I agree with Malcolm Conn, in the Australian newspaper, that the brief for Australia’s selectors should immediately be towards forming a team to contest the next Ashes campaign in 2006/07. Regarding the personnel, here's my blueprint/structure that Australia should implement looking towards that series, and casting ahead for the next four years. It's a little lengthy , but worth the read if you like Aussie cricket.
Personally, I would make a broad judgment about Matthew Hayden, and terminate his career. Granted, he jagged a century in his last innings, but the selectors should look at the trend with his batting. The trend, over the last 18 months, over the last 30 innings, has been that his batting and his mental state, have been in serious decline. All quality players, if you give them enough chances, will eventually score a century - it’s the trend that counts. Moreover, a selector’s brief includes reading the ‘tea-leaves’, not just looking a batsman’s most recent innings.
The problem with retaining Hayden for the next Test series is that he will likely ‘fill his boots’ against a woeful West Indies attack, and then do likewise against a military medium South African attack. Given this, he would then find himself in the team for the next Ashes series. The problem with that is that I don’t think he, any longer, has the ability or the application to make consistent runs against high quality bowling units.
I'd be bold and draft Phil Jacques as Hayden's replacement. Mike Hussey, whatever people say about his ODI form, has never been a great First Class (FC) player. For example, over the last five Pura Cup seasons he has averaged: 30; 35; 34; 41 and 55. I just think, if you are 31 years of age, shouldn't you have shown a little more than that? There's no way those statistics, for a 31 year old, warrant a Baggygreen.
By contrast, Phil Jacques, aged just 26, has had two summers of Pura Cup cricket in Australia for a combined average of 50. Last summer, in only his second season, he scored over 1100 runs at an average of 66. He is already rated highly by the selectors, after being picked on Australia A's tour of Pakistan. In his only match in that more elite company, he carried his bat and scored 92. Australia should be bold and pick him over Hussey, who is on the wrong side of 30 and who has struggled in the Pura Cup over the last five years.
The other incumbent - Justin Langer - is still hungry, and has shown zero signs of decline. Personally, I see him as one of the cornerstones for Australia over the next four years. He has already stated that the 2009 Ashes tour is not out of the question, and his experience, while the winds of change blow through the rest of the team, would be invaluable - particularly for Phil Jacques.
The Middle Order:
I’d be re-structuring the batting and picking Shane Watson. Firstly, if they stopped concentrating on his bowling, the selectors would realise that he has a better FC batting average than the reserve Ashes batsman, Brad Hodge. Secondly, he is six and a half years younger than Hodge. Finally, he brings more to the team than Hodge, as he averages 30 with the ball in FC cricket. The selectors are making a grave mistake viewing Watson through the prism of a bowler who bats. Rather, he is a batsman - averaging almost 50 in FC cricket - whose bowling is a bonus. Watson adds another dimension to the side, by allowing it to play two spinners, and should come in for either Katich or Martyn.
On that question - Katich or Martyn? - I would drop Katich. I think he’s a top-order batsman, who looks so out of place at five or six. He’s had a good run at Test cricket (21 matches) and is averaging less than 40. Martyn, after his Ashes tour, can consider himself somewhat lucky, but I don’t think he has really shown any real signs of decline. For instance, in recent series, he has averaged 55; 50; 55; 41; 103; 78. Yes he had a horror Ashes, but there is no trend that justifies the ending of his career. I think he can play for another two years, by which time a young tyro (Phillipson or even Shaun Marsh) can take his place.
The other two incumbents - Ponting and Clarke - will be retained, and together form the nucleus of the middle order over at least the next four years.
Adam Gilchrist had a horror Ashes, but there is no real decline in his play. For instance, in the series’ since the beginning of the last Australian summer, he averaged 88; 76 and 171. He had a very poor Ashes tour, but has had similar horror series in the past (India 2004 for instance) and bounced back. I’d back him to do likewise here. I do think, though, that his workload could be better managed over the next two years. Long term, probably after the next West Indies tour in 2007, Gilchrist’s retirement will clear the way for Brad Haddin/Chris Hartley.
Here, Australia has to think clearly and decide who their best bowlers (be it spinners or quicks) are. In my view, our strength over the next four years, will lie with our spinners, rather than our quicks. I can see McGill playing another four years - he has said so himself that he’ll ‘play long’. Therefore, over the next four years, the balance of the attack should be two spinners; two quicks; and an all-rounder who can bowl first change (Watson).
McGill and Warne (or even if Warne retires, McGill and Cullen/White) is a potent partnership on the flat tracks around the world for the next four years - there’s not too many green tops (even in England) nowadays. Picking two spinners (except on the all too rare green top) is much preferable to finding a 3rd paceman, as Australia’s fast bowling cupboard is threadbare at present.
That means that Australia only have to find two quicks - this is the hard part. One of those spots comes down to either Tait or Lee. Given their styles, I really do not think you can have both of them in the same team - we’ll leak too many runs. Personally, I think Tait showed something in the Ashes. He averaged the same as Lee with the ball, and reversed and moved it far more than Lee, despite being way less experienced.
Lee, for all his heart and indefatigability, still averaged above 40. Sometimes I want to put my head through the television set and tell him to bowl at the top of off-stump. That was his most dangerous length – he knocked over Vaughan and Flintoff a couple of times, and beat the bat on numerous occasions. The bouncers should be surprise balls, not stock deliveries. I thought he would have learnt that lesson after spending 18 months out of the team. Anyway, it falls to Tait and Lee to joust for one of the two fast bowling spots - the strike bowler - for the next few years.
The other fast bowling spot will obviously be filled by the metronomic Glenn McGrath. However, injury and retirement are sure to interrupt at some stage. Whilst ever McGrath is playing (probably two years at most) my fallback in case of injury would be bowlers who have control - Jason Gillespie/Stuart Clark.
Given the lack of depth, Australia can simply not afford to mark Gillespie’s file. I just refuse to believe - at 30 - that he has lost his ‘nip’. I just hope that he can get some good specialist coaching (which he probably wasn’t getting from Buchanan in England) when he returns home. I still think he has 10-15 quality Tests left in him.
When McGrath retires, probably in 12-24 months, I hope that a left-armer, at this stage Mitchell Johnson (described by Dennis Lillee as a “once in a life time bowler”) can replace him on a permanent basis. You will never replace, adequately, someone like McGrath, however at least a left-armer will add variety to the attack and provide else for the opposing batsmen to contend with, more so than a slightly above average right armer. Because, when you look at Australia’s quick bowling stocks at present, that’s all there is: slightly above average bowlers.
As in football, every great coach has his era and is suited to a particular time. The times have suited Buchanan over the last six years. He has had a team of experienced, resourceful, and largely self sufficient players. This has allowed him to concentrate on the mental aspects of cricket and keeping the players mentally fresh. He has really been a mind and science coach and this has, arguably, been to the detriment of our fielding skills and the technical aspects of cricket.
However, I think his time has passed. The Australian team, over the years ahead, is likely to be less naturally gifted, less self-sufficient than its predecessor. The coach will have to have a very ‘hands on’ roll, in polishing the players’ techniques. To this end, the man is Steve Rixon.
Finally, Australia should borrow from England and employ a bowling coach – Bruce Reid is the obvious choice. Pay the incumbent handsomely, make it financially worth their while – the benefits are immense.