Selectors’ googlies leave many stumped


Were Australia’s national selection panel a spin bowler, they would be lauded for well-disguised variation.

Tim Paine as Ashes wicketkeeper, despite not taking the gloves for his state, was equivalent to the big wrong’un that Mushtaq Ahmed fizzed past Graeme Hick in the 1992 World Cup final, fooling everyone. Now Cameron White‘s recall, three years after his last international appearance and with a World Cup just around the corner, is Shane Warne’s 1994 Gabba flipper through Alec Stewart, after a couple of short balls had him thinking of the cut and pull shots.

As spin bowlers do, the selectors had cunningly set-up quite different expectations, from the moment the Cricket Australia board had urged Trevor Hohns’ panel to look for more youthful talent following Rod Marsh’s resignation in the wake of a fifth consecutive Test match defeat in Hobart late in 2016. Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis and Sam Heazlett were all ushered into the national team during this period, leaving numerous older players looking wistfully towards retirement.

Certainly Paine and White were not expecting to be in contention. Paine was seriously contemplating a move out of Tasmania to take a job with Kookaburra last winter after Matthew Wade elected to return home, and White was so sure he is surplus to international cricket that he has critiqued the aforementioned selection policy in an unvarnished manner that could only be described as “going down swinging”.

His words last January were spicy enough to provoke this response from Hohns: “I’m a little bit surprised by those comments, to be quite honest. The Sheffield Shield has been well-documented as being very important to us in Australian cricket – selectors, everybody. And then younger players – I think he just needs to remember that he was a very young man when he was given his first opportunity in one-day cricket. I don’t think there is any disparity there at all, to be honest. Cameron has had plenty of opportunities … he has had plenty of opportunities in the past and it’s probably fair to say performed okay without being earth-shattering.”

More earth-shattering was the selectors’ sharp change of tack with the Ashes looming, abandoning youth in favour of players either in good run-scoring form (Cameron Bancroft), long-time talents who as Darren Lehmann said “we hope we’ve got him at the right time” (Shaun Marsh) or more obscure choices that Lehmann conceded were as much a matter of “gut feel” as anything else (Paine). It is a combination of selection pragmatism and mysticism that has blindsided plenty in Australian cricket, never more so than on the night the Brisbane Test squad floated into the public domain via some strong reporting from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Disquiet about Paine’s selection in particular was evident at many levels of the game, leaving plenty of questions to be asked even before the squad was officially named at 10am the following day. Paine’s subsequent success in the Ashes was universally lauded, but did not stop debate about the process or lack thereof behind the decision. Now, as White comes to terms with how he has gone from the selectors’ most strident critic to their latest choice to end a sequence of middle-order collapses in ODIs, those process questions have re-emerged.

“I haven’t been out of the one-day team for Victoria and that’s what this format is, but pretty surprised,” White said. “There have been some guys in great form around the country, Ashton Turner, D’Aarcy Short and to be honest I was expecting one of those guys to get the call-up, but I’m very happy that it’s me and I’ve got the opportunity, but it was a surprise, no doubt.

“I just think with those selections during the summer the selectors thought they were the best fit and they showed that was pretty spot on, so hopefully I can prove the right that they’ve made another good call with this one. Anytime there’s selections its an opinion isn’t it, there’s always going to be people disagreeing and I’m sure some people disagree with this selection as well.”

The disagreement White speaks of is generally considered the type of pub debate long associated with selection, being as it is a thankless task where, as Jamie Cox once said “you’re only right if you win”. But there is a deeper issue implicit in decisions that are as surprising to players and the states they hail from as they are to members of the cricket-watching public. Cricket Australia is now an organisation where much has been made of all groups pulling in the same direction, whether employed by the Board or the states – they literally work off a philosophy called “One Team”.

So when decisions on players are made in contravention of previous policy, whether stated publicly or internally, hackles are quite reasonably raised. By their own selection decisions, whether not picking Paine as wicketkeeper or leaving White out of three of five Sheffield Shield games before the start of the Big Bash League, Tasmania and Victoria made it patently clear they had little or no idea that either man was in the selection frame. This demonstrates that, whether on wider philosophy or more specific player management, national set-up and state have not been on the kind of close wavelength they are supposed to be. It was a position articulated by Ed Cowan earlier in the season, when he revealed even Smith had been surprised by some choices in the Brisbane squad.

“He (Smith) has had some open and honest conversations with me,” Cowan had said. “I think he was surprised – without revealing confidential conversations between us – he certainly had a view that that’s the way the board had indicated selections were going to go. And I think the selection panel, as directed by Pat Howard, has turned that on its head. Once we got to the bottom of why it happened, I was comfortable with that [being dropped from NSW team]. The only sour element comes from the fact that three weeks ago, I was evidently too old, and then someone [Shaun Marsh] who I played youth cricket with gets picked in the Test team.

“The policy of the young guys playing, I’ve got no problem with, as long as it is a selection policy that sticks consistently. The bottom line here is every player in the system wants it to be at its absolute maximum capacity. We love the Australian cricket team. We want it to win and we are wishing those guys all the very best. But from a systemic point of view, we just want a little more consistency and clarity around selection.”

In terms of selection priorities, the states have searched for some indication from CA as to what has driven recent decisions, but they have got nothing quite so instructive as the words of the selector Mark Waugh in commentary for Ten on Thursday night’s BBL coverage: “There’s nothing that beats a winning culture, so winning the games in front of you, I think that’s just as important as looking ahead, a bit of both.”

It was Waugh, ironically, who had first suggested Paine was in contention to play this summer, during a radio interview in October. As a straight-talking commentator, he has often been a more reliable source of messaging than anything shared in private between CA and states.

As White has said, he has been picked at a time when he is in form and has decent self-knowledge of his game, meaning he is every chance of succeeding and so going down as another “success” in terms of Australian selection this summer, another well-disguised variation with which to fool England. But in terms of reaching decisions based on judgments linked to an overall strategy, the selectors this season have been the equivalent of a golfer driving into the rough, hacking out into a bunker, blasting out onto the green, then holing a 40-foot putt to make par. The right result, sure, but by a method that may not be sustainable in the long run.



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