John Benaud: Border haunted by the ghost of a captain past his prime time
Sunday 15 December 2002
You will think this ridiculous but it's true - Australia's cricket selectors are under more pressure right now than England's. It's all to do with their treatment of the tallest poppy, Steve Waugh, and a tub-thumping public campaign that threatens to relegate Save The Koala to relative obscurity.
The present state of play indicates it is England's selectors who should be ordered to wear hair vests. Dire straits can offer an insight into the minds and personalities of selectors. England's Ashes campaign is in disarray but any level-headed selector would take into account the casualty roll call and only a cricket selector of sadistic bent would be circling the captain, Hussain, who hasn't got a bad record and has clearly got "bottle".
This sets up the toughest of all selection tests: find a replacement captain with the same, or more, "bottle", a playing record to inspire the rest of the team, and a mature cricket brain. Not one of the England players doing the rounds of the kitchen down here appears to fit that bill.
In any cricket crisis a sense of humour helps a selector. Down here the airwaves are full of jokes about England's record losing run: What do you call an England cricketer with an average of 50? A bowler.
Would David Graveney see the funny side of that? Allan Border is a member of the Australian selection panel and it's fair to say that the Steve Waugh Forever campaign deprived him of his sense of humour, if only for one stony-faced, tight-lipped, teeth-grinding moment. It happened this way...
When the selectors announced their 30 players for Australia's preliminary World Cup squad Waugh's name was missing. Sort of like J K Rowling killing off Harry Potter. Enter another famous name, Alan Jones, once a highly rated Australian rugby coach. These days in Sydney, capital of Waugh country, he's the top-rating breakfast talk-radio host. One of his staff is the former Australian spinner Gavin Robertson, a best mate of Waugh.
Jones called for the immediate sacking of the Australian selectors, whom he described as "the Taliban of cricket". A Sydney newspaper ran a phone poll asking the question: should Steve Waugh be in the top 30 one-day cricketers in the country? Ninety-three per cent of callers said "yes".
The headline said: "Landslide vote sends message to selectors". Small problem – small sample. Only 2,070 people bothered to ring in out of a total Waugh country population of about seven million, but why let apathy get in the way of a good campaign?
The same newspaper then offered Waugh the chance to comment on his non-selection. Surprisingly, he accepted and, in an article titled "Courage Under Fire – Never Give Up", he pointedly mentioned the late-in-sporting-life triumphs of Kieren Perkins, Lance Armstrong and Pete Sampras, but conceded he probably needed to "put results on the board over the next couple of weeks".
Next night he whacked 24 off 12 balls against England. Next day the newspaper asked Border if, in light of this compelling new evidence, the selectors would grant Waugh a reprieve from World Cup execution. Border said: "You blokes are going in hard and causing enough trouble. I'm not going to talk about selection issues with you, so you can make up your own minds."
The "issues" surrounding Waugh are in fact singular. It is this: the Australian selectors have a major World Cup worry – the all-rounder. None of those earmarked in the past few summers, the soft Shane Lee, the very untried Shane Watson, the erratic Andrew Symonds or the injury prone Ian Harvey, have fulfilled their potential. Shane Warne, perceived by earlier selection panels as having great all-round potential, has been the biggest disappointment, so multi-skilled but so immature. Hence the re-emergence of Greg Blewett.
Waugh's only way back is as a lower-order batsman who can bowl 10 overs under pressure. Waugh has been told that, and he's been dabbling. Note that he bowled a few overs in the last Test, a soft option, but didn't against England in last week's day-night warm-up match, a tougher test and the selectors' preferred option.
Note, too, that since the last World Cup, and before his dropping from the Australian one-day team, Waugh played in 57 matches but bowled just 35 overs for five wickets at five runs an over. And, imagine for a moment if Waugh did make it back – who'd be the captain? Since Ponting took over the one-day team their record stands at 15-4. Waugh will know it's a lost cause.
What is occupying his mind right now isn't this World Cup fantasy but the reality of a form slump that, should it continue for the little that's left of this Ashes series, might prompt the selectors to invite Waugh to end his career during the Fifth Test at the SCG in January.
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