Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lessons from the Past

When installed as captain of England in 1975, Tony Greig had a plan to revitalise his adopted country's Test form. After their innings defeat in the first Test at Edgbaston had cost his side the Ashes, he felt the batting was a misery - as collapsible as an accordion and just as flamboyant. As the new leader of the England cause, he decided to approach the problem in his own manner.

It was simple enough: Greig went straight to the best bowlers on the county scene and asked them who were the toughest players to dismiss. The answer came back unsurprisingly that inimitable Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott was one of the hardest. The second name that came back was a veritable shock - it was "The bank clerk who went to war", Northamptonshire's David Steele. A prematurely grey middle-order bat, thirty-four year old Steele sported a first-class average of only 31 and at AJ Greig's insistence was promptly selected to play against the two greatest attacks of the era, Australia and the West Indies. Boycott remained in exile, refusing to play for England in protest at being looked over for the captaincy.

Steele only played eight Test matches, yet averaged just over 42 for his Test career and the Anglocentric cricketing tome Wisden named him Cricketer of the Year in 1976. He scored 45 and 50 on debut and followed it up with his only hundred against the Windies the following year. It was a transitional time for the England squad with newcomers Mike Brearley, Graham Gooch and Bob Woolmer sandwiched between veterans Snow, Lever and Amiss. But Steele gave the England batting some spine sorely lacking and showed, more than anything, the youthful Gooch and Woolmer how to be a professional.

Gone are the days where shotgun selections pay the most benefit as every country's team has access to footage going back ten years. By reaching for Michael Beer in the hopes of uncovering another Peter Taylor, the Australian selectors showed their hand devoid of trumps. The first step in developing a team's fortunes is to make them hard to beat and though Australia's bowling stocks aren't anywhere near their nadir, the batsmanship on show has been laughably inept. As Mike Hussey ages there have been many questions as to his longevity in the national squad and now it may be in Australia's best interests to retain him as long as possible to help show the next generation how to prize one's scalp.

With Ponting probable to miss the Sydney Test and Phil Hughes's immediate status in jeopardy, the selectors could do worse than partnering Shane Watson and Hussey with other batsman who treasure their wicket. The current intent on playing to a certain style - getting on the front foot early, dominating the bowlers, scoring runs quickly - rather than just doing what best suits the situation is hurting Australia's prospects of a quick recovery from their current Test doldrums.

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