Hohns truths become a casualty of the relentless Waugh mongers

View from Oz
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Strange events ambushed interesting cricket moments in the lead-up to this Boxing Day Test, but that's not surprising, because the festive season down under is also known as the "silly season".

Strange events ambushed interesting cricket moments in the lead-up to this Boxing Day Test, but that's not surprising, because the festive season down under is also known as the "silly season".

The Tri-nations series between Australia, Sri Lanka and England was expected to offer some pointers to the World Cup in February. But Sri Lanka, regarded by some as the pioneers of the one-day opening batting blitz, batted as if they were in a timeless Test. England whacked them but were not accorded giant-killer status; it was "those poor little Sri Lankans". Perhaps Sanath Jayasuriya's boys are lying doggo before the World Cup.

On the other hand, Australia appeared to be in full battle mode. In Perth, Brett Lee bowled a ball timed at 156.2kph, the fastest ever recorded by television's speed gun. At the other end Glenn McGrath bowled successfully to a 7-2 field, a refined Test tactic but brand new for limited-overs. Only a bowler of McGrath's accuracy could manage that. The intriguing question is, for which specific World Cup opponent is the tactic being tailored?

England's tactical campaign looked a mess. An injury update from Lord's and events in the second half of the Tri-nations, after the Sydney Test, might offer more positive news there.

But World Cup discussion was snuffed out by another episode of Australian cricket's longest running drama, Waugh's War. The emotion-charged nature of the debate seduced Bill Brown, Australia's oldest living Test cricketer. Bill, born in 1912, announced that, Bradman apart, Waugh has been the best Australian player over the past 80 years.

Waugh's medium-pace change bowling must have swung it, or other batting icons – Ponsford, McCabe, Harvey, Greg Chappell, Border spring to mind – might not have run second.

Pre-Boxing Day, Waugh the all-rounder bowled seven overs for two leg-befores in a domestic four-day match that his team, New South Wales, surrendered in three. Waugh the batsman made 45 and 12 and chastised the Sydney groundsman: "Tom Parker's a nice bloke but he just left too much water in the pitch." England can forget about a seamer-friendly pitch at the SCG for the final Ashes Test.

In the second NSW innings, Waugh the captain promoted No 9 Nathan Bracken to No 3 just before lunch. Only one person queried this quirky captaincy. As Bracken, soon dismissed and despondent, wandered back to the pavilion, a lone voice in the small crowd asked Waugh: "Why don't you send in another lunch-watchman?"

More quirkiness soon followed. Australian chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns decided to go public on Waugh. He said: "Steve has our unqualified support until the SCG Test, then he'll be chosen on form."

That inspired a commentator on Boxing Day to afford Waugh new status: "Mentally, Waugh may well be the toughest cricketer to have represented the country since March 1877." Even in the silly season it's hard to imagine anything sillier than that. On what basis, over 125 years, could anyone rate one cricketer mentally against 384 others?

So, it was against that backdrop that the Test proceeded pretty much as had been scripted in previous Tests – England's bowlers short in length, inconsistent in line and lacking tactical imagination, getting a hiding. Lee provided a chilling encore to Perth, which will encourage an outbreak of chucker allegations that might impact on Australia's World Cup build-up.

The Waugh scoreline, 77, guaranteed the player more herograms but not necessarily a career extension, and the selectors more hate-mail. It reminded Hohns, too, that he had been unwise to forget the first lesson of selection: never discuss publicly any individual's future. Safer to wait and offer a glowing testimonial on his career.

The Waugh-Hohns stand-off now threatens to cloud what should have been a smooth captaincy transition to Ricky Ponting at the end of this series. It could destabilise the facelift the Australian batting order is undergoing in preparation for life after Waugh.

It also overshadowed some laudable selection philosophy from the chairman. Still on Waugh, Hohns added: "It's difficult to adjudicate on icons, but the welfare of Australian cricket has to come first and we will do what we think is right for Australian cricket. Cricketers are playing longer. It's become a career. We've got to be careful we don't get to the English system where there is no incentive for anyone to do anything else." Indeed – why should selectors have to wait until an incumbent bruises a hand before they try someone younger, and competent?