A strange thing recently happened to Australian domestic cricket, something that hasn’t happened for many a long year: people started paying attention to it. The return of the Shield season heralded a massive spike in media and public interest. For those few anorak duffing cricket nerds who hang out on all things domestic cricket related, it was a strange experience. The glare of the spotlight was an unfamiliar, and in some ways unwelcome, intrusion on our otherwise cloistered world. Thankfully, though, this didn’t last, as once the touring squad for India had been announced everyone promptly stopped paying attention again. But for one brief period us cricket nerds felt part of something larger. Something important. It was if those matches we followed, that are habitually played in deserted stadia, actually mattered.
So what happened then? Not much. The shock retirement of Michael Hussey coupled with the intrusion of the Big Bash on the domestic schedule meant there was a limited opening for the credentials of his prospective replacements to be analysed. The same went for who would take up the poisoned chalice of being the second spinner in the Australian Test squad, particularly after Michael Beer’s rather unfortunately timed injury. The media subsequently went bonkers, throwing forward all sorts of names to fill out the squad to tour India. Alex Doolan, Adam Voges, and Joe Burns were all touted as being in contention for a middle order Test spot, while Stephen O’Keefe, Adam Zampa and Xavier Doherty were championed as the front runners for the second spinners spot. Some dared even mentioned the likes of Shaun Marsh and James Faulkner, but thankfully most sane people have learnt to ignore what Shane Warne says these days.
In the end none of it really mattered, as the selectors picked the touring party based on means that had nothing to do with recent form. There really isn’t any other reasoning capable of explaining the omission of O’Keefe, the form spin bowler in the country right now, and one with a more than handy record with the bat as well. Eight wickets against West Australia in the Shield game directly before the squad was announced did little to tempt the selectors, even though it represented four times as many wickets as the selected man (Doherty) has taken in the competition all season (O’Keefe has 17 wickets in total at 24.29). It later emerged no selector had even been at the ground to observe O’Keefe’s heroics. It wouldn’t surprise if in a future installment of his manifesto Warne promises to attend every game played in the country if he is handed the keys to Australian cricket. Even if the games are being played simultaneously on opposite sides of the country.
It’s strange that the selectors managed to overlook O’Keefe, because they also happened to pick two of the outstanding performers in that particular game, Steve Smith and Moises Henriques, which led to wails of anguish amongst the less intelligent cricket followers in Australia (i.e. most of them). Smith’s inclusion needs little in the way of defence. For those a little slow on the uptake (like most of the Channel Nine commentary team), he hasn’t been selected as an all-rounder but as a batsman. So he is not competing with the likes of million dollar baby Glenn Maxwell for a spot, but rather Usman Khawaja. Smith has been one of the most consistent batsmen in the country this year, with his only failing being his inability to convert starts into big totals. So get of his back youse lot.
Moises Henriques’ selection is a little harder to explain. His form in the early part of the season was immense, but owing to the interruption caused by the Big Bash, that seems almost like ancient history now and his more recent efforts have been less than compelling. He has been selected purely to cover the all-rounder spot that Shane Watson has abdicated. Andrew McDonald would be a better option, but like most Aussie cricketers he is currently in pieces on a treatment table, alongside another possible option, Mitch Marsh. Whether Australia actually need an all-rounder like Henriques in India is a moot point, since Mickey Arthur clearly believes they do. Pretty much everyone else remains to be convinced however, and on this occasion we are inclined to side with the general public’s opinion.
The other interesting omission was that of Brad Haddin, particularly since Arthur is seemingly incapable of going a single media conference without mentioning the New South Wales ‘keeper’s name at least once. Otherwise the squad was largely as predicted, which must have been a huge disappointment for journalists looking for a topic other than Informed Player Management to write about for once.
However the make-up of the touring squad isn’t all that important, it’s the XI that is announced to play the first Test that matters. England’s experience in the first Test of their tour shows that picking one spinner with one (barely) half-competent option for back-up is a recipe for disaster. It was only when Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were paired together that England were able to wrest momentum back from the hosts. If Australia ignore this example and enter the first Test with Nathan Lyon supported by Glenn Maxwell as the second spinner, they are going to be annihilated. Lyon must play along Xavier Doherty for them to have any chance. Doherty will bowl his usual darting into the pads rubbish, freeing Lyon to bowl with more flight and aggression, something he is seemingly too scared of trying when he is the lone spinner.
With Watson crocked and unable to bowl, that means a rather large selection dilemma looms. With Australia wanting to capitalise on their one real strength, their quicks, they will want to play at least two, probably three fast men (probably Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc). That would mean Matt Wade would need to bat at six, with a massive tail behind him. Not exactly an ideal scenario, but neither is consistently needing to chase totals of 600+ on spin friendly decks. It’s a situation that the inclusion of someone like, oh say Stephen O’Keefe, would improve immensely, owing to his ability with both bat and ball. But we are not bitter about his non inclusion. Not in the slightest.