Australian cricket is in crisis. The batting line-up has developed a disturbing tendency to fall like a house of cards when the going gets tough, and in the second Test match against South Africa, in Hobart, they lost by an innings at home for the first time since 2011 (that loss, against England at the SCG, prompted a root-and-branch review of Australian cricket). Unfortunately, that review has not helped. Forget the fact that Australia were number one in the world earlier this year: these problems have been around for a very long time. In this five-part series I will look at all the problems which currently engulf Australian cricket, before looking at what is the only sustainable solution to a systemic problem.
The first issue is at the selection table, and it dates back to the Ashes series of 2006-07. By the end of that series, a 5-0 whitewash of England at home, four legends of Australian cricket had retired, including the country’s two leading Test wicket-takers of all time. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden followed them the year after, and by 2009 that core of legends was all but gone. The result? Years of experimentation. When Shane Warne, Australia’s leading Test wicket-taker, retired it was Stuart MacGill who was meant to pick up the slack and mentor the spinner of the future. Instead, he retired prematurely, prompting a revolving door of spin bowlers which lasted for years. Names such as Beau Casson, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain, Nathan Hauritz and even Cameron White (a specialist batsman from Victoria) found themselves in the team as the selectors tried to find the next Warne.
Pressure: David Warner survives an lbw appeal as South Africa close in.
This example shows the crux of the problem. During the era of Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Hayden, Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting (who continued until 2012), Australia had one of the best teams in the history of cricket, possibly matched only by three (the West Indies over a twenty-year period, the Australian team of 1948 and the South African team of the late 1960s). After that team broke up, the selectors have tried to replace the players with more legends, and have quickly lost patience with anyone they don’t think will reach that level, an impossible qualification. This list of players who were never really given a shot includes Alex Doolan, who was unluckily dropped after a catastrophic Test in the UAE and replaced at number three by Glenn Maxwell, Jackson Bird, a bowler who has bowled well every time he is given a chance, and, to an extent, Usman Khawaja, who has been in and out since his debut in 2011. For every Bird, however, there has always been an Ashton Agar in the wings, players who keep getting opportunities, time and time again.
Agar is a perfect example of a selection gone wrong. His stunning Test debut, in which he scored 98 batting at number 11, was misleading: his problem, given that he had been chosen as a bowler, was that his bowling was not up to scratch. His two Tests in the 2013 Ashes clearly showed this, but he has still bounced back into the team on a number of occasions, with little success. Contrast this to Bird, who has barely set a foot wrong when he has been picked but has too often been injured or just not picked in favour of other options. The most recent example came when he was not picked in Perth because his batting was ‘not good enough’. Bird is a number 11 batsman. The selectors’ inability to stick with some players and give them a proper chance has led to a situation such as this, where just four of Australia’s eleven players from Hobart are safe for the Adelaide Test. One of those four, batsman and captain Steve Smith, was found by chance, initially picked as a leg-spinning all-rounder.
Australia need to find a set team, and more importantly, a set top six, before they can continue to move forward. The selectors can begin to solve this problem with some brave forward-thinking, but I wouldn’t count on it. For years, a player who has failed in a couple of games (barring Shane Watson, of course) has been dropped from the team and disappeared. This has done Australia no good, and we can only hope that Hobart was the nadir. It certainly doesn’t seem possible for it to get any worse. There are players from Hobart who should not be in the Test team, and we can only hope their replacements get the same chances.
Next time: Why recent successes have done more harm than good.