Cricket: Johnson and the early leave pass

News overnight from Cricket Australia Towers that Mitchell Johnson is returning home early from India to prepare for the Ashes confirms what must be the worst kept secret in cricket, and something I commented on earlier this week, that the Australian team has already been selected for the first test of the Ashes.

If you don’t agree with that then consider this: the series in India is presently drawn at 2-2 with one game to play and Johnson has been Australia’s best bowler. Given the apparent importance placed on this series by Sutherland and Invers could there be any other reason for his return other than the fact that he is in the team already?

Removing him from India removes him from the prospect of another shocking run chase and the mental scarring that comes from that which will be vital if Johnson is to perform in the Ashes.

I salute CA for this move. I don’t agree with Johnson’s selection and think moving him back to Australia makes a mockery of a series that has been indicative of the shambolic state of the administration of the game in this country. However if he is to feature in the tests he has to be mentally right and the best place for him to get right is at home.

The Aaron Finch Coronation: can we give him a chance in the Shield first?

The push to elevate Aaron Finch into the Australian test team for the first test at the Gabba is in full swing. The media’s new darling now that David Warner is out of favour is quoted thusly in a profile about him on the Cricinfo website:

“To play Test cricket is my ultimate goal still, I definitely haven’t lost that ambition. I feel as though I’m now in a really good space to do that."

This push has arisen from a streak of good form in Australian colours in the 20 and 50 over forms of the game. He is a dynamo in the shortest form of the game with an average of 52.28 and a strike rate of 178.53 at international level. In the 50 form his record is somewhat less imposing, particularly when the 148 he scored against Scotland is excised. The proponents of Finch’s elevation to the test team have ignored Finch’s poor form in the Ryobi Cup before he left for India where he could only manage scores of 2 and 5.

Overarching all of this is the unmistakable truth that comes from Finch’s first class record: he does not have the record of a test player at first class level. An average of 29.56 is just not good enough to warrant selection in the test team for a top order batsman; particularly when you consider that last year Finch was not selected for all games he could have been for his state. Differently put, he wasn’t in Victoria’s top squad at the first class level last season.

Finch himself recognises (in the same article I have quoted above) that he has had a mental issue with the long form of the game which has contributed to his lack of form.

Surely then it is not in Finch’s interest that he is rushed into the test team without an extended period of form in first class cricket. How could it be when the man himself suggests that he has issues with the long form of the game which, given the lack of long form cricket he has played over the last 12 months, could not have been rectified yet.

Australian players will have the opportunity to play in two Sheffield Shield games and an Australian A game (assuming he is in the frame for selection) to present their respective cases for selection for the first test at the Gabba. Finch must play in all of those games AND must score average 50 in those games to be selected in my view. I still believe it would be a mistake to rush him into the team even with that record as I am an advocate of a long period of long form form before a player is selected in the test team.

All of this leads though to the conclusion that the coronation of Finch as the new saviour of the test team is premature without him first being given the chance to prove himself at first class level. To select him without allowing him to so does not only him but the whole Australian set up a disservice.

Here’s hoping that John Inverarity finally takes a long term view of what is best for a player and the team at the selection table this time rather than pushing a player forward who is not ready. That would make a nice change!

Cricket: Sam Robson and the baggy green? Red Herring or indicative of a bigger issue?

So here is the latest from Cricket Australia Towers: they are going to change the rules of eligibility of players able to play in domestic competitions by making it easier for dual passport holding players to play. Why are they doing this and why are they doing this now? I have one name for you: Sam Robson. The “now” part is simple too: two weeks ago he qualified to play for England despite being Sydney born.

Only the closest of cricket watchers will know who Sam Robson is, or at least they would have until this season when he has exploded into a rich vein of form for his county side Middlesex for whom he has scored 3 hundreds at the top of the order and averaged 62.06. Six years ago, as an 18 year old, and behind the likes of Hughes, Katich et al in New South Wales he moved to England to play first class cricket. In fact, he is enamoured with the county game given that he is quoted as believing that the 16 four-day matches in that competition is better for his development than the Sheffield Shield competition. He returns to Australia in our summer to play club cricket for Easts in Sydney but under current rules cannot play in the Sheffield Shield competition.

So why then is Cricket Australia (and the NSW set up) moving for this rule change? Obviously those in power at Cricket Australia Towers have looked at the current batting line up and decided that the Australian line up needs another change and the injection of a young right handed batsman who has never played on Australian pitches is the answer.

Here is the thing for me: Robson, who I am sure is a lovely bloke, made a decision to move to England to further his career for which he is to be congratulated. He has had no part of the Australian set up though since playing for Australian U19s. He has not played a first class game on an Australian wicket. Most particularly though, there are other players of Robson’s vintage who have done the hard yards in Australia, worked their way through whatever roadblocks there were and are now playing at the first class (and test) level who also deserve a chance.

A cursory examination of the player list from Robson’s 9 Australia U 19 XI fixtures shows that only Phil Hughes is still playing in even first class cricket from the batters who were selected in any of those 9 fixtures. If one broadens the timeframe to the teams in the year preceding and the year following Robson’s time in the U19 set up some other names of note arise: Usman Khawaja, Tom Cooper, Steve Smith, Nic Maddinson. Additionally some names on the fringe of first class cricket in Australia also come up like Hill and Stoinis.

It is simplistic to say but should the powers that be at Cricket Australia Towers be rewarding someone for abandoning cricket in this country just because he is suddenly in a rich vein of form? My personal view at the start of writing this post was that CA should not be doing that (and that view has not changed) but the more I looked at the Australian U19 Xis from Robson’s time the more a worrying trend arose that is a bigger issue that needs to be discussed whether Robson plays for Australia or England or no one. The trend is simple: Phil Hughes, Michael Hill and Sam Robson aside not one batsman who played in the 9 under 19 fixtures that Robson played is currently playing first class cricket. Additionally, no one else is even playing Second XI cricket for their state at the moment. It is worth bearing in mind that Robson played in those games as leg spin bowling all rounder rather than an opening batsman and, on my count, some 13 other batters were used.

This all raises this question: what is happening to our best young batters between the ages of 20 and 25 that stops them from taking the next step? Robson had to move to England to get a chance, Michael Hill has played 37 fewer first class games than Robson in a sporadic career and Phil Hughes is a young star of the game. The rest are, at best, languishing in club cricket or, at worst, are not playing at all. The strange part of this is that presently in Australia our top cricketers play so little Sheffield Shield cricket (between test, ODI, T20, BBL and KFC and sock commercial commitments) that it is now considered very much behind the County Competition in stature yet some of our best young cricketers still cannot pierce the metaphorical glass ceiling and get a run.

Rather than rush through a rule change that could see Sam Robson in a baggy green (as an aside has anyone thought of what kind of look it would be for Cricket Australia if they change the rule and he still says no OR Cricket NSW don’t select him?) maybe those in the seats of power at Cricket Australia Towers need to look more closely at the development of all of our young cricketers and consider methodologies for keeping those cricketers in the game rather than selecting someone developed in another system? Surely a long term solution is better for Australian cricket than a stop gap one?

A final comment: Nic Maddinson has played 27 games of first class cricket, averages the same as Robson and is two years younger. Plus he has been committed to the Australian system since day one. Shouldn’t he be getting first crack at the team?

Cricket: What more does Nathan Lyon have to do?

Imagine you are Australia’s off spinner Nathan Lyon for a moment. You have made your way back into the Australian team in England after the selection of a 19 year old who had played 5 first class games for the first two tests of the Ashes failed dismally. You have just finished a test match in which you have taken 7 wickets over 42 overs and had an economy rate of 2.30 over those overs. You have snared your main tormentor in the English batting line up, Kevin Pietersen, twice in the test match as well as extracted England’s other best batters in Trott and Bell in a magical first innings spell.

If you were Nathan Lyon right now you would have cause to feel pretty happy with your lot in life (save for the pain of defeat) and you would be feeling like you had done enough to secure your place in the Australian team, again, wouldn’t you?

Then you read this quote from the Chairman of the National Selection Panel, John Inverarity, talking about Fawad Ahmed and whether he is potential starter for the return Ashes series in Australia:

“He would be in contention for that," said Inverarity."We’ll see how he goes. He played in some Shield matches at the end of the last Australian summer, bowled well and took wickets, so we’re just keen to see how he goes at international level. He and a number of other spinners will be contention as well."

Nathan Lyon, reading that over a cup of tea and some toast this morning, would have every right to spit out said tea and blow up in disgust. He has done everything asked of him in my opinion and has shown maturity and poise in what must have been a difficult situation for him. Yet he has the chairman of the Australian selection panel tell a phalanx of journalists that there are a number of spin bowlers in contention for the return Ashes series and one of them is a player with limited first class experience and is 7 years older than the incumbent.

Can anyone explain the logic to me? There once was a time when Australian cricket selectors stuck with a team and backed the players that they considered to be good enough to do the job. Nathan Lyon surely has shown that he is one such player. Unfortunately he is playing in what I have started calling the “Inverarity Era” which has proven already to be an era of instability in selection and “project players” rather sticking with a team, supporting the players in the team and actually doing an apprenticeship in first class cricket before one is put into the cauldron of test match cricket. No wonder our team looks down on confidence: they do not know whether the next test match will be their last.