Cricket: Poor picking, worse results

John Benaud argues that flawed planning is costing Australia on the field
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THESE are unhappy times for the supporters of the cricketers of England or Australia, victims of floggings in faraway places. The cynics have gathered, but by applying the swings and roundabouts theory they remain divided as to which fans' hands should be wrung the hardest.

England did win a Test that counted against the West Indies, which was not the Australian experience in India; but England have lost a captain and Australia still have have two - Mark Taylor, the Test captain, and Steve Waugh, chronic groin injury permitting, the one-day captain.

Then again, England leave the comforts of a home summer against South Africa to sort out a new captain for the forthcoming Ashes series Down Under. Australia, in a nasty twist of fate, have been booked a return ticket to the sub-continent to match wits with Pakistan.

It is hard to imagine anything more painful than Australia's capitulation in India, where even the bullet-proof Shane Warne finished up in cricket's casualty ward, strafed by Tendulkar's smoking bat. But Pakistan has the potential to be.

Right now there's a fearful feeling of deja-vu among Australia's supporters, an image of the mid-Eighties when team performance was adversely affected by captaincy merry-go-rounds, haphazard selection judgements and resultant player discontent. Now, many are hoping that the former captain, Allan Border, will be the circuit-breaker. Since the Indian selection, Border has been added to the panel and he has already expressed doubts about the divisive two captains/ two teams philosophy.

Can you believe that when this Third Test finishes Taylor, and six others in his 14-man squad, will go home having received their "not required" notices for the one-day series? Half the touring squad retrenched - extraordinary. The players are not happy.

The selection late in their cricketing lives of the rookies Paul Wilson and Gavin Robertson has done nothing to lift confidence in the panel. The pair's battling careers offered heady evidence of the romance of the game but when confronted by India's batsmen the Alice in Wonderland theme was superseded by an image of rabbits in a spotlight.

Selection confusion reigns: Michael Slater was dropped from Test cricket two summers ago for playing too many shots, yet apparently he doesn't play enough shots to be in the one-day team. He's coming home.

We can only hope that Slater's scintillating 91 in this Third Test, and his 13th Test half-century partnership with Taylor, will achieve one outcome: the selectors will leave them together for as long as Taylor plays. It's important because it sends a message of stability at a time when the critics are again recommending the guillotine for Slater.

After his failures in the first two Tests the word was out before the Third: only a less energetic outlook can save him. Then, when he batted on the second afternoon the commentators described his first runs thus: "That's the way to get going, hit it through the covers to the boundary, full face of the bat, no retreat."

The selection panel, pre- Border, showed an alarming reactive streak and a willingness to forget the value of experience at the highest level of the game.

Only minor surgery should be contemplated before the tour to Pakistan, and the subsequent Ashes series, and the player most probably under the knife is Greg Blewett (as well as Robertson and Wilson). The arrival of Darren Lehmann (replacing the injured Steve Waugh in India) threatens Blewett's batting spot, and it would also mean a batting order change: who would go in at No 3? Maybe Mark Waugh, maybe Ricky Ponting.

Blewett's career has been strangely low profile in an era of high profiles. The hard markers said he couldn't play spin, lately they have worried about his "looseness" against the new ball. He has played some marvellous hands, yet never earned the title "Australia's No 3", the ownership status accorded some of his predecessors.

Australia are moving more rapidly than many know towards a new Test era - one without Taylor, Ian Healy and maybe the injury-prone Steve Waugh. If the transformation is to be smooth a few long-term judgements need to be made now, and allowed to develop.

By settling on Slater a straight replacement is needed for Taylor (say Matthew Elliott), rather than a double-whammy. And the bowling future, with Glenn McGrath fit again, might be better served by: (a) abandoning the theory that Warne's partner must be a spinner, however raw or under- performed, who turns the other way; and (b) resurrecting the all-rounder Brendon Julian, who would add both balance to the attack and some biff to the batting.

Meanwhile, how many changes will England's selectors make in choosing a team to beat South Africa?