The Millstone Gets Heavier

I’ve been ranting for at least two years (e.g here and here) about the selectors’ stubborn insistence on picking David Warner despite precious little evidence that he justifies his place in the team. The selectors appear not to care, deciding instead the 36-year old deserves his spot for runs he made so many years ago that many younger cricket fans don’t even remember.

It’s a bizarre stance for the selectors to take. If nothing else, the Bairstow fracas demonstrates the huge significance of the Ashes in the sporting culture of both nations. You want to maximise your chances, don’t you? Why would you deliberately go into such a massive series with a such a prominent millstone around your neck? It’s difficult to understand.

It’s true Marcus Harris has fluffed the opportunities he’s had at Test level thus far (average of 25.29 in 14 Tests). No question about it. But it’s just as true that his performances over the past two years have conspicuously eclipsed those of Warner. In the 2023 country cricket season, Harris made 457 runs for Gloucestershire at an average of 57.13, with two centuries and two fifties in nine innings. The year before that, he made 726 runs at 42.71 for Gloucestershire across 17 innings. In the 2022-23 Sheffield Shield, he made 601 runs at 37.56 in the 2022-23 Sheffield Shield (i.e. okay but not stellar).

How does Warner compare? Let’s assume for a moment that Warner’s historically abysmal Ashes tour of England in 2019 (95 runs across five Tests at an average of 9.50, including three ducks and five single-digit scores) was some sort of aberration. (It wasn’t, but let’s for a moment say it was.)

He played two of the four Tests in the subsequent home series against India (which Australia lost), making 67 runs at 16.75 across four innings. In the 2021-22 home Ashes series, he rebounded a little, with 273 runs at 34.13 including two 90+ scores but no tons. In the three Test series in Pakistan (which Australia won 1-0), he maintained that level, averaging 33.80 across 5 innings, nearly achieving the bare minimum Australia requires of its Test opener. His highest score in the two away Tests against Sri Lanka was 25 (series drawn 1-1).

In two Tests against West Indies and three against a very lacklustre and dispirited South Africa during the 2022-23 Australian summer, he made 315 runs at 39.38, but the data needs close examination. Those 315 runs included one innings of 200 against a totally demoralized South African attack. I’m not saying that knock must be dismissed, just heavily discounted. After all, Alex Carey made 111, Smith 85, Head 51 and Green 51 not out in the same innings (Australia made 575 for 8). Not the most challenging of conditions, you’d have to say. Stripping out that one big score, Warner made 115 runs at 16.43 in his other seven innings that summer. He then made scores of 1, 10 and 15 (average 8.67) in three innings on the tour of India before getting injured. And then he walks into the Ashes team.

Why? It doesn’t make sense.

In addition to everything else, it isn’t fair. The selectors always tell players they’ll be rewarded for performances. Tell that to players like Harris and Neser, who can’t get a game even after doing all that’s asked of them.

Warner, meanwhile, has a history of failures in English conditions. Did he play county cricket like Harris? No, he played IPL. The selectors picked him anyway, despite little evidence that he can play in England, and despite a recent history of deteriorating performances.

So far across the World Test Championship final against India and the first three Ashes Tests, Warner has 185 runs at an average of 23.13 but has failed to reach double figures fifty percent of the time (4 innings out of 8). His top score of 66 in the Second Test was on a slow, flat pitch on which Smith made 110, Head 77 and Labuschagne 47, not to mention Stokes’ 155 and Duckett’s two scores of 98 and 83. You could say Warner underperformed in that game, too. The pitch in the Third Test at Headingley is much harder and faster than in the first two Tests and batting clearly is more challenging for all players, but once again Warner’s failures were conspicuous. He lasted only five balls in both innings, falling to Broad yet again. It’s painful to watch. The selectors seem to cherry-pick data points such as his 200 against South Africa to justify Warner’s inclusion, but they fail to acknowledge that it’s Warner’s occasional decent score that is the aberration. The failures are the norm.

Meanwhile, the selectors and his teammates (bless ’em) tell us they ‘back Davey to come good’ and he’s ‘batting better than ever in the nets’. Terrific. The next time a Test match is played in the nets, I’ll put some money on him.

I have no idea whether Harris would succeed if given another chance, but isn’t it common sense to pick the best players you have available, then hope for the best? Australia needs its best openers for the Ashes. Warner is not that. He simply isn’t, and hasn’t been for some time.

I don’t get it. Where is Trevor Hohns when you need him?

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