Missed the Spin – Australia’s Support CastJack McNamara |
It’s been noted regularly that, for once, it is the Australian side that is unsettled heading into the First Test whilst the English have their XI signed, sealed and sorted. However, all the sounds from the selection committee indicate that in their minds, the team has already been selected, with Chief Selector Andrew Hilditch saying as much recently. So, as the media pushes forth every name possible as a required ingredient for Ashes success – including the under-performing Moises Henriques as the third seamer! – it is time to have a look at the reasons why these players might, and in some cases should, not be seen during this series.
Phil Hughes still averages over 50 in Test cricket, and his troubles against the short ball have been well documented. The selectors would note the absence of Harmison and Flintoff, the two bowlers who troubled Hughes the most in England, and wouldn’t mind the idea of Broad bowling short; the more that he gets dragged away from a consistent line and length and playing a patience game, the better it is for Australia. Hughes won’t be picked because he’s an opening batsman, the point of the order that has been the best performed and most assured since his omission, and that’s unlikely to change in the short term.
Callum Ferguson has impressed many a judge since his emergence through the youth system in South Australia, where he and Mark Cosgrove were considered prodigies; Fat and Skinny conducted a race to break all sorts of youth records. The selectors will be looking at him to improve his First Class record, but his problem has been making hundreds; there’s always going to be a worse conversion rate in First Class records as players develop at that level, and hopefully enter Test cricket ready to maximise their starts. Ferguson hasn’t displayed this trait in his career so far, with only 6 First Class hundreds. Ferguson can get lazy with his feet, he doesn’t have the balance of a Damien Martyn but at times employs similarly minimal footwork, especially playing forward. People cite his efforts for Australia in Limited Overs cricket, but he’s tended to come in at 5 or 6, when bowlers are generally looking to restrict, fields are back and the white ball soft. While it’s certainly an encouraging sign that he’s taken to it well, middle-order batting form in the shorter form can be deceptive – just ask Michael Hussey.
Transposing this is Usman Khawaja, a player who has risen beyond more hyped team-mates through sheer weight of runs. He got himself into the New South Wales shield team through consecutive 2nd XI double hundreds, and has already made more centuries than Ferguson in less than half the matches. A great player of pace and strong square of the wicket, the selectors hold concerns already about the number of left handers in the Australian side, with Swann’s ability to trap them LBW an oft raised point. He still hasn’t played a full season for New South Wales, however, and with only 22 first class matches to his name the selectors may feel like he hasn’t been thoroughly tested at this point, especially against quality spin.
From the bowling perspective, assuming that Doug Bollinger is fit, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris will be fighting it out as the fourth in line to fling some leather at high speed. Harris, a late bloomer, has ticked every box in his short international career, aside from getting a sore knee. A better batsman than Siddle, Harris did show the goods against New Zealand, but the selectors would have much rather seen more of him in England against the Pakistani unit. He’s slightly behind in preparation in comparison to Siddle, who has been playing most of the season for Victoria. There may be a feeling that the time invested in Siddle may be ready to recoup, and that they’ve spent so long nurturing him that he may be there first man to go to ahead of the “Rhino” if a quick falls over.
The appeal to the selectors in Siddle is that they know what they are going to get from Siddle at Test level, maybe to a greater degree than Harris. Siddle has been groomed for bowling on the flat wickets that we see in the majority of Australian capitals these days, his stock length sees the ball flying through at about hip height. He asks batsman to play good shots on the up to drive the ball, but he struggles to break the ball away from the right hander to entice that edge, and can’t maintain a tight enough line to the lefties, providing the type of width that Cook and Strauss thrive upon.
Peter George, having got a game in India, is an extremely raw package. A gangly man, who doesn’t strike as a natural sportsman, he bats and fields with limited co-ordination and at first glance may have an octopus for a grandfather. With ball in hand though, he still manages to get good groupings, and the good bounce as you’d expect from a man employed to paint the tops of goalposts. Mark Cameron has been suggested as a floater, a man with a good outswinger and the ability to reverse swing the ball, as this columnist can attest. However, he tends to bowl very full and is prepared to go for runs to get wickets, certainly not a disastrous attitude but one which may not be affordable in a team featuring Mitch Johnson. If he did earn a spot, he would only feature later in the season, once it’s proven that his body can maintain the workload, as an Ashes Test is not the time to be under-resourced with bowlers after Day 1.
The wildcard is of course Steve Smith. A great package of a cricketer, the selectors will not want to be burnt again by exposing a player with unusual tendencies without a thorough examination of his batting technique. This leads one to believe that he won’t be getting a game in the Top 6 at this stage of his career. Calls and predictions at this stage reek of similar comparison to Cam White; not in the type of spinners provided, but in the type of player that we want to pigeon hole him as. Smith’s leg spinners probably have the requisite work on the ball to worry a batsman, but there are still too many deliveries that assist in releasing the pressure valve. The spinner’s role in the side is clearly to build pressure, a key factor in the preference of Hauritz to Krezja in the South African series two years ago, and Smith can’t be relied upon to do that. Heading into Sydney with the series drawn, the possibility of using him at 7 as an extra bowling option will be floated, and could be worth it in an attempt to capture 20 wickets and score hasitly.
When you look across the recent series, rarely do players who aren’t included in the First Test team have a tangible effect on the result of the series – even if Paul Collingwood’s MBE misleads you to think otherwise. Selectors have invested in the current crop of eleven for too long to start playing mix and match, and there’ll only be window dressing around the squad as the series progresses.