Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Definite, Probable, Maybe ... Definitely Not.

When looking down the list at the Australian team that recently surrendered almost without whimper to India in Bangalore, it became apparent that Marcus North has an incredible ability to make runs when the pressure is on him but never scores when the pressure's on his team. His recent high-score of 128 brought his average up from 33 to 37. When taken in context, that's on a par with such luminaries as Neil McKenzie, Nathan Astle and Sanjay Manjrekar. On form – and on reputation, given his unpopularity with Australian fans – that seems about fair for a player who convinces no-one that he's about to usher in the next era of Australian greatness.

So drop him. The Australian team is unquestionably rebuilding – with Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Simon Katich, Brad Haddin and North all the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to be present for Australian cricket's next period of sustained success, it's time to remove those players who won't be present in five years time and replace them with players who will be.

During the last major Aussie cricket remodelling, coach Bob Simpson and captain Allan Border identified early which players had the talent and application to be part of a winning system. Upon Simpson's hiring, the “definites” were Border, Steve Waugh, David Boon and Craig McDermott. Dean Jones and Geoff Marsh were listed as “probables”. On deciding who had the stones to stick, they then set about building a side around those players, trying a number of players in different positions in the XI – for instance it took three different wicketkeepers before chancing on Ian Healy and five spinners before Shane Warne was found. The great Australians of 1991-2007 slowly began to emerge.

When looking back, is it surprising that those listed first – Waugh, Boon, McDermott – had the longest and most productive Test careers? The probables weren't failures by any stretch as both Jones and Marsh played over 50 Tests as well, but the “definites” now rank among Australia's all-time greats.

The parallels between the two eras aren't so clear cut yet only because this batch of ageing Aussies haven't yet walked off into the sunset. But as each player from that Golden Era goes, the Australian selectors have tried to replace almost like-for-like rather than with vision. Brad Hogg was replaced by Beau Casson, Jason Krezja, Nathan Hauritz, Bryce McGain and then Hauritz again. Ditto Glenn McGrath, who passed on the torch to Stuart Clark and then Doug Bollinger. Australia has to pick players according to where they will be in three-to-four years and not for their immediate benefits. Although Australia was blessed with a remarkable number of great cricketers born between 1968 and 1978, the cricket revival our country saw in the 90s didn't come about simply as the result of a Golden Generation but of the foresight of Bob Simpson and Allan Border.

Cycling through the Australian lineup you see several players who couldn't be listed as “definites” or even “probables” for an Ashes series in 2014-15. These guys slide between the categories “Maybe”, like Nathan Hauritz or an outright “No” a la Simon Katich, if only because of his age. It's time to selectively breed out these “maybe” and “no” players and replace them not with a player who replaces what they do but with players who have a chance to be great.

To give an example of the mindset required, please take the following example plucked from my own day to day life. My wife and I are in the process of moving across the continent. On the weekend we set aside time to work out what clothes we needed or wanted, and which clothes we should give away. After half an hour of back-and-forth I worked out why the process was taking so long – I had gone into the exercise looking for reasons to discard clothes, whereas she had begun looking for reasons to keep them. The Australian selectors need to take the “What can we discard?” attitude to the current crop of Test players. They've done so before – Brad Hodge being omitted two Tests after a double-hundred springs immediately to mind – and they should do so again. Given their current run of poor results, the incumbents aren't making a convincing case to stay.

The time has come for the pressure not to be placed on underperforming Australian players but on the underperforming selectors. It's the job of Messrs Hilditch, Boon, Cox and Hughes to make the choices that don't just benefit us with an Ashes series win, but with another reign at the top of international cricket.

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