Monday, November 22, 2010

Why they weren't picked

With the Australian side whittled down to thirteen as the first Test approaches, suddenly Callum Ferguson and (probably) Usman Khawaja have been left on the sidelines. The selectors have opted to stay with the same six batsmen who have led Australia to their current World ranking of fourth. The reason is simple: although the middle order has struggled mightily and watching Mike Hussey now reminds us all of David Boon's last, tedious, eyeball-stripping innings, neither the South Australian nor his younger New South Welsh counterpart have really made that final spot their own.

To look at Australia's last Test XI is to see mediocrity at several positions, namely in the middle order and the spin-bowling department. The team defeated in India will change, with Tasmanian Xavier Doherty replacing Nathan Hauritz on the strength of one good Sheffield Shield match and one outstanding ODI: his First Class figures aren't particularly impressive but he's performed well at the right time and thus has received the call.

The batsmen, however, are a different matter. Both Ferguson and Khawaja have had several chances recently to write their names in ink across the Aussie middle order yet have failed to do so; last week's paltry Australia A showings were the final nail in their collective coffins. Gone are the days of 1994-95 where Australia A were perhaps the second-best side in the World and this was proved emphatically at Bellerive as both "Next Best Things" surrendered their wickets to the English attack.

Khawaja or Ferguson would do well to heed the exploits of a young Damien Martyn. During the 1990s, an Australian had to force the selectors collective hands both with mountains of runs and with scores at the right time. The most striking example of this was in the early days of the West Indies 1992-93 tour. West Australian tyro Martyn was making runs for fun in the-then Mercantile Mutual Cup, in Shield matches and against a full-strength Windies pace battery in three separate matches. His front-foot slashes of Ambrose and Bishop to the extra cover boundary on a pacy WACA pitch were indelibly marked on my thirteen year-old brain as the most exciting cricket shots I'd ever seen. When the squad lists were submitted for the first Test at the 'Gabba, Martyn was there alongside an in-form Australian top six each of whom has claim to being an all-time great of the game. Martyn kept making runs and both popular and selector opinion was swayed immutably in his favour with a quickfire 36 against the tourists at Bellerive for the Australian XI. He made the team at the expense of Dean Jones.

It wasn't so much the weight of Martyn's runs that ensured his spot, nor the manner in which he scored them although his four-day Strike Rate nearing 100 was undoubtedly impressive. Damien Martyn was selected because he'd showed his readiness for the big time by making crucial runs in the right spots. When needing runs to cement his position, that one innings for Australian XI made not picking him a popular impossibility. The same stories apply with Matthew Elliott in 1997, Adam Gilchrist in 1999 and even Phil Hughes' 2008-09 domestic season: they made so many runs at the right time that Michael Slater, Ian Healy and Matthew Hayden were dumped so that Australia could progress. With mediocre recent form, neither Khawaja nor Ferguson have shown their mettle, posing the question: are they really ready? Are they ready to make the step up to Test match level?

As it happens, Usman Khawaja has been called up as an emergency replacement for a struggling Michael Clarke so we may well find out if he is ready anyway. Should Mike Hussey fail in Brisbane, we may find out how good a training-ground the Sheffield Shield really is. With many puzzling selections (and non-selections) over the past two years, it appears that Australia's selection panel has decided to award caps to guys they hope can do the job rather than to players they know can do the job. That's not their fault as there are more question marks over the strength of the Australian domestic competition than at any time since Packer - there isn't the same quality that inspires complete confidence in their delivering, so the next best thing is to plump for hope and call it development. What they can be pilloried for is the inconsistency with which they've applied this policy.

Neither Khawaja, Ferguson, Cameron White, Peter George, Mitch Starc or even Golden Child Steve Smith has forced the selection panel's to pick them even though Australia cries out for young talent to replace their ageing and tired top guns, now less howitzers and more derringers. Perhaps now we see more clearly why throughout the noughties so many Australian debutants have been aged in their late-20s and early-30s - the younger players just haven't had the responsibility that creates personal growth from an early age and so haven't taken it upon themselves to ensure their selection.

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