Monthly Archives: August 2015

Lay Off the Selectors

Let’s be honest, we cricket fans have all had a whinge about the selectors from time to time. In the aftermath of the Ashes loss in England, the knives are out for a lot of people, including Rod Marsh and his team.

I think that’s unjustified. The selectors did a pretty good job on this Ashes tour, and do not deserve much of the criticism they’ve received.

“I’m just racking my brain to try and think of who else we could have picked,” Marsh has said.

He’s right.

There really wasn’t anybody else who genuinely justified selection. There were good reasons to pick each member of the Ashes squad with the exception of Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh. These two players have a long track record of underperformance and inconsistency at Test level. Neither player has the skill or mental aptitude for Test cricket, and both have spent years demonstrating that.

But the truth is it would not have mattered much.

Neither Watson nor Shaun Marsh was responsible for the loss of the Ashes. I’m sure you could point fingers at more than these three, but Steve Smith, Michael Clarke and Adam Voges were primarily responsible for the series loss due to their inability to score runs at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge. Yes, Johnson, Starc and Hazlewood certainly could have bowled a better line and length, but they were always defending low totals. The main problem was the middle order batting.

Generally, selectors pick players who have been making runs and taking wickets. They did that.

The veterans in the squad such as Clarke and Brad Haddin had good track records, and although their runs had been drying up, Clarke made 128 against India as recently as December. Chris Rogers, David Warner and Smith all played well prior to the Ashes. Voges averaged over 100 last season in the Sheffield Shield and has a long and impressive first class career – why wouldn’t you pick him? After the World Cup, you couldn’t go past Mitchell Starc, and you’d pick Mitchell Johnson on the strength of the 2013-14 Ashes series even if the guy hadn’t rolled his arm over since. Josh Hazlewood was very impressive in his early career, and Nathan Lyon only gets better and better.

True, the Mitchell Marsh experiment didn’t work out, but he was worth a shot. Given Watson’s extended run of poor form, it was a well worth giving Mitchell Marsh a chance after Cardiff. He is definitely not a Test No. 6 batsman, but at 23 he has time on his side, and should be sent back to the Sheffield Shield to make some runs. Marsh is not the first young player to be thrown into the cauldron a little bit too early (Steve Smith was woeful when first he played Test cricket), and he has enormous potential.

Moreover, I give the selectors great kudos for swapping Haddin for Peter Nevill after Cardiff, and am pretty sick and tired of ex-players stirring the pot and whingeing that the ‘family first’ policy should have ensured a game for Haddin at Lord’s. Nevill was a better bet than Haddin, and the selectors made a tough call. They deserve more credit for it.

Oh, and the idea that Peter Siddle should have played at Trent Bridge? C’mon…. It wouldn’t have made any difference. The sad, brutal truth is that Sidds is now only a back-up bowler who would probably not have been in the squad at all if James Pattinson and Pat Cummins were fit and had enough recent red ball cricket under their belts. It’s a cruel statement, but fair. Siddle is down on pace and not the force he once was. The selectors know this. They were right to omit him.

Darren Lehmann has said that swapping out Mitchell Marsh for his brother Shaun in the Fourth Test was a selection error, but again, this selection made little difference to the series result. As mentioned above, Shaun Marsh has been nothing but a disappointment at Test level and should never have been in the squad, but ultimately the series was slipping away by the time he was called up and it would not have mattered which Marsh was selected.

So in my view, Watson and Shaun Marsh are the two black marks against the selectors, but they earn one back for the replacement of Haddin with Nevill. Moreover, they shouldn’t be pilloried for picking either Mitchell Marsh or Voges.

And should any of the up-and-comers have been picked? Joe Burns, Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja are having a good tour of India with Australia A this month, and all three stand a chance of achieving (or regaining) a Test place in coming months. But were they battering down the selectors’ door before the Ashes tour? Not really.

Pat Howard, the performance manager of the Australian team, has gone on record blaming himself for (among other things) trying to prepare Ryan Harris for the series, picking a ‘Dad’s Army’ team and having the selectors announce one touring party for both the West Indies and England.

It’s very noble of Howard to accept blame for the loss of the Ashes, but I struggle to see how any of his alleged transgressions were responsible.

As I’ve noted before (see my earlier post ‘Mythbusting’), Harris was always unlikely to be ready to play. Even if he did play, he was 18 months older than in the previous Ashes series and there was no guarantee he would have been anywhere as effective. Suggestions that Australia ‘missed’ Harris are misguided. Australia might have missed the bowler Harris used to be, but he probably would not have been that bowler in the current series anyway.

As for Howard’s reference to ‘Dad’s Army’, I’m not sure what he’s referring to (but mind you, I don’t what his job entails anyway). It was the selectors’ job to pick the side, not Howard’s, and as I’ve opined above, they did a decent job. I’m not sure exactly what Howard is accepting blame for.

Finally, Australia flew straight from the West Indies to England. At no point between the two series was there sufficient time for other Australians to play enough first-class cricket to impress the selectors. So even if the selectors had decided to pick an entirely new squad for the Ashes at the end of the West Indies series, who would they have chosen other than the players they already had?

Howard has said he welcomes any review of his position. Great – perhaps we’ll find out what he actually does and why it matters.

In the meantime, I think the critics should lay off the selectors. They’re doing okay.

Does County Experience Matter?

The outcome of each Ashes series is beginning to follow a trend. You host the series, you win. As Tom Fordyce of the BBC writes, is home advantage becoming too important?

England has won the past four Ashes series on home soil. Australia has won six of the past seven Ashes series played in Australia, including 5-0 series victories in two of the past three. A visiting team can win an away series; it just doesn’t happen very often. At least not anymore (see table).

No. of Tests wonENGAUSENGAUS

When the Australian batsmen once again displayed great ineptitude against the swinging ball at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, some suggested they needed to play more county cricket to learn how to adjust their techniques to the alien conditions.

That must be it, I thought. That makes perfect sense. Problem solved. Get the Aussies to spend more time in the UK and we’ll be more competitive next time around. Australia won four consecutive Ashes series in England between 1989 and 2001. How did they do it? Surely the batsmen of that era played more county cricket and could adapt better to the conditions than today’s batsmen.

Well, not exactly.

Australia’s two leading run-scorers in the 1989-2001 period in England (see table below*) – in which Australia won 15 Tests and lost only 4 – were Steve Waugh (22 Tests across all four Ashes series played in England in that period) and Mark Taylor (18 Tests in three series). Waugh played a mere 9 county matches for Somerset in 1987-88, and Taylor played no county cricket at all. Both players made over 1,500 runs in their Ashes Tests in England despite little or no county experience .

Tests played in England 1989-2001County Championship matches (total career)
MatchesRuns Ave100sMatchesRuns Ave100s
S Waugh22163374.22711104294.726
M Waugh17118949.54339259747.219
A Border1287562.50137264855.1610
D Boon1299762.31347277336.976
D Jones656670.75234255451.086
M Taylor18158452.805
M Slater1058634.47123114029.231
R Ponting857944.5327790112.854
M Hayden523433.42040345357.5512
D Martyn538276.40223421711
A Gilchrist534068.001
All Tests played in EnglandMatchesRuns Ave100sCounty MatchesRuns Ave100s
A Border25208265.06537264855.1610
D Boon16112148.73347277336.976
R Ponting18132344.1047790112.854
M Hayden1055234.50140345357.5512
D Martyn1056040.00223421711
A Gilchrist1052140.071
M Hussey527634.5130374285.0412
M Clarke19128141.323444663.713
C Rogers980450.25265578453.0618
D Warner747133.640
A Voges412520.83027174144.644

Allan Border, Mark Waugh, David Boon and Dean Jones played a fair bit of county cricket, and all four recorded good averages in their Ashes Tests in England. Is there a cause-&-effect relationship here? Perhaps.

Michael Slater played 23 county matches and did not perform particularly well, and in his ten Ashes Tests in England averaged only 34.47. On the face of it, his county experience didn’t seem to help much.

And then the numbers become more confusing.

Damien Martyn played almost no county cricket but had an excellent 2001 Ashes series in England, averaging 76.40.

Matthew Hayden averaged a healthy 57.55 for Hampshire and Northamptonshire but this did not translate into runs in Ashes Tests in England, where he made only a single century in ten Tests and averaged 34.50. Why?

Mike Hussey averaged an insane 85.04 and scored 12 centuries playing for three English counties, but in his only Ashes series in England (in 2009), he managed 276 runs in 8 innings at 34.50. Hmm.

You get the idea. Some players who made lots of county runs didn’t do the same in Ashes Tests in England. Some who crushed the Poms in England in the Ashes played no county cricket at all.

Before the current 2015 Ashes series began, Michael Clarke had played 15 Ashes Tests in England and averaged 48.50. He has played almost no county cricket. David Warner has made 333 runs in the first four Tests of the current season, averaging 41.63. Australia needs more from him, but it’s an improvement on his 2013 effort (138 runs at 23.00). Warner has not played county cricket, either.

Chris Rogers is the poster child for Aussies in country cricket. After 65 county matches, he has 5,784 runs at 53.06, with 18 centuries. During the current Ashes series, he has 437 runs in four Tests at 62.43. You’d be hard pressed to deny that Rogers’ county experience has helped him.

But then there’s Adam Voges, who also has plenty of county experience (1,741 runs at 44.64) but has made only 125 runs at 20.83 in the current series. Is he too old now? That seems an overly simplistic explanation – he’s younger than Chris Rogers!

Logic would certainly imply that time spent playing English county cricket is more likely than not to help Australian batsmen adjust to English conditions. But the data suggests it is anything but a silver bullet.

Allan Border has been quoted as saying “The gear system – to be able to go up and down through the gears depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. That’s what we’re not doing well. We seem to have one or two gears and it’s top gear, go hard. We’ve got to learn the art of batting in Test cricket.”

Yep. Which suggests we need to take more of a look at what the coaches are telling the players than merely assuming a lack of county experience is the problem.

But that’s a subject for the next post.

* Data from Cricket Archive

















Retired Blowhards, Haddin and the Indian Curse

It’s a little tiring to hear of retirees like Ricky Ponting, Ian Healy and Matthew Hayden bagging the selectors for failing to reinstate Brad Haddin in the 3rd Test at Edgbaston.

Darren Lehmann is absolutely correct when he says Haddin was replaced due to his poor form. It was the right call. This isn’t tiddlewinks, people, it’s the Ashes. It doesn’t get any more serious than this, and there is no room for sentiment. Players do not ‘deserve’ another game merely because they are popular or because they have played for a long time or because they took time off to be with family. Famous ex-cricketers speaking out in support of struggling incumbents is like turkeys getting together to vote against Christmas. You’d hardly expect anything else.

In fact, the mere fact that Messrs Healy, Ponting and Hayden are complaining about the selectors’ decision on Haddin underscores how sensible it was. None of these three knew when it when time to call time on their own careers. All three played for at least a year past their use-by dates, and in all cases it was painful to watch them struggle at the end.

  • Ian Healy made 134 against England in the 1st Test at the Gabba in November 1998. In his subsequent 12 Tests, he made 170 runs across 20 innings at an average of 8.94 before selector Trevor Hohns said enough was enough. Legend has it that Healy wanted to play his last Test in Australia after consecutive tours of the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, but Hohns put his foot down and Healy had to go.
  • Ricky Ponting, too, played for at least a year too long. He peeled off 134 in the 2nd Test against India in January 2012 and it followed it up with 221 and 60 not out in the Adelaide Test three weeks later. Thereafter, however, he made 178 runs at 16.18 in 11 innings in his last 6 Tests, scoring just one half-century. By the end he was a walking wicket.
  • Matthew Hayden scored centuries against India in Melbourne and Adelaide in the 2007-08 season but his scores tanked thereafter. In his next 9 Tests, commencing with a 4-Test series in India which Australia lost 2-0, he made 344 runs across 16 innings at an average of 22.93, with only two half-centuries.

The selectors’ decision to replace Haddin with Peter Nevill should be applauded. Cricket fans should acknowledge a selection panel prepared to retire players who are over the hill, regardless of whether retired players believe it is ‘fair’. When he was re-appointed to the selection panel about eighteen months ago, Hohns was quoted as saying “There’s quite a few blokes in that (veterans’) age bracket and not just 30 and above, some of them are 34 and 35 and above (including 34-year-old fast bowler Ryan Harris) so there’s no doubt that in the near future there will be some decisions made.” Haddin must have known it was coming. Healy, Ponting and Hayden should have, too. The ‘family first’ policy is irrelevant. It’s about form.

One last thing: a cursory glance at the final year or so of Hayden and Ponting’s careers does not bode very well for Michael Clarke.

Let’s face it, touring Indian teams in Australia fare about as well as Australian teams do in India. India is not terribly difficult to beat on Australian soil. It is worthy of note that both Ponting and Hayden made runs against India in Australia before falling apart once they came up against other teams outside Australia. In hindsight, it’s not difficult to believe the deterioration in their form was masked to some degree by the weakness of the opposition.

Michael Clarke, too, managed 128 against India in Adelaide in December 2014 but has made few runs since. His recent run of form is starting to look eerily similar to that of both Hayden and Ponting as they limped to retirement after series against India in Australia.

Sadly, though, most pundits now expect Clarke to retire at the end of the current Ashes series if not before. It would be a greater surprise if he actually makes a score before then.

Don’t Cut Voges

The selectors should not cut Adam Voges before the 4th Test at Trent Bridge.

Warner, Rogers and Smith will obviously play. Smith failed twice at Edgbaston but I doubt many would argue he isn’t Australia’s best batsman. He needs to master the Art of the Leave outside off stump, but he’s only 26 so give him time.

Clarke is obviously in woeful form that might trigger his retirement after the Ashes but he’s the skipper and therefore won’t be dropped before the end of the Fifth Test. Sure, he might pull a Graeme Swann and bail out on his teammates by retiring in the middle of a tough series, but whatever else you might say about Clarke, I don’t think he would do such a thing. Like him or loathe him, that’s not his way. Either he’ll make a score soon or he won’t , but he’s not going anywhere soon.

Mitchell Marsh is not a Test No. 6 batsman. We knew that before Edgbaston but it’s even more obvious now. But I would still have him over Shane Watson any day of the week. It’s ironic; Marsh considers himself a batting all-rounder but it’s his bowling that has impressed so far at Lord’s and to a lesser extent at Edgbaston. When Marsh comes on to bowl, he’s far more likely to take a wicket than Watson. Sure, he needs to improve as a batsmen but he’s only 23 and needs more time. Think back to when Steve Smith played his first Ashes series in Australia. He was inserted as a leg spinner and batted at No. 6, and was absolutely hopeless. It’s worth giving Marsh more time.

Which leaves us with Voges.

The selectors often cop flack but who could fault them for picking Voges when he scored 1,358 runs at an average of 104.46 in last season’s Sheffield Shield? The guy has played 167 first class matches and made 11,141 runs at 45.10. Then he goes and makes a century on Test debut; it was ‘only’ against the West Indies but it was also a pressure situation in which Australia was struggling at 6/126 in Dominica. He has also played in England a lot, turning out for Middlesex, Hampshire and Nottinghamshire during his career. Voges can play.

Like most of us, I’m at a loss to explain why Voges has only scored 73 runs at 14.60 in five innings so far this series. Why he continues to waft the bat outside off stump is something I can’t explain. Nerves, perhaps? He seems to be struggling with the swinging ball but so is every other Australian batsman. Every cricket journalist whose work I’ve read since Edgbaston has condemned Voges to the scrapheap. All of them assume he’ll be replaced at Trent Bridge by Shaun Marsh.

I’m going to go the other way. I think they should keep Voges. To swap Voges for Shaun Marsh merely because the Aussie media is baying for blood would be illogical, and far riskier than keeping him.

To be sure, Voges’ past five innings have been inadequate, but it’s only five innings. Let’s remember why Voges was selected in the first place; i.e. he has scored buckets of runs in recent times. He has a long and admirable track record, and bailed Australia out of trouble only two months ago in Dominica. Yes, it’s the Ashes now and the pressure is on, but five poor scores is not enough to pull the rug out from somebody you thought was good enough only a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, is Shaun Marsh a reliable Test batsman? I think he is anything but.

Marsh has made 2 centuries and 4 fifties in his 25 Test innings to date; in other words, he has made 50 or more in 24% of his Test innings. This is a lower ratio than even Shane Watson, who made 50 or more in 26% of his 109 Test innings and was renowned for failing to live up to his potential in Test cricket. Incidentally, that same ratio is 40% for Chris Rogers and 37% for both Steve Smith and David Warner. Even for Michael Clarke it is 28% (but that number would have been far higher as recently as two years ago before Clarke’s form went into decline). As they did for a long time with Shane Watson, the selectors like to say Shaun Marsh’s mediocre Test average (35.79) does not reflect his ‘talent’. I think it’s pretty spot on, and it isn’t good enough.

Shaun Marsh has a history of not performing under pressure. In my view, it would be a mistake to consider his centuries in tour matches against a WICB President’s XI in Antigua in May and then against Kent and Derbyshire as evidence of his readiness to meet Australia’s Test requirements. His brother Mitchell is living proof that big scores against pop-gun county bowling attacks on flat decks do not necessarily mean much.

But Australia are 2-1 down, and the pressure is on the selectors. If the media coverage is correct, Voges will be jettisoned for Marsh at Trent Bridge. I can understand why the selectors might do this just to be seen to be taking action, but I think Voges is the better bet of the two.