Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Watson Gifted Another Chance in Ashes Squad

Ashes squad Michael Clarke (capt), Brad Haddin (vice-capt, wk), David Warner, Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes, Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja, Chris Rogers, Matthew Wade (wk), James Faulkner, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Jackson Bird. 

Australia A squad Brad Haddin (capt), Steven Smith (vice-capt), Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Alex Doolan, Ryan Harris, Moises Henriques, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Nic Maddinson, James Pattinson, Chadd Sayers, Peter Siddle, Jordan Silk.

So, the squad for the Ashes tour to England has been chosen, and while most of the squad was predictable, there were a couple of surprises thrown in there - some good and some bad.
The most pertinent point to ask of all of this is - can this team win back the Ashes from England?

Chairman of the National Selection Panel (NSP) John Inverarity made the point that, although only 16 players have been chosen in the squad, this can be added to at any time during the tour at the discretion of the NSP. It will be intersting to see if that occurs. Before the Test series begins, there is the Champions Trophy ODI junket to be played, where a different squad will be in attendance, and there is also a A Tour taking place in the month leading up to the 1st Test, where no doubt any scintillating performances will put those players firmly in the selector's minds.

Australia's strength is its bowling attack, and the team will be relying on them to be able to bowl England out twice in each of the five Tests if they are to be any chance of winning the series. James Pattinson, Mitch Starc and Peter Siddle have been retained from the tour of India, while Jackson Bird, who was repatriated from that tour very early on with back trouble, has also been given another chance. The three afore mentioned bowlers toiled hard in India for the rewards they reaped, and will find the wickets in England much more conducive and inviting. Bird, who impressed in his two Tests in Mebourne and Sydney, will also be well suited to the seam friendly wickets.
The return to fitness of Ryan Harris is timely and fortunate. If not for his fragile body he would have spearheaded this Australian attack for the last two years. He could well be the wild card for the Australians, even if he doesn't play every Test. Pick and choose the right wickets and he could be invaluable.
James Faulkner's selection owes much to his form throughout the Australian summer, and having not been on the Indian tour. His figures with ball and bat were exceptional, and one suspects he will also enjoy bowling in England. It's hard to see him getting a game unless injuries occur... but in recent years, that has been the norm rather than the exception.

It's hard to work out where the NSP has gone with Mitchell Johnson. This time last year he was long odds to ever play Test cricket again. Then the NSP surprsingly chose him during the summer, during which he bowled as well as he ever has for Australia. He then went to India, where most would have expected him to be one of the leading bowlers, given his aggression and pace are things that Indian batsmen do not like. However, he sat on the sidelines, was then suspended for a match for not doing his homework, and then came in for the final Test where his bowling was ineffective and he made a pair with the bat. Now he is not in the best half a dozen fast bowlers in Australia. Has he been mis-managed? Has he been made a scapegoat? Has he just been lax and has fittingly not been chosen? I'm not sure. On the last Ashes tour he under-performed and the English crowd gave it to him all winter. Perhaps this was taken into account in leaving him home.

The wicket keeping dramas have been resolved in the interim, with Brad Haddin not only being named as vice captain, but as first choice keeper on tour. Matthew Wade's keeping was diabolical in India in difficult conditions, and wasn't much better in Australia prior to that. He still has the chance to be Australia's long term keeper, but he will need to work hard to claim it.
In regards to Haddin's re-elevation to the top job, it's a short term gig, and safe bet. Haddin has a reasonable record against England, and performed well on the last tour of England in 2009. He offers leadership qualities that no other current member of Australia's elite can offer. He is cool under pressure, and always looking to exploit any weaknesses in the opposition. It may look like a backwards step, but in reality it gives the selection panel numerous options. In 12 months time, not only will Haddin be likely to be thinking of calling it quits himself, it will have given not only Wade, but contenders such as Tim Paine, Chris Hartley and Peter Nevill another summer in which to push their claims to be the heir apparent to the Test gloves. Wade will probably retain his position in the one day squad, which will keep him around the national group so that he won't feel completely abandoned.

Australia's batting is where this series will be won or lost. Not since the days of 1985, with the rebel tour to South Africa, or 1978, in the heart of the World Series Cricket days, has the strength of the Australia Test batting been so shaky, or the depth of batting in Sheffield Shield cricket been so low. The loss of Ponting and Hussey in such a short space of time has left an enormous hole, and one that will not be filled easily or quickly.
The selection of Chris Rogers is to be applauded. He alone has consistently made runs each summer, as well as doing even better in the County Championship for a number of years. His experience in those conditions will be vital, and he will hopefully be able to solve Australia's problem at number three, assuming that the opening pair of Warner and Cowan will not be broken up, at least initially.
None of Warner, Cowan or Phil Hughes are assured of their spot in the Test side. All have had numerous opportunities to really nail down their position in the side, but have not done enough with them. Only the lack of pressure from players back in the Shield competition has saved their spot - so far. It looms as a big tour for all three. They could come home entrenched in the team, or out of it for good.

I'm going to go down this path once again, because I think that this continues to be a disgrace, a situation where if this case went to court, there would be an uproar.
Shane Watson has been chosen once again to tour, and no doubt be the second person chosen in the Test side. How does this continune to happen? What mystical hold does this person have on all of those on the NSP to continue to select him?
In the last two years, Watson has played 14 Test matches. He has scored 627 runs at a paltry average of 24.11. And yet he is still chosen as a Test batsman. Forget about the guys he is keeping out of the team NOW with an average like that. Hell, Jamie Siddons and Stuart Law could probably average more than that NOW let alone in their prime!
In the series in India, Watson played the first two Tests, before he was one of four players suspended for a Test match for not doing his homework. He then flew immediately home to Sydney, where he told the media he would have to seriously consider his future at the elite level. Seven days later, he was captaining the Test team when Michael Clarke failed to play with a bad back. Then, just last week, he asked to be relieved of the vic captaincy, to concentrate on his own game.
In those three Tests in India, Watson scored just 99 runs at an average of 16.50, with a highest score of 28. His average only bettered Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Johnson in the Test series for Australia.
On the other hand, Steve Smith was a surprise choice for the Indian tour, and didn't look like getting a game until the four players, of which Shane Watson was one, were suspended. He came in for the 3rd Test, and showed great maturity, patience and steel. His 92 in the first innings was vital in getting Australia to a defendable total, before he was bowled by a beauty in the second innings for 5. He was retained for the 4th Test with Michael Clarke injured, where he scored 46 and 18 in another losing effort. His two Tests produced 161 runs at 40.25, second on the Test averages for Australia and fourth in the aggregates, even though he only played two of the four Tests.
Now, most of us would believe that Smith's batting technique could let him down in England. But surely, after putting in his all for those two Tests in India, when almost everyone else around him (except the bowlers) failed with the bat, he DESERVED the opportunity to tour and have the chance? On all of the figures put here before you, how can the NSP say with a straight face that Watson deserves to play in front of Smith? I'm sorry, but if one more person puts that "oh, but he is the most talented cricketer" crap in front of me one more time, I think I'm going to clock someone. I'll repeat what I've said on countless occasions before - any other cricketer in the world averaging 24 over two years would be lucky to be playing for their first class team, let alone their Test team. It is a joke, and a major travesty of justice for Steve Smith to be in the A squad instead of the Test squad. When did form stop being the major selection criteria for our team? And don't start trying to use form in ODI cricket as a reason for selection in the Test team - that's why Xavier Doherty was taken to India instead of Steve O'Keefe, and look how that ended up.
Everyone will hope Watson scores a chaff bag full of runs in England and wins us the series. No doubt if he does, I will be lambasted for my stance and ridiculed for it. My opinion won't change. He has had a golden run, and he would have to do something like winning the Ashes single handed in order to pay back the number of opportunities he has had in front of more deserving players. But if he does not succeed, then the fault will lay at the feet of the NSP, and they will have to pay the consequences.

Nathan Lyon is the only spinner chosen, which is sensible given that it would be unlikely that either pitch conditions or Australian tactics will require two being selected in the same match. Lyon will again need to step up and do a job on this tour, or his days could still be numbered.  Young prodigy Ashton Agar has impressed all who have seen him, while the impending citizenship of Fawad Ahmed is exciting all of those people who long for the return of a leg spinner to the Australian ranks. Their story may come next Australian summer. It will be up to Lyon this winter to keep pushing his case forward.

England's stagnant tour of New Zealand has raised Australian hopes of a surprise victory in the Ashes, though England will be a superior team on their own wickets and with the likely return of Graham Swann and Stuart Broad to the team. For the first time since 1989, Australia go into an Ashes battle as the underdogs, and rightly so. Perhaps though, this may be advantageous if the home team takes them too lightly, and the Australians can get a good start to the series. If nothing else, Wednesday July 10 is already stamped and embossed in gold on the calendar, and anticipation for the series is already at maximum levels.

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