High cost of the McGrath compromise
Sunday 14 August 2005
To some, the urgency to recall a match-winner so close upon a major injury suggests that a whisp of desperation has snaked its way into the Australian camp.
That's not necessarily so. At Trinidad in the Caribbean in 1973, the Australian captain Ian Chappell turned an ankle so badly on the eve of the Third Test that he could barely walk. The series was level and the Test, to be played on a turner especially prepared for Lance Gibbs and three other spinners, would certainly be a defining moment in the struggle for the Frank Worrell Trophy. Chappell played, hobbling badly.
Consider the alternative: a team without their captain, their tough No 3 batsman and their brilliant first slip - quite a hole. Chappell failed in the first innings but made 97 heroic runs in four hours in the second. It was inspirational stuff. Australia won just after lunch on the last day, by 44 runs. And went on to win the series.
To England and Australia, this Old Trafford Test is a bit like Trinidad. For the Australians, shocked at Edgbaston, McGrath just had to be in the selection mix if it was at all possible. But, taking a risk on a not fully fit batsman like Chappell is far removed from gambling on a fast bowler with a dicey ankle.
The compulsory question around the selection table - "What if he breaks down again?" - is simply answered in the case of the batsman: "The others will just have to get more runs." But the McGrath issue was more complex. If he suffered a recurrence and was suddenly out of the attack, what then?
That leads us into the most intriguing selection issue: did McGrath's fitness, probably assessed as a moderate risk, compromise the rest of the process, particularly the theory that Old Trafford might suit the second leg spinner, Stuart MacGill? Should MacGill, a noted striker in Test cricket, have been given his chance on a pitch that is sluggish and gripping and with shrapnel and craters abundant in the batsman's front yard?
For a long time now the Australians have studiously ignored what remains a reasonable tactic, to bat Adam Gilchrist, surely a genuine all-rounder in any judge's eyes, at No 6 and play an extra bowler. That's why Brett Lee was left holding the drinks with his smoking right arm in the Kiwi Tests leading up to the Ashes. The message was: "Four bowlers are doing the job."
Yet, when there was talk pre-Old Trafford about Australia playing two spinners the point was made that it could only happen if Shane Watson, a rookie medium-pacer who can bat a bit, came into the team. Suddenly, five bowlers had to be the tactic. Why? Why not simply swap MacGill for the hapless Jason Gillespie? What's the difference between three fast bowlers (one of whom is alarmingly off-song) and one great leg spinner, and two fast bowlers and two great leg spinners?
It's hard not to sense that in the end the selection was an "insurance job" to cover any mishap to McGrath. Gillespie got the nod because he was the fast bowler with the experience, if not any worthwhile current form. And, an historically blinkered selection philosophy meant MacGill could only be one of five bowlers, and that had consequences for the batting line-up.
Australia can only watch the success of England's five-man bowling attack, with an all-rounder at No 6 (is Andrew Flintoff any better a batsman than Gilchrist?) and wonder if, in some of those "soft kills" in Tests over the last decade, when a batsman was out of touch but allowed plenty of time to find his feet again, it might have been wiser to trial the five-bowler tactic. Sort of "insurance", you might say, for murky moments that were sure to come.
These Australians have a "selector on duty", the former fast bowler Merv Hughes, who has replaced Allan Border on the national panel. Until recently tour selection was left to the captain and a couple of senior players.
Big Merv the player liked to rattle the cage, a skill that might be useful in an Australian camp that seems reluctant to move out of the selection comfort zone no matter what the circumstances.
Even if Australia get out of their sticky predicament in this Old Trafford Test, changes will need to be made against an England side who are threatening to wrest back the Ashes via creative planning, growing self-belief and smart bowling.
At the moment the only level part of the playing field between the two is the woeful catching.
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