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Australia Pick Pragmatically

21 May 2009.

Symonds’ omission apart, the selectors have merely named their best players and left the rest to be sorted out on tour.

Australia have chosen a pragmatic party for their defence of the Ashes. Disdaining clear-cut choices between the stuttering team fielded in India and retained for the home series against South Africa, and the emerging outfit that carried the flag in South Africa, the selectors have included all available players of high calibre, except an allrounder whose brain has been shorting, while also keeping faith with the newcomers who so blithely prevailed on African soil.

On paper it is as powerful a squad as the tottering champions could muster. If everyone reports fit and plays to reputation and record, the Ashes could yet be held. This line-up is not strong enough to justify English pessimism. But then, Englishmen refuse to believe an Australian has been vanquished until both arms have been removed.

Andrew Symonds

Andrew Symonds on the way to his maiden Test hundred.
Photo ©: Jes from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Actually the Australian selectors have decided next to nothing. Apart from omitting Andrew Symonds, a somewhat unpredictable firecracker, they have simply named their best players and left the rest to be sorted out on tour. That is not necessarily a mistake. A lot of cricket is to be played before the first Test begins in Wales on July 8 and it’d be foolish to take hard and fast positions.

Australia’s problem has been that the tricky decisions revolved around the core of the team not its fringes. Two high-class pace bowlers have returned from injury to throw their hats into the ring. Two allrounders reappeared to compete with each other and also with an incumbent whose doughty performances had impressed observers.

Suddenly everyone was available. And the selectors had only to cast their eyes to the IPL matches to be reminded about the skills of their older hands, past and present. All the more reason not to bide their time.

Doubts might justifiably be held about the durability and potency of Brett Lee and Stuart Clark, but that does not mean it was safe or wise to forget about them. Over the years they have been fine operators, and there is no rush to be rid of them. In any case they have been named in a group not a playing XI. Moreover the touring selectors are under no obligation to play them in Cardiff. Certainly their places cannot be taken for granted. As it stands, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle are the best bowlers in the country and can expect to play. Although sturdy and blessed with a handy outswinger and cutter, Ben Hilfenhaus is more open to challenge, but he will not lightly be discarded.

Symonds’ omission was correct. He was given his chance to recover his Test position last season and did not take it. To the contrary he batted scratchily in four- and five-day cricket, and still seemed distracted. Nor did he restrain himself off the field. Accordingly he became a distraction, a supposedly senior player in need of the sort of attention usually reserved for the younger fry. Perhaps the recall was hasty.

Certainly that case was compellingly argued in some quarters. Perhaps he had not overcome the various demons and disturbances that had taken such a toll. He had not been settled since the rancorous exchanges with the Indians a year before. He hated all that, the fuss, the enquiries, the nastiness, the way it dragged on. And the man unable to make peace with the world soon finds it at war with him. His head heated up and he lurched from mishap to mishap, most of them of his own making. But a cricket team is a cricket team, plain and simple. Rehabilitation belongs elsewhere.

Of course Australia is less menacing without Symonds. Most imposing teams field a daredevil at No. 6, a player encouraged to take the match by the scruff of the neck, and to hell and high-water with the consequences. By then the orthodox approach has either succeeded or failed, and in both cases it’s time to change the tempo. Alone among the Australian allrounders Symonds changes the mood of a match.

Andrew McDonald tends to need permission to attack while Shane Watson is a well behaved fellow with a respectable game. England would have worried more about the absentee. Alas that’s also true about Australia. Symonds has not scored enough runs or taken enough wickets in state or national colours to force the selectors to give him another chance. His omission is good news for Nathan Hauritz, the only spinner in the squad.

Odd that so much attention has been paid to a bruising and ignored 33-year-old. Truth to tell, the rest of the party more or less picked itself. Only two positions in the Test side are in jeopardy. Certainly the batting order is predictable, with Simon Katich facing the new conker alongside a little chap from the bush called Phillip Hughes, about whom the wider world knew precious little a few weeks ago. In many respects it will be the most unlikely combination to open the batting for Australia for decades. The son of a murder detective and the offspring of a banana farmer; a seasoned campaigner with a rough-hewn technique and a long list of trials and tribulations, including painful memories of his previous Ashes visit, put beside a slip of a lad with an equally homespun game. Both, though, like to occupy the crease, and England had better beware of them.

Australia has more reason to fret about their middle order, whose form is likely to be decisive. Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey are entrenched at Nos 3, 4 and 5, with Watson as their main back-up (which partly explains his inclusion). None of them is quite comfortable with his game. Of late Ponting has developed the habit of establishing his innings only to suffer a lapse with the bowling at his mercy. Concentration can get harder as the years pass by, and the Tasmanian is no longer in the first flush of youth (and has probably abandoned hope of outlasting Sachin Tendulkar to become the highest run-scorer Test cricket has known or is ever likely to know).

Clarke has been inconvenienced by a wonky back that periodically prevents him bowling and seems to restrict his footwork. On that account, and with leadership ambitions in mind, he withdrew from IPL. Happily relations with Katich have moved beyond the Sydney dust-up, a row that had its origins in Katich’s apparently self-serving tactics in a four-day match against Queensland. As much as anything, though, it was old school against new school, beer and beards against metro and magazines.

Mike Hussey has come back to earth with a thump. But then, he never was Don Bradman reborn. Just that he began with the pent-up energy and desire of a man who had spent too long on the sidelines. Eventually the hazards appeared and ever since, he has been struggling to find his rhythm. It is all part of the dialectic process often observed in sporting careers. Perhaps he needs to stop trying to be great, or worrying about anything except the next ball. Many Australians have written him off, but he is an accomplished batsman with an alert mind and a sound game.

Marcus North has been batting at No. 6, and might hold his position. Australia did not bother with spin in South Africa until the series had been decided, whereupon they tried a middle-aged leggie coming back from shoulder surgery, who promptly endured numerous indignities. North sends down mild offspinners, but really is a specialist batsman who works neatly off his pads and slightly more exotically through the covers. As with the openers, his temperament counts among his strengths.

Symonds can beat up himself or his opponents. North is a sticker. McDonald played the last four Tests, but despite his swashbuckling revelation in a lost cause in Cape Town, he looked too shaky around the off stump to bat at No. 6 in Test cricket.

Brad Haddin is good enough to bat at No. 6, as is Shane Watson, and Australia might play an extra bowler. Not until summoning a blistering hundred against New Zealand in Adelaide did Haddin completely escape Adam Gilchrist’s shadow. Nowadays he is a better batsman than keeper, where balance and footwork let him down. Watson seems to be a favourite. But then, he can send the ball down at 140kph and looks the part as a batsman. Not that he has the figures to show for it. Everyone said he did well in India, but he averaged 26 with the bat and produced one telling spell in the final Test.

Since then he has mostly been injured. Still, selectors keen to field a balanced side have kept faith. Perhaps he needs to take Shane Warne around. Warne has a way of simplifying things. He tells Watson to forget about theory, and to concentrate on hitting hard and straight and cracking a few heads.

Johnson will lead the attack. He has become formidable since learning and mastering the inswinger. Until then the selectors had been frustrated with him. Like Warne and Glenn McGrath, he is an example of the Australian system at work. Plucked from obscurity after Dennis Lillee saw him bowl a few deliveries at a youth trial, he was thrown into the Under-19 team, went walkabout for a few years, drove a plumber’s van around Brisbane and eventually was reclaimed, whereupon the community helped him rise towards greatness. At present he stands high among the best bowlers around. And he can bat. Indeed, he scored a 96 and a hundred in his last three Tests. England ought to take his batting into account.

Peter Siddle will take the new ball – an honest, strong Victorian from a wood-cutting family, who played a significant part in the revival of the team last summer. A sore foot has been a recurring problem. If he is fit, Lee and Clark will be hard-pressed to oust him.

Hilfenhaus is combative, but can be costly, owing to a tendency to drop short when aroused. He might fall between the two stools of outright pace and crafty swing. The veterans might be a better bet.

Provided he reaches and sustains 143kph, Lee will be a contender. Certainly he has been working flat out in the gym, but match-play is another matter. Also, he has always been superb with the white ball, but the red ball is less amenable to his purposes. All England and most of Australia expect him to play, but to my mind he has much ground to make up. He was expensive on his last Ashes tour, and failed in India as well. However, he seems to have overcome recent darknesses and will be his old wholehearted self.

Even less is known about Clark’s form. Like Lee, he will need to be at his sharpest. No bowler can afford to lose his nip off the wicket. Except that other contenders will be running around in county cricket. Bringing him, Lee and Watson is a gamble. Presumably the selectors will be more willing to raid county cricket than in 2005.

Outbowled in 2005, Australia’s pace attack ought to be a match for England’s this time around. Just in case, the Aussies took the precaution of reclaiming Troy Cooley, the bowling coach responsible for making reverse swing a force four years ago. England may live to regret letting him slip through their grasp.

Spin is another matter. Spin has become important to Australia, not least to improve flagging over-rates. Indeed, it was this consideration that persuaded Ponting to try spin so fatefully in the critical hour in Nagpur, an ill-conceived strategy that cost his team its chance of squaring the series. Hauritz is a subtle and maturing bowler of a type traditionally scorned Down Under. Whether he delivers a heavy enough ball for Test cricket is a relevant point, but he can put spells together and will not let anyone down.

In everyone’s opinion except his own, Katich is the best wrist-spinner in his country and his presence reduces the pressure on North and Clarke to roll their arms over. Even so, Australia may send down an unhealthy allocation of unthreatening overs.

At any rate the squad has been named and the pulses are racing. In the past Australia have chosen a bolter or two to back up a secure side. This time the position has been reversed. Symonds’ omission means that the tourists will not get bogged down by off-field matters, while the inclusion of Lee, Watson and Clark adds depth. Not that the competition was all that hot.

Risks have been taken with the squad, but the alternatives were riskier. Now it’s up to the touring selectors to choose their best team, a more difficult task than usual. Ponting tends to err on the side of the tried and trusted. For once the outcome depends mostly on the form of the Australians, notably the middle-order batsmen and the ageing leather-flingers.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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