John Benaud: Monty and Michael - two victims of select thinking

Hussey and Panesar share a history of delayed recognition
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The Independent Online

Cricket selectors move in strange ways, and often more slowly than their critics demand: witness the Press For Panesar, apparently now so satisfactorily resolved that the former England captain Tony Greig was moved to remark early on day one of the Perth Test: "If Monty had played in Adelaide, England would have won."

Quite. And an amused Australian might fire back: "Yeah, fancy Monty making that hundred to shore up England's second-innings shambles." Armchair cricket and its sponsors always end up winners, their theories never tested.

England's selection philosophy is not the only one under the hammer. As this series unfolds, you'll be stopped on street corners and told: "We'd never have lost the bloody thing if the selectors had picked Michael Hussey in 2005." And, in the next breath: "Why has it taken so long to pick Stuart Clark?" At the armchair selection table, graduates from Tony Greig's Hindsight Made Easy School are highly visible.

The selection reality is that this eye-catching trio of Ashes debutants, Hussey and Clark, and now Panesar, were all fringe players in squads that had been relatively stable and successful, the Australians so much so that some were comparing them with Bradman's 1948 Invincibles.

But, if their progress was indeed strangled, was it only by the orthodox selection qualifiers, good form of incumbents and team balance? Or is there something else at work in this modern era that might be a threat to sensible selection, which includes not just winning today but planning for tomorrow?

Such as: does the coach have too much sway at the selection table? Chris Read is entitled to wonder why Duncan Fletcher continues to support Geraint Jones. India's former captain Sourav Ganguly, dropped when Greg Chappell came on board, might think so. Australians still blame John Buchanan for supporting Damien Martyn, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz in the 2005 Ashes.

Today's international cricket coaches are computer literate, highly paid, high-profile individuals generally surrounded by a small army of technical staff. They work closely with the captain, who these days is more or less a millionaire with rock-star status. Winning is, if not everything, then the best guarantee of another pay packet. They are all full-time professionals. Somewhere in that mix there is a bunch of nerdy men, the selectors, who like to win too - but they are regarded as part-time amateurs.

When Martyn retired suddenly, Ricky Ponting gave a clue to what might be an unhealthy trend in selection. He said: "I can safely say that I'm as close as anybody to Damien... why didn't he wait one more week? He could have had a home Test in Perth, which may be the one that decides the Ashes. I thought, 'Gee, it could have been a fairytale ending to his career'."

How so? Was this a captain addressing sensible selection process, or one looking out for an old mate who was on the skids? It defies common sense to suggest that Martyn, totally out of touch, should have been allowed to hold on to his spot in the face of Michael Clarke's revival, just for the sake of a hometown back-slapping exercise.

Success breeds player loyalty, and rightly so, but if that loyalty recedes into selfishness then a comfort zone will be created, and the out-of-form player wrongly protected. It's the old unionised closed shop.

The selectors were certainly aware of Clark's and Hussey's talents. In 1998 Trevor Hohns, then Australian selection chairman, flew to Canberra especially to look at Clark, "the quick with the unusual straight-backed action, who gets good bounce and can move the ball off the pitch and in the air". Clark took 1 for 108. At the end of the season he had two wickets and an average of 220.50! It was the start of a long road, potholes being Glenn McGrath in his pomp, Gillespie on the way up, and a speed hump in the form of Brett Lee. About the same time, Hussey made a century of such quality against Mark Taylor's New South Wales team that Taylor thought: "This bloke could get my Test spot."

For England, this Perth Test disappointment offers a new sel-ection puzzle. Because Andrew Flintoff is not in the form expected of a No 6, Fletcher might like to play another batsman and get by with an attack of Matthew Hoggard, Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Panesar, and - Kevin Pietersen, off-spinner. That was surely never in the gameplan, but by the end of this series the Two Ps might be as effective as Jim Laker and Tony Lock were for England in the Fifties. Just ask Tony Greig.