four when Ponting goes. In reality, nothing could move Ponting from three, and the case for dropping Hussey is not so strong as yet (he will, at least, survive the South African series). That leave a likely combination of Jaques, Katich, Ponting, Hussey and Clarke, as opposed to Rogers, Marsh, Katich, Ponting, Clarke.


The middle order

The first question regarding the middle order, is what do we want from it. For preference, I like one of 5 or 6 to be a young batsman. The side needs to be rolled over constantly, and batsmen need time to settle. Unless they are going to open, they'll be batting down lower. But the real question is whether we need an all-rounder, and if so, what type?

Fourth reality check. Australia doesn't have a genuine all-rounder. What they have are a mix of genuine batsmen who bowl a bit (Clarke, Katich), better than average batsmen who bowl a bit more (North, Symonds), an all-rounder only in the sense that he is distinctly average at both (McDonald), very ordinary bowlers who can carry the bat reasonably well (Krejza, Hauritz, Casson) and decent bowlers who can also bat a bit (Johnson, Lee).

You can, statistically, calculate from their averages what each player will bring, in combination with those around them; how a lower batting average will offset a better bowling average. But this doesn't capture the real value of six batsmen, nor the value of a fifth bowler (by keeping the front-line players fresh, and increasing options across different conditions).

In the batting, the important thing to remember is that most players fail, in any innings, scores are exponentially distributed, and the major difference in average between players is often their ability to go on and make a big score, not a pretty fifty. The value of a sixth batsman (and batting keepers) (averaging 45+), rather than a player who rarely scores hundreds (averaging mid 30s) is that when the top order fails across the board, there is still the chance to score 300-400 if 6/7 are batsmen and get going, rather than 200-300 if 6/7 are not batsmen and get going. Of course, if they fail, they fail, but there is little to statistically differentiate a batsman and a non-batsman's failures.

In the bowling, consider what I said earlier about defensive and attacking bowlers. A fifth bowler, by definition, will be defensive, because there are three bowlers you'd rather have taking wickets. If conditions are such that the all-rounder chosen is in the first three bowlers (a spinner for instance), then even if they bat higher, the 4th/5th bowlers should be defensive.

The weakness with selecting Clarke, Katich or North as the batting all-rounder (in the former two players' case, opening the number 6 slot to Hughes), is that none of them are good defensive bowlers, as they concede runs at 3 or more an over. Symonds is better, in this sense, because he does a job holding an end, even if his bowling is mediocre at best, and his batting too often irresponsible. McDonald is an outstanding defensive bowler, and did an under-rated job in Sydney, but his inability to make hundreds hurts him, particularly if Haddin is replaced by a stronger keeper, but worse batsman.

Conversely, Krejza and Casson are attacking bowlers, which rules them out, unless the wicket turns. Hauritz is a good defensive bowler, but his batting cannot bridge the gap to be considered an all-rounder. There are three ways to shoe-horn a spinner into the side, and that is to play (in an attacking role) McGain, who, despite being almost 37, is undoubtedly the best spinner Australia has: play Johnson at 7, which potentially weakens the batting terminally; drop the third attacking bowler (Hilfenhaus) and take the risk that McGain's versatility overcomes his deficient comparative average; or drop the defensive bowler (Bracken), and play a defensive all-rounder, in the hope that their batting stands up to scrutiny.

The second option would be brave. It means playing a side that may struggle to take 20 wickets but allows the choice between the neither here nor there McDonald and a young batsman, probably Hughes or North, with my preference being Hughes. There is, however, little to choose between options two and three, both are risky, both are a problem always faced by selectors who sense simultaneous weaknesses in the top order and the bowling.

The upshot is that there probably needs to be subtle differences in the side, depending on conditions. On turning wickets, McGain (even Krejza) become attacking options, on bouncy seamers or in swinging conditions, the batting needs bolstering and spin is a luxury, on flat decks, the batting is secondary to the need for long spells from more than four bowlers. That suggests three sides (varying for form, the particular questions over Hussey and Haddin, and the general questions outlined above):


FLAT SPIN PACE
Rogers Rogers Rogers
Marsh Marsh Marsh
Katich Katich Katich
Ponting Ponting Ponting
Clarke Clarke Clarke
Ronchi Hughes Hughes
McDonald Ronchi Ronchi
Johnson Johnson Johnson
Siddle Siddle Siddle
McGain McGain Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus Bracken Bracken


Fielding and captaincy

Which leaves but two things. The first is the problem of slip. The absence of Hayden in the West Indies was a debacle. Marsh and McDonald are the likely candidates, but that is partly because I haven't seen terribly much of them, even if their record suggests they can catch. Other combinations vary, Jaques is terrible; Klinger and North have pretty good catching records; M.Hussey doesn't generally field there, but is normally safe elsewhere; D.Hussey does, but he is almost too old to debut; Voges can, but seems to be falling down the pecking order; Symonds, Hughes and Clarke are good fieldsmen, but not slippers.

The captaincy is a quandary. Ponting is hopeless, but the options aren't great. It is an extraordinary inexperienced side. Slotting back Hussey, Haddin, Symonds and Jaques would help that, but none of them are certain of their place anymore. Clarke might be better as captain, but he isn't showing it as vice captain right now. Katich would be the only option, but the potential distraction to his batting is worrying. If Cameron White could only bowl better, particularly as a defensive spinner, you'd be mad not to pick him and give him the job. But he doesn't, and may never do so. If North could force his way into the side, then he is an option, but in the meantime captaincy speculation is secondary to team selection. For better or worse, the uncertainty over places makes it a choice between Ponting, Clarke and Katich, with only Katich likely to be substantively better.


Because the selectors are conservative, minimal change is likely, and the series in South African series will merely hint at how the team should line up. But a number of key players need to show they are still capable at this level: Ponting, as captain, not just as an inspirational leader with the bat, Hussey, Haddin in both his disciplines, and the young players, whoever they are. While I'd hate to write off a series, particularly against South Africa, it is hard to see Australia winning with the current side (perhaps they could with a side playing with youthful abandon). In some ways, not losing should be secondary to playing well, and finding players who can keep the Ashes five months later. At the very least, players need to know what role they are there for, and play to it. Because the absence of sensible cricket in the past six months has been vastly more damaging than lapses in form and injuries.

Idle Summers 30th January, 2009 11:54:33   [#] 

Comments

nesta
Congratulations. Easily the best article I've read on Australia's selection problems.

The same side hasn't turned out two matches in a row for over 12 months now and I think that is illustrative of the selectors difficult job.

There are precedents for playing talented inexperienced youngsters on potential, Ian Healy, Steve Waugh and Shane Warne spring to mind, and for that reason I'd like to see Hughes selected.

He scored another big ton yesterday in Newcastle and like you I think a youngster should bat at 6. That's where Ponting, both Waugh's, Katich and many others began before moving up the order.

The more I consider it, Hughes at 6 is a good move. Not alot of pressure and if the team bat well he'd probably be in the middle for the second new ball.

Haddin's glovework bothers me, as does his lack of responsibility. Hartley is brilliant behind the stumps and Paine more than handy with bat but I think by the time Haddin is finished Matthew Wade may be the one in the red ball matches.

He is a naturally gifted allround sportsman with a sharp tactical mind who has has excelled at youth level and continues to improve his 'keeping and batting. Healy was a left-field choice who had batting flaws galore but he became an integral and vitally important member of a competitive team and I think we may have to regress to choosing a 'keeper who averages 30 yet is flawless in his glovework.

Additionally, Australia rarely succeed without a wrist-spinner and an excellent 'keeper is essential to their success and development.

On the bowling front, I think we need to forget Clark who is chronically injured and Lee (although I'd choose him in ODIs) and focus on the future. Johnson, Siddle and Hilfenhaus is a versatile and young combination and I'd add Bracken to the quickies club to assist in their development. personally, I think Tait isn't cut out for gruelling back to back Test series but I do see his value in the shorter formats.

I also have little confidence in the team's success in Africa and unless the selectors get it right, England too. One era has ended and we are in a cricketing limbo until the next begins and unfortunately I think more pain and confusion are to be served before we approach anything near consistency. If pushed I'd suggest Australian cricket still has a way to go before turning the corner.
nesta  31st January, 2009 13:06:03  

Extended thoughts on team selection
thanks Nesta.

Of course, the worry with young players is that their career is ruined by being played before they are ready. Steve Waugh almost fits that category, but I can think of as many players ruined by expectation as inexperience. If Hughes plays at 6 we still need an opener. do you have a preference?

If Haddin was young I'd be inclined to stick with him for longer, but every game he moves lower in my esteem. The other thing is this, the young players we've picked have done pretty well in the past year. No harm in picking more.
Russ  2nd February, 2009 15:51:01  

The Openers
I think MHussey and Katich would be an opening pair that could regularly see off the new ball and get the team off to a solid start. Both can make big hundreds and have the experience to make a great pairing for the next few seasons while the team rebuilds.

Very pleased about McGain getting picked for Africa. It's all a bit Dutchy Holland but we sorely need a wrist spinner to balance the attack.
Nesta  3rd February, 2009 13:39:29