Australia have arrived in England with squads quite as unsung as the one named for the 2013 Ashes. They have invariably been defeated.
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The party was hailed by its captain, Michael Clarke, as a mix of youth and experience, though another way of viewing it is as a combination of the pragmatic and panic-stricken. Nothing in it suggests that Australia will avoid a third consecutive defeat against England, a fate that last befell them more than half a century ago.
After a turbulent winter in which they lost at home to South Africa, were hammered by India and dropped four players for a breach of team discipline, it is clear that the selectors felt that something had to be done. It is the sort of policy once favoured by England panels, usually giving the appearance of having been outlined on the back of a fag packet and invariably provoked by regular defeat and the lack of authentic class from which to choose.
If there were only two genuine surprises – Chris Rogers at the age of 35 having played a solitary Test five years ago and the Tasmanian all-rounder, James Faulkner, who will be 23 next week – the squad had the feeling of being desperately cobbled together in the hope that it may find a cohesion and spirit. Of the 16 players who will arrive in England in late June, nine have never played an Ashes Test.
Most of the others are, at best, unproven at the highest level. But that does not mean there was much planning for the future in its concept. As the chairman of selectors, John Inverarity, put it: “We’re always very mindful of looking forward and selecting accordingly at times, but quite obviously this time it had always been our intention to revert to getting the absolute strongest side for this contest, that’s been uppermost in our minds and that’s the way we’ve selected.”
This strategy means that they have also recalled the 35-year-old wicketkeeper, Brad Haddin, as vice-captain. He assumes the role from Shane Watson, who was one of the four men dropped from the Third Test in India after failing to respond to a request from the team coach, Micky Arthur, to supply three ideas on how the team could improve.
Haddin’s return will have the additional effect of jettisoning Matthew Wade, who had been elevated to first choice as wicketkeeper-batsman and has essentially done nothing wrong. Inverarity said: “We feel it’s important to have a senior, seasoned player to support Michael at this time. When Shane Watson advised of his decision to stand down, the National Selection Panel viewed Brad as the exceptional candidate to step into this leadership void.”
The wisest pick in the squad is probably Rogers. He is deeply unfortunate to have played only one Test match, a victim early in his career of the sheer quality of Australia’s batting order. How risible that seems now.
Rogers has made 19107 first-class runs at an average just above 50, playing at home for his native Western Australia and then for Victoria and in England for Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Middlesex, where he is captain this season. Although Angus Fraser, the Middlesex director of cricket, was sincere in his praise of Rogers’ achievements and wished him well his teeth must have been ever so slightly gritted.
Experience of English conditions and indeed English bowlers going back nine years will undoubtedly be a factor for Australia. Raw as an international Rogers may be but he will lend a solidity to an order that otherwise looks decidedly brittle, including Ed Cowans, David Warner, Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja, who probably did himself a favour by appearing in none of the four Test matches in India all of which Australia lost.
Faulkner is not quite in the realms of genuine all-rounder – he is yet to make a hundred – much though that was the way Australia painted his selection yesterday. However, he caught the eye in the Sheffield Shield Final last month when he took his season’s tally to 39 wickets in 10 matches at 20.33 and scored a career best 89. Inverarity called him a cricketer who makes things happen, which may be code for a cricketer picked to give Watson, the incumbent all-rounder who has virtually stopped bowling a kick up the bottom.
Clarke is the sole indubitable world class player in the side. While his captaincy remains unchallenged it is also the subject of constant debate. No player could have done more in leading by example – he averages 66 in his 24 matches as captain, next only to Don Bradman – but there is an undercurrent of issues in the dressing room, which was hardly allayed by the disciplinary kerfuffle in India before the Third Test.
The bowling has more obvious virtues than the batting. James Pattinson is quick and incisive, Peter Siddle is one of the most honest triers in the world game, Mitchell Starc has huge potential as a left armer, who has been preferred to the capricious Mitchell Johnson, sometime scourge of England. Nathan Lyons, who has had more downs than ups, is the only spinner.
In recent times, Australia brought teams in 1977 and 1985 which seemed weak and eventually proved the point. England may be batter advised to recall 1989, however, when they held the Ashes and were installed as overwhelming favourites. Australia then were a mix of youth and experience.
Having been put into bat at Headingley, they made 601 for 7 dec to which Steve Waugh contributed 177no, his maiden hundred in his 27th Test, and never looked back. It was the start of almost two decades of Australian hegemony.
Look as hard as possible at the 2013 vintage and it seems unlikely that the trick can be repeated. Australia are hard-nosed competitors who will never stop trying to stick it to the poms but in putting such store by a veteran if accomplished batsman of no international pedigree they have told a sad story of decline.