The cricket has been fantastic to watch of late. Certainly for the past two matches, South Africa has shown a skill that only Australia has had for the past years. It seems that there’s a new kid on the block. I stand by my statement that Australia is the world’s best team until they are beaten in a series at home. India came close last season but couldn’t do it. South Africa are poised to do it now. If they do, they will leave the country ranked #1 and, in my opinion be the best test-playing nation out there. The team that wins the World Cup from us will be the best one-day playing nation. But that’s some time off.
It’s easy to point to the reasons why Australia has come down from such heights: the retirement of Shane Warne, Glen McGrath, and Adam Gilchrist. There’s no argument there. We will probably never return to such a skilled team – they were once in a generation players, and to all come at once was an extreme rarity. But we can certainly improve in quality from the state of the team now. So how do we do that? After watching the past year’s cricket, thinking about it intesively since New Zealand were playing us here, and having conversations galore about the topic, I feel that the following are the best moves to make to lift up our team.
First up, drop Matthew Hayden tomorrow. I advocated dropping him before the series. He is not performin at all, and a player has no right to hang on to his spot because he made a massive score against Zimbabwe quite a few years ago. Nor does he have a right to be in his spot because of his past performance a year ago. Hayden isn’t just out of form unfortunately: he’s past his prime. He may want to play for a few more years, but he cannot justify it with his most recent matches. When Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist retired, I argued that we need to bring in new blood to gain some experience with the ‘veterans’ around them. The ACB decided against this and brought in some old hands. They were wrong, and I was right. Now, we’ve lost that opportunity because the ‘veterans’ aren’t performing.
The player I would bring in to replace Hayden is Phil Jaques (I’m a long-term supporter of his as you know). I argued that he should have been in the team before Katich. I’m not one to swap and change with my picks – you pick someone and you stick by them. They put him in, then dropped him for Simon Katich. Ok, so Katich has performed well in his role, and was going gangbusters in the domestic competition. You wouldn’t have had such a problem dropping Hayden if Jaques was already in the side – you could replace him with Katich, who is in-form. But, regardless, I’d bring in Jaques and give him the Sydney test to have a crack and settle in (because it might not count).
If you’re opposed to Phil Jaques, then Chris Rogers (opener for SA) and Phillip Hughes (the other opener for NSW) and Michael Klinger (a traditional opener, playing #3 for SA) are the three leading scorers in the domestic Sheffield Shield at the moment. There’s four viable options to replace Hayden with – and any other batters who might begin to slip.
Second, after the series I would sit down and negotiate with Ricky Ponting to take the captaincy off him and give it to Michael Clarke. It’s my belief that we need Ponting the batter more than we need Ponting the captain. If we can take the captaincy from him, we will also take the added pressure and off-field duties from him. Michael Clarke has stepped up a few times this series, and he was the only batter proper who could hold his head up after the previous test. He has matured, and has a good head about him. With Ponting around, he could still have an input, what with his experience and that, but Clarke would be calling the shots.
That’s assuming Ponting would give up the captaincy and keep playing. If it meant Ponting would retire, let him keep it. As patchy as Ponting has been of-late, this match now shows us that he does have the skills to lead from the front. I honestly think he will be a better player without the captaincy, but if he needs to keep it so-be-it.
With Clarke getting promoted, I’d make Brad Haddin the vice captain. In my ideal team, Phil Jaques has only just returned, Ponting has given up the captaincy, Mike Hussey is no good as captain, Andrew Symonds has been in trouble before, and the bowlers are a special case, which leaves Jaques or Haddin. It was a hard call between the two, but I find it hard to imagine a situation where Haddin could be dropped, whereas going out of form for long enough is reason for me to drop Katich, and be replaced by one of the domestic players who are ready and able. You want to make your vice captain someone who will stick around, and your wicket keepr who is a gutsy batter at the tail is one who will be around for a while.
Next, the ACB should state that a place in the team is a ‘horses for courses’ situation or a merit system, and settle on this. ‘Horse for courses’, for those who haven’t heard the saying before, is picking the best team (the horses) for the ground they are playing the match at (the course). If you are playing a spin-friendly wicket, and you are picking on ‘horses for courses’, you would drop a pace bowler, have two specialist spinners, and an all-rounder who can spin. If its a batting wicket, you would drop bowlers for batters. If its a pace ground, then you drop batters and spinners for specialist pace bowlers. If its a merit system however, which is what I endorse, you pick someone and for as long as their immediate performance record allows, they stay in the team. The selectors used to do this, but now they are all over the place that it looks like they are ‘course-ing’ it.
From this, if you are going to pick a specialist spinner in the team, pick on, settle on him, and stick with the decision. Personally, there are no specialist spinners in the domestic league that really warrant getting in the team – they don’t move the ball much and have little variety to trouble international teams. I would free up this spot for an extra pace specialist and rely on our part-timers. Without McGrath, we need that extra pace bowler. I’d pick Ben Hilfenhaus and stick with him, giving you a pace line-up of Stuart Clark, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, and Ben Hilfenhaus. Your part-timers are Andrew Symonds (medium pace and spin) and Michael Clarke (spin), and the rare appearance of Mike Hussey. That’s seven bowlers, and with enough of a pace line-up to rotate with adequate rests.
I don’t want to repeat myself, so I further endorse the principle of making the ODI team a sort of ‘farming’ team for test callup that I proposed here. From this, they then have a clear call-up replacement for anyone who gets injured, instead of making injured players play (Lee, Symonds in this match), or struggling to figure out who should get the place that gets freed up (the Hilfenhaus/Siddle debate before this match, the problem of who to replace Hayden with).
Mike Hussey is an extremely talented and skilled player. He is in pitiful form at the moment though. He is ok up in the order, but much better, in my opinion, further down. If you can sure up the openers and the upper order to get decent scores without quick loss of wickets, then Hussey at #4 works fine – he doesn’t have pressure on him, and he can play his natural game with some batters. But if you do lose quick wickets, Hussey gets in and is facing the new ball; he isn’t that good against a new ball. Drop him down at least one more place, so that he comes in right ahead of Haddin, and then he can ground out a gutsy partnership with Haddin if it is called for (where they can score three or four an over, and there’s something of a total already there for them to build on), and we aren’t relying just on Haddin to wag the tail.
Finally, moving on to the ODI series that is coming up. Here’s a chance to test some things and get the team into shape. Let’s write it off now as a competition and treat it purely as an experiment that we don’t need to win. We need to rest our injured players so that they are fit and ready for the up-coming Ashes tour. Rest Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds from the ODI team, keep Stuart Clark out of the series to recover his operation, drop Hayden from the team, bring in all these new players and get the gears working together. Here’s a chance to get the team into a ready position for the Ashes – the next big thing on the radar. I don’t want to see the Poms win them back. , and cannot watch that again. The ACB has a duty to get the team into shape to successfully tour and defend that little urn that means so much. Now’s their chance before it’s too late.