Monday, June 13, 2011

Australian Cricket: Pay selectors, Pay the Devil

Simon Katich is right: Australian selection policy has been remarkably inconsistent during his tenure at the top of the order. He may, however, be overstepping the mark somewhat as he campaigns for paid, full-time selectors. While the sentiment behind his recent outburst is justified - everyone in the country aside from the selection panel thought him worthy of at least a further year around the Australian side - and his forthright media conference was admirable, it's worth noting that there are several flaws in his argument.

When Defence Minister Stephen Smith entered the fray, the saga turned from interesting to ludicrous, especially when Smith lambasted the selectors for bias against Western Australians. Katich has played in New South Wales for nearly a decade. A Labour "powerbroker" very pleased with such a reputation, by speaking out of turn here he has plunged Australian cricket perilously close to the credibility line and gave those of us who still care wholeheartedly for the sport horrible visions of Ijaz Butt.

Employing selectors in a full-time role is perhaps an workable idea. Though much more cricket is played now than, say, even twenty years ago, offering a selector a full-time role would be a lavish expense - for men of the game such as David Boon, The Unspeakable One (Andrew Hilditch) and Jamie Cox would command far greater than a "living wage". Employing full-time selectors could cost Cricket Australia anywhere between (very conservatively) of a quarter or half a million dollars per annum, money the board simply doesn't have.

Also, while employing selectors on a full-time basis demands their accountability, it should by no means ensure it. Cricket Australia has every right to dismiss the selection panel as it stands, yet has chosen not to. The selectors are at fault for many of Australian Cricket's ills, but by no means all of them. Had Michael Beer been selected earlier in the Ashes series or Xavier Doherty not appeared at all, Australia likely would not have triumphed over the Old Enemy. Selection inconsistency (or is it Consistent backing of the selectors) has hurt the Australians badly, but not nearly as much as the current dearth of top-tier talent.

The third flaw in Simon Katich's notion is a simple one: Would he (or indeed anyone) wish to reward the current Australian selectors - probably handsomely - for the quality of work they've been performing? The thought of Andrew Hilditch walking home with $100,000+ per year from Cricket Australia brings me out in a frigid perspiration: he - nor David Boon or Jamie Cox - deserve that kind of money. It would be tantamount to throwing fistfuls of cash out the window of a skyscraper. Such an act would probably be a more efficient waste of money than pay the current panel.

The Argus review currently underway may suggest ways in which full-time selectors could be employed. One suggestion (this one's free, James Sutherland) would be to add further tasks to certain key roles: perhaps increase the responsibility and remuneration of the head of the Australian Cricket Academy, Bowling and Batting coaches? Neither Troy Cooley nor Justin Langer are employed full-time - use the cricket analysts already working within the system as they have done by bringing in Greg Chappell (for better or worse). Or, in a relatively even First Class Competition, expand the panel to seven and include one representative from each state, paid a bonus on top of their State salary. Perhaps both options are unworkable. It may even be that the best alternative is the one already employed.

Paying the selection panel more money would certainly command their attention and entice the best-qualified cricket judges into a position with Cricket Australia. But by doing so, the central board would be required to give them time to settle, develop a policy and then see rewards. Should this period be one year, suddenly there's a sizeable hole in CA's revenues, unlikely to be made up through attendances or prize money through improved performance.

It could simply be that the selectors have judged that Australia should no longer field their best XI, preferring more to develop players with a long term future, guided by Ponting, Clarke and Mike Hussey. Foolish, perhaps, but understandable given the age of recent Australian outfits. Katich would then not be seen as a leader and his position handed to Phil Hughes, a side effect of moving from "transition" to "full scale rebuilding". Make no mistake, that is what Australia now faces and the prospects of mid-term success are not welcoming. Messrs Hilditch, Boon, Cox and Chappell would be best served by simply declaring their policy to the nation, allowing everyone to understand; this would both enlighten the nation and allow for accountability.

While Simon Katich's record suggested he warranted a new deal (as did his partner in this media session, Stuart Clark), in order to make wholesale changes, unpopular decisions must be made and by dint of age - and availability of suitable replacements, for Shaun Marsh and Hughes await - they were amongst the first to be cut. Both have every right to be insulted by their treatment by Hilditch, Greg Chappell, Boon and Cox - and by extension, Cricket Australia. Katich, particularly, had both the form and runs to back up his claim.

Once a board run by domineering fools (c.f. the reasons behind World Series Cricket, among many other examples), Cricket Australia has regained such a a stature by becoming unwieldy and awash with self-interest. By paying large fees to selectors, that self-interest would become more than an exercise in conceit and begin to include large financial components. The way forward for Australian selection is unclear - but please, let's not pay for incompetence.

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