It’s pretty surprising, really, how well cricket has managed the transition into the 21st century, in particular given the inherently archaic nature of a sport that still, somehow, manages to provide gainful employment for Henry Blofeld. T20 cricket, Zinger bails, the 51allout twitter account; all of these are incredibly positive developments for the game (especially that last one). Yet in many ways cricket is still struggling to make that step up into the modern world, and in particular when it comes to team selection, which still seems to be mired in the sorts of debates that would be as at home in an early twentieth century opium den as they are on the internet today.
In particular Test cricket seems to be hamstrung by an inherent conservatism when it comes to player selection that was highlighted by the recent travails of Gary Ballance. Pretty much anyone with even a passing familiarity with the game (and probably most of those who don’t), knew Ballance was in for a world of trouble this Ashes series. His habit of setting up camp so deep in the crease that he usually was on neighbourly terms with the slips cordon, had been brutally exposed by Trent Boult. Given that Australia have not one but two left arm quicks, both a fair bit quicker than Boult, whilst retaining the same ability to swing the ball late, it didn’t take an expert to predict that carnage would ensue.
Even given our lowly opinion of the English selectors, whose only real accomplishment of late has been to ensure that the English setup remains a ‘KP Free Zone’ for the foreseeable future, even they must have seen the train wreck that was to come, and which duly arrived in the second Test. And yet, given that Ballance being dropped after the second Test seemed so inevitable we’re pretty sure not a bookmaker in the land would have taken money on it before the series began, everyone still had to go through the motions and wait till afterwards to pick up the pieces. Which is pretty strange when you think about it.
The idea that the selectors could have pre-empted Ballance’s struggles at the wicket and withdrawn him from the side ahead of time would have been laughed out of town. But there is not all that much wrong with the idea. It couldn’t have been any worse than the reality. But that is not how Test cricket works. Players, and batsmen in particular, are kept in the team until they disintegrate in the most public and humiliating manner possible, and only then withdrawn from the spotlight.
To have noted that Ballance might be out of his depth, and withdraw him from the team in favour of someone who is better equipped to deal with fast left arm bowling (oh, let’s just say, Nick Compton for instance), would have drawn accusations of softness. You know, the sort of thing everyone once said they were going to stop saying after Jonathon Trott’s experiences during the 2013/4 Ashes and the death of Phil Hughes, but subsequently seem to have forgotten about. The idea that you could possibly tailor your batting selections to better counter the strengths of the opposition seems to be unthinkable. Which is especially bizarre since teams do this with their bowlers all the time.
Would Ballance’s career have been better served if he had been withdrawn from the firing line and then reintroduced to the team for the series against Pakistan? It’s hard to see how things could be worse than him being so comprehensively exposed in the manner that he was. He would have had to carry around the stigma of not being able to play left arm quicks, but maybe not being exposed so brutally might have helped him better, over time, overcome that deficiency in his technique. In the same way a raging turner in Chennai is probably not the best place to learn to play spin. Maybe it’s time, after all, that the idea of strategic selections worms its way into Test batting lineups, where teams tailor their squad to counter the opposition’s strengths. Going to India? Pick your best players of spin. Going to Australia? Pick all the batsman you were planning on dropping anyway. That sort of thing.
We’re going to go ahead and make the outlandish prediction that the first team to adopt such a novel approach will gain an appreciable advantage on the Test circuit. Or it could spectacularly blow up in their faces and lead to everyone laughing at them. But given a scenario like Ballance’s, where it seemed inevitable everyone was going to end up laughing at him anyway, we’d prefer to choose the option that might just make you look like a genius instead. And if it didn’t work they could just do what everyone always does, and blame it all on KP.