Ridiculed by many, the Australian selectors find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as they try to find the right balance in their batting lineup.
At a time when Michael Cheika and the Wallabies’ coaching staff face potential life changing selection dramas ahead of their World Cup final showdown with the All Blacks, back home their compatriots of the cricketing kind are faced with their own selection issues as they try to regenerate a team with the present and future in mind.
Chairman of selectors Rod Marsh and his four-man committee comprising of himself, Mark Waugh, Trevor Hohns and coach Darren Lehmann were faced with difficult selection decisions to make ahead of their three-match Test series with Tasman rivals New Zealand.
While they were never likely to please everybody with their 12-man squad for the first two Tests of the series, one has to symphonize with the panel after they came in for criticism over their decisions to omit Western Australian duo Cameron Bancroft and Michael Klinger in favour of Queenslanders Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja.
It’s been a tough year for Marsh and his panel. The former Test wicketkeeper admitted to making some fundamental selection blunders during the catastrophic Ashes campaign earlier this year. Now he and his fellow selectors must make sure they make the correct calls during a vital period for Test cricket in the country.
But while Marsh must now “live and die” by his selection decisions made in the wake of a huge transitional period in Australian cricket, you can’t help but have some symphony towards him and his fellow selectors. Especially at a time when all and sundry have had their say on who should replace the five retiring mainstays of Australia’s recent past.
While the four quicks somewhat pick themselves for the first two Tests after solid recent domestic form. Getting just three from the four of Siddle, Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc, won’t be such a no brainer.
This decision was of course made easier due to injuries sustained to Pat Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile, as well as the continuous workload concerns surrounding James Pattinson. Although where Andrew Fekete now stands in the pecking order, is anybody’s guess.
On the other hand, selecting the batting order is, and has been of much greater concern in recent years.
The batting has for long been a contentious source for debate ever since Chris Rogers, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin decided to call it a day at the conclusion of the recent Ashes disappointment.
In fact, it most probably goes back much further to a time when Australia could call upon many batsmen regularly churning out 1,000 run Sheffield Shield seasons. Men like Stuart Law, Jamie Siddons and Brad Hodge would undoubtedly all have been mainstays of this current Australian batting outfit.
Sadly for Marsh and co the current domestic system is not in such rude heath. The selectors have in recent times found themselves stuck between and a rock and a hard place.
On one hand, they wish to have an eye to the future. On the other, they need in-form batsmen who can perform in the present. Bancroft and Klinger are two batsmen at different ends of this spectrum.
On the third hand, there is Burns and Khawaja. Where Shaun Marsh now fits into this way of thinking is perhaps still unclear. I’d have a guess at somewhere between the veteran’s Klinger and Adam Voges and the mid-twenty something’s Burns and Khawaja.
There is almost a good argument for each category of batsmen.
Bancroft is a solid opener in the mould of his mentor Justin Langer. At just 22-years-of-age, he has the potential to open the batting for Australia for over a decade – What’s not to like about that? On the flipside, has he done enough to warrant instant selection? (An average of just 36.25 across 25 first-class matches, suggests perhaps not).
There is definitely evidence of something promising there though. You don’t score a first-class double hundred against New South Wales or a 150 in India, without having something about you as a batsman.
Bancroft’s time will come. It would have come earlier than expected had the Test tour of Bangladesh not been postponed, but with David Warner now fully recovered from a thumb injury and Burns getting the nod to be his opening partner; instead Bancroft will have to head back to Shield cricket to improve on his game. Perhaps it’s not such a bad move.
Klinger’s case is an interesting one. If selection was based purely on runs and hundreds scored across the past year, then he would be a shoo-in. But there’s the age factor to take into account.
He was clearly in the discussion – Rod Marsh said as much. His sheer volume of recent runs across all formats demanded it would be impossible not to discuss him. Only Steven Smith and Kumar Sangakkara have scored more runs in the past twelve months.
Despite these highly impressive feats, you can understand why the selectors would be weary of picking another veteran in the top five.
With Voges, 36, already cemented in at five for the time being at least, justifying a place for Klinger in the top order would have been problematic for the selectors. If both men were to be selected and then fail, it would place the selectors in a difficult position. After all, when in bad form, older players are spared much less leeway.
Picking older players has worked for Australia in the recent past, most noticeably with Rogers and to an extent Voges, but now is the perfect opportunity to introduce the mid-twenty something’s – otherwise Australia will constantly find themselves in a phase of transition.
And Marsh was adamant he and his selection committee had chosen the right options in selecting Burns and Khawaja, whilst looking beyond Klinger:
“Of course we’ve looked at Michael Klinger,” Marsh said. “He’s got to keep making runs.
“Have you looked at Michael Klinger’s batting average in first-class cricket? It’s not as good as the other boys.
“Part of our selection policy is if you’ve got two blokes that are absolutely equal, you go for the younger bloke and I think that’s very fair.
“If one bloke is noticeably better and is more likely to influence the outcome of a game, then you pick the old bloke.
“But if they’re not noticeably better and they’re not likely to influence the outcome of a game, then you must always go with your youth.
“That’s our policy and whether you agree with it or not, it’s irrelevant.”
In many ways, it’s certainly hard to argue against such a policy. But what now for Burns and Khawaja?
Both are solid and relatively unsurprising selections. Burns was unfortunate to be overlooked (in favour of Voges) for the winter touring parties to the West Indies and England after scoring back-to-back fifties in his second Test against India last summer.
After starting out as a middle-order batsman for Queensland, it’s at the top of the order in which Burns has impressed in recent times. Opening for the Bulls he averages 46.58 compared to his overall first-class average of 40.40.
Furthermore the 26-year-old has already gained two-years of experience in English conditions after county stints with Leicestershire and Middlesex – A deed that won’t have been overlooked by the selectors.
Khawaja, 28, on the other hand is a relative veteran of Test cricket. Having debuted against England almost five years ago, the classy left-hander has long been earmarked as a potential star, but he never quite being able to reach the heights many have expected of him, playing his last Test during the 2013 Ashes campaign in England.
After fighting his way back from a serious knee injury, sustained last summer, Khawaja has impressed the selectors with his run scoring and leadership qualities and will now primed to add to his nine Tests – with the potential to finally make the number three position his own this summer.
While there will still be those who criticise the selectors for their decisions to look beyond Klinger, arguably the country’s most in-form batsman after Smith, and the younger and rawer Bancroft – the expectations have to be realistic. Young batsmen are no longer growing on the Sheffield Shield trees they once were 15 years ago.
Since Rogers played his first Test in early 2008 – then as a 30-year-old, a total of 13 specialist batsmen have debuted for Australia with an average age of over 27.
Between them Burns and Khawaja have an average age of 27. While in an ideal world the selectors would love to pick batsmen in their early twenties, circumstances deem they can’t.
Marsh and his men seem damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.