Warne's shoulder a pain in the neck for selectors

John Benaud's View
Sunday 22 December 2002 01:00
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While Shane Warne sorts the flat beer from the Christmas cheer, the Australian cricket selectors are acknowledging sympathy cards from former selectors, who recognise the quicksand they are now in, knee-deep.

Warne's sprung shoulder has laid bare selection issues much more complex than simply naming the second-best leg-spinner for the last two Ashes Tests.

Stuart MacGill was the man-in-the-street's option to keep England in knots, although his recent form has been rather barren. Captain Steve Waugh came out and told the selectors MacGill was certainly in his team.

Captains used to be more cautious, preferring to offer an opinion in a private chat with the chairman. Imagine if Waugh doesn't get his way; he has created a perception of more conflict with the selectors, risky in the current debate over his future.

What if the selectors and the coach, John Buchanan, wanted to look elsewhere, see this as a dead rubber and decide to blood a spinner other than MacGill, one they hope might take over from Warne down the line? After all, the final Test is at spin-friendly Sydney.

Armchair selectors could use MacGill's previous good record to accuse the real selectors of not putting the best team on the field. Yet could the selectors be blamed for trying to address the future? After all, isn't that exactly what they did when they painted Steve Waugh out of the World Cup picture a year ago?

A sensible solution would be to name two spinners in the Test 12, MacGill plus Brad Hogg or Nathan Hauritz, leaving one to carry the drinks.

When Warne stayed down, clutching his bowling shoulder, Australian fans were invited to take a more sympathetic view of Simon Jones's agony at the Gabba. And, with instant conjecture about Australia's World Cup hopes being in tatters, those same fans suddenly understood how England's Ashes challenge had been compromised by the loss of Gough, Jones, Giles and Silverwood.

Warne will be in Australia's final 15 for the World Cup because the selectors have to assume the best, that he will again recover rapidly and successfully from setback. His presence always creates an edge, mentally, tactically and motivationally. But the selectors also have to assume the worst – what if he breaks down? That brings into focus the balance of the squad and the bowling game-plan.

Australia had hoped any three pace bowlers plus Warne would bowl 40 overs, leaving the all-rounder and/or Darren Lehmann to bowl 10, a pivotal role. Bottom line: any game-plan with Warne looks decidedly wobbly without Warne.

So, we take the current 12 playing England and Sri Lanka: Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Bevan, Martyn, Lehmann (all batsmen), Watson (all-rounder), Warne (spinner), Lee, Gillespie, McGrath, Bichel (pace bowlers). We add an opening batsman, Jimmy Maher. Maher is exceptional in the field; his alternative, Justin Langer, is ineffectual.

We are taking an opener because the Australian game-planners appreciate the cup is being played in South Africa, where the name Hugh Tayfield, champion off-spinner, is but a fleeting memory and the name Allan Donald, veteran pace bowler, is suddenly again in the scoresheets alongside Pollock, Ntini and Kallis.

If pace is ace, we should revisit England's Ashes to ashes experience: imagine how Australia's World Cup game-plan would splinter if McGrath, Gillespie or Lee broke down? Lee's pyrotechnics are irreplaceable. Bichel shadows the other two, but we need to add one more, say Ashley Noffke or Stuart Clark, both of whom are tall and hit the seam.

That's 14. Who gets the last spot? Until Warne was injured, the choice was narrow – find an all-rounder to shadow Shane Watson. Potentially Watson might be a match-turner of the Simon O'Donnell type, but he looks and plays too "young" with the cup so close. The other day he fooled Knight with two delightful slower ones out of the back of the hand, but does he have any other weapons of mass destruction?

Already, the slow-motion replays will have been scrutinised by every opponent. The dynamic Andrew Symonds appealed as his shadow, a champion fielder and big hitter who could bowl mediums or off-spin. But now the selectors will feel obliged to shadow Warne rather than Watson.

Hogg, the left-arm over-the-wrist spinner, is a talented batsman, but his inclusion would not address the doubts surrounding Watson. In the cup, what if Warne were fit, but Watson out of form? If Hogg replaced Watson, Australia would be playing two spinners, which is high risk and against the game-plan anyway.

On balance, to cover for Watson the selectors would have to revisit the support pace-bowling option, and on the strength of Noffke's batting potential, choose him ahead of Clark and Symonds.

Warne's progress will reveal if Australia's World Cup defence has hit a pothole or an iceberg.

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