Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has revealed the national selectors relied on “gut feel” calls to assemble the team that regained the Ashes in Perth, namely the choices of Tim Paine, Shaun and Mitchell Marsh.
All three decisions attracted plenty of scrutiny: Paine had not been Tasmania’s first choice wicketkeeper in recent first-class matches, Shaun Marsh averaged only 39 in the three Sheffield Shield games before the Gabba Test and Mitchell Marsh appeared to be rushed back after shoulder surgery had left him playing primarily as a batsman.
However, in each case, the selectors were rewarded, as Paine has showcased his skills behind the stumps while also adding important runs, Shaun Marsh played handily in Brisbane and pivotally in Adelaide, before Mitchell Marsh bludgeoned England in the company of the captain Steven Smith in the last Ashes Test at the WACA Ground.
“We were just going with gut feel to be perfectly honest and really pleased for the players that they turned up and played really well,” Lehmann said. “I was impressed with each one of those selections and the way they turned up in the series so far.
“There is [satisfaction for getting calls right] I suppose but full credit to Trevor [Hohns] and Mark [Waugh] and Greg [Chappell] for that. Yes I’m on the selection panel but it’s a tough, thankless job, it’s just pleasing those guys get the credit where it’s due to be perfectly honest.
“Those guys we picked were fantastic. You don’t know how it’s going to go when you first start and you cop a lot from people and media. That’s the way it is, so really pleased for the selection panel.”
There was enormous relief in the Australian set-up after securing the Ashes at home, and Lehmann spoke frankly of the pressure the team and Cricket Australia had felt to deliver a winning result after defeat in England in 2015.
“Ashes cricket is high pressure, everybody is nervous every ball, every session,” Lehmann said. “It’s been that way for 15 days so far, so they can go and express themselves a little bit more. We’ll be playing the same brand of cricket but obviously with less pressure on us. it’ll be interesting to see how we respond to that. Boxing Day and SCG are fantastic Test matches to be a part of.
“It was extremely satisfying for the lads, they’ve worked so hard over the last few months to get the prep right, the way we played. The planning came together, so all credit to the players, the support staff were fantastic. The work behind the scenes was great. I’ve loved the way we have gone about it in all three Tests.
“It was a lot closer than what the scores relate to. Certainly in Brisbane they had the upper hand at certain stages, but the captain was brilliant there. Obviously the bowlers were great in the second innings to get the job done. Adelaide was close and this one – albeit by an innings – it was still close, it came down to magnificent bowling from our quicks on the last day. It was a great day, the way the boys played.”
Speaking about Smith, who has utterly dominated the series with the bat and led expertly for the most part, Lehmann said the 28-year-old could now be ranked with Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting and may well pass them by the end of his career.
“He’s running pretty hot isn’t he? I’ve been lucky enough to see all of his Test hundreds,” Lehmann said. “So for me, seeing him evolve from that first Test hundred at the Oval to now – he just changes his own plans to what the bowlers are doing and what the wicket’s doing, and what the game needs. He’s gone to another level, which is pleasing.
“By the end it might be a bit different, but Pup and Ricky Ponting at times were exceptional captains and exceptional batters, when they were leading the team. Statistically you only see that at the end I suppose, but the way he’s gone about it, averaging 72 or 73 as a Test captain, that’s pretty special. For him to keep delivering what he needs to do is exceptional under the pressure he’s under in Ashes series.”
Having won a second consecutive home Ashes series win, Lehmann was quick to point out that the Australians needed to replicate their mastery of the “big moments” away from home. A tour of South Africa looms and there will also be a trip to India before the 2019 World Cup and Ashes double in England. A youngish team led by Smith and with a high-class bowling attack now has the chance to grow together.
“That’s the game itself, winning the big moments and transferring the pressure back to the other side,” Lehmann said. “I think we’ve done that really well in the first three Tests matches. It’s something we have to do when we travel away.
“You’re always learning lessons whether home or away, as a coach, as a player, support staff, you’re always learning. They’ve got some good young players, we’ve managed to put them under pressure at the right times, and hopefully that continues for the next two Test matches. But some of those players will be involved in the next Ashes series, so we’ve got to make sure we keep evolving our plans and being better.
“I’m pretty sure they can hang together, this group, they’re young enough to play for a few years together and that was the key 12 months ago even though we’ve changed some of those younger players. This group can hang together for the next 12-18 months and we’ve got to always evolve and get better at how we play and who we select and see where we go.”