Australia’s constant search for the one

It was not a contest between a mega shark and a giant octopus. It was more a contest between a mega sharktopus and an offspinner. Kevin Pietersen clearly wanted to dismember Nathan Lyon and end his gene pool.

After only seven balls at Pietersen, Lyon was taken out of the attack. At Old Trafford that meant he was barely seen again until Pietersen was finished. At Durham, Clarke brought him back and it took five balls on a pitch with no spin to deceive Pietersen into nicking behind. Sky’s revometer barely moved. Lyon celebrated. Pietersen walked. Lyon was a hero. Perhaps not the one Australia was used too.

Had Lyon played at Trent Bridge, he would have provided at least 80 fewer runs than Ashton Agar. He also wouldn’t have moved around the field as well. He would have done far less press. His face would not have graced the front page of the Times.

Nathan Lyon was never going to be a once-in-a-generation player. He is not a saviour. His story was more of the guy who happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. There is a romantic notion that Darren Berry saw Lyon roll his arm over in the nets while on a lunch break from his day job as assistant groundsman at Adelaide Oval. The truth is Lyon played 2nd XI cricket and in the baby bash, the 2nd XI Twenty20 tournament, and was doing well so he was quickly promoted due to a severe lack of spinning talent.

Lyon’s bowling will never make you cry. He is not the next Murali. There is no mystery to it. He’s not changing the face of cricket. He’s just a dependable offspin bowler. A very dependable offspin bowler. One who can lock up an end, exert pressure, drop the ball nicely, get decent spin, can move the revometer into the red and take his wickets at fairly regular intervals.

Agar was a bunny rabbit Darren Lehmann pulled out of a hat. It was neat, and it almost worked, largely by accident, but it showed something deeper. A desire that never goes away in Australian cricket. That thought there can be someone better, young, more impressive just around the corner. Not just a player, but a legend, a saviour.

“They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn, And in the hour of greatest slaughter, the great avenger is being born” said Paul Kelly in his song Bradman.

It might have started before Don Bradman. Maybe it was Clem Hill who Australians have been longing for all these years. For a secular country, Australians do want to be saved a lot. That one ethereal warrior who can lift them from their doldrums and launch them to where they belong. Up atop the world of cricket.

It’s part of Australia’s folklore. They don’t make their best players wait, they throw them in there. If they’re good enough, they’re old enough. Get a kid in there. If an old guy and a young guy are up for the same spot, the young guy should always get it. Think of the future. Think of the legacy.

Neil Harvey played at 19, so did Hill and Stan McCabe. Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Bradman played at 20. All champions.

It was hard not to buy into this theory. Who cares about a journeyman? Why would you care about some guy who has been playing shield cricket unsuccessfully for ten years and just gets lucky. Sobers and Sachin weren’t 30 year olds who got a chance late, they were young boys playing against men, beating them, and then spent an entire generation doing the same. A 32-year-old finger spinner is a distraction, not the answer. Legends aren’t a fad, they’re a cricketer you grow up with, grow old with, that is always there, your rock, your banker, your hero.

The start of Ponting’s career is barely ever mentioned. People will talk about the dodgy lbw of the 96 on debut, and might even reminisce about the fighting 88 against West Indies. But in some ways Ponting was already a legend. The oracles Marsh, Chappell and Lillee told us he was special, different and once in a generation. So that is what he was.

For 30 Tests Ponting struggled. His average of 38 was not that of a champion, but an also-ran. Some believed, some didn’t. The non believers said it wasn’t his time. He needed to be less aggressive. He would prop on the front foot often. He could nick off too easily.

Then the Ricky Ponting we all remembered arrived. That was the story we all went with. The first 30 Tests didn’t fit the narrative. The next 138 did.

But what if Ponting came in now? Could Australia afford to give him 30 Tests to prove himself? Without Warne, McGrath, Waugh, Waugh, Fleming, Gillespie, and Gilchrist, would Ponting be allowed to sit in the middle order and refine his game. Or would he be cast aside and brought back at random times.

Would he be sent in at No. 3, and discarded only after a few Tests because he hadn’t made a hundred (Khawaja)? Would he have opened, scored two great hundreds, shown some technical flaws and be sent away after only five Tests (Hughes)? Would he have been picked as a bowler, top score, and be told by his captain that he couldn’t see him as a top order player (Smith)?

Harvey started in the Invincibles. Hill’s eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings were 96, 58, 81, and 188. The first 15 Tests McCabe played in had him losing only two. In his first seven Tests, Bradman made two fifties, three hundreds, a double and a triple.

It was only Steve Waugh who bucks the trend of instant success with the bat, or with the team. But he took wickets. Waugh was also in the day of a handful of TV channels, no 24-hour sports radio, and the internet didn’t exist in Australia.

If the media were willing to hound Ponting who was averaging over 50 with 160 Tests to his name, how would a young guy survive that scrutiny for 30 Tests as Australia bumbled their way through international cricket?

And that is for a young player. An old player will get far fewer Tests. Rumblings in the Old Trafford press box were suggesting that Chris Rogers had been worked out, that he couldn’t play Graeme Swann. That was after four innings of his comeback, one of which was a classy half-century in a very big chase.

If it’s hard to be the next big thing, to be the older player who doesn’t succeed straight away in Australian cricket is to cover yourself in bullseyes. Rogers was too old, too slow and too ugly right up until he drove England everywhere. At his next failure, you will hear the same comments. With another late picked Western Australian, you could hear something as well.

You can still hear it now. Can’t you? That knocking. Listen carefully. It is still there, even all these years later. It is the sound of Michael Hussey knocking on the door of the Australia batting line-up of the 90s and 2000s. It’s because of all this knocking that Hussey isn’t seen as a late bloomer, but a player who should have been picked years earlier. He should have been a once in a generation player, instead of a statistical anomaly.

It’s not really based on any facts, but it’s a common zombie myth.

Hussey was picked a year or two late, at most. He wasn’t banging down any doors in Shield cricket. He was polite. He was eager. He was almost always (accept for a short time when he was dropped by Western Australia in 2002-2003) available. Between 1994 and 2005, Hussey averaged over 50 in the Australian first-class cricket in two seasons. He never scored 1000 runs in a season. Knocking on the door? No, more standing on your front lawn and hoping you’d see him there.

Compared to Damien Martyn, who made his debut for Western Australia four seasons earlier, Hussey was hardly making a sound. Martyn was picked for Australia in his third first-class season at the age of 21. He averaged over 50 in his first full season and made hundreds for fun in the next. In December 1992, he made an unbeaten 67 out of 196 against Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop. There was talk of him being the next Australia captain. He was stylish, fearless and very confident. We were told he would be a legend.

Then he made a mistake against South Africa. Chasing 117, Australia completely and utterly forgot how to deal with any pressure and turned Fanie de Villiers into a horrific giver of death. Martyn was in some form in the first innings, he’d made 59.

In the second innings he watched Slater, Boon, Taylor, May, Mark Waugh, Healy and Warne be dismissed. He sat there frozen in fear as Craig McDermott slogged a few around and they crept up to the total. Then, with six runs on the board, and having faced 58 balls, he tried to hit a boundary, and found Andrew Hudson in the ring. Glenn McGrath added one run in seven balls, and Australia ended up six runs short. As Paul Kelly might put it, “they dropped him like a gun”.

2256 days later, Martyn played his next Test match.

Once Martyn showed any weakness at all, he was discarded. It will always remain one of the worst and most harmful selecting decisions in Australian cricket. In a low scoring match, he made one of Australia’s two fifties, he was 22 and he played a bad shot. He was the escapegoat of that team. But it was deeper than that, it was like he had a loser virus and no one wanted to catch it off him.

Martyn was damaged goods. He was not the saviour anymore. He was not an Australia player anymore. Any hopes of him becoming a captain, a legend or even a ten-year player left once he showed in one innings that he was not the one. His papers were stamped ‘non legendary’.

At the end of their careers, Martyn would average 46 with 13 Test hundreds, Hussey 51 with 19. As older men, who had travelled very different paths, they were outstanding for Australia when they were picked at the right times.

If Neil Harvey ran Australian cricket, it would be much like the film Logan’s Run; at a certain age you would turn “black” and would have to turn in for a “deep sleep”. There are certainly more people than Harvey who believe this myth. Any problem in an Australian side can be fixed by throwing in some kid who will save the day. Those people who believe this saviour myth would never have allowed Australian cricket to choose the likes of Adam Gilchrist (age on debut 27, average 47), Stuart Clark (Age 30, average 23), Colin Miller (Age 34, average 26) and even Darren Lehmann (Age 28, average 44).

Had Lehmann not been picked at 28 because he was too old, he would not be coach and would never have been able to pick Agar.

The list of old players is about the age on debut and doesn’t even include the damaged goods like Martyn. Justin Langer got beaten up by West Indies in his first Test, and played eight Tests in his first five years. Matthew Hayden played a Test against a scary South Africa team, then had two years off, then played some more, and had another few years off.

Like Hayden and Langer, Phillip Hughes was thrown in deep. Ponting started at No. 5 at the WACA against a poor Sri Lanka bowling attack. Hughes opened in his first Test against Steyn, Ntini, Kallis and Morkel.

Hughes was compared to Bradman. Was picked ahead of Rogers. Was the bush kid with nervous energy and a technique that was forged together of various scraps. He could keep balls out of his stumps however he had too, and anything wide of off stump would have his name carved into it. He tore Shield attacks apart. Oh, yes, he was another ‘the one’.

Hughes was dropped three Tests after making a hundred in each innings against South Africa. Despite being dropped because he struggled with the short ball, he was brought back at Perth in the next Ashes. In this series he was dropped after two Tests despite his quality innings at Trent Bridge.

Hughes couldn’t play the full straight ball. Then he couldn’t play the short ball. Then he couldn’t play the ball outside off. Hughes has no idea what his own technique is. Pick whichever one you agree with. Hughes is the savior. Hughes should be dropped. Repeat.

Can you imagine what was going through Hughes’ mind back then? He had defeated the best attack on the planet. He had been ordained. He was the real deal. The next boy wonder. A once in a generation talent. The homemade Bradman. It took two Tests for all that to mean nothing at all.

No matter what he has done since then, he is not the Phillip Hughes we first saw. He is technically and mentally flawed. Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison started the doubts, but it was the Australia selectors who lopped off his self-confidence. It is a whole new set of selectors who have now dropped him for the third time, three innings after he saved Australia’s pride at Trent Bridge. At 24, the gloss is well and truly off, and it doesn’t matter who he used to be, he is an easily droppable damaged player right now.

Before Agar’s debut, Langer described him as the best young talent since Hughes. Despite their stand at Trent Bridge, neither are in the team for the fourth Test.

Nathan Lyon is. Other than Peter Siddle he has been Australia’s most trustworthy bowler of the last couple of years. And yet it was Siddle who was almost dropped at Trent Bridge, and Lyon who was. Dependable and sturdy is not what Australia wants. They want X-factor, dynamism and water into wine.

Mitchell Starc was picked over Jackson Bird twice before this Test. Agar and Glenn Maxwell were picked over Lyon. Australia are telling us what their new plan is repeatedly.

There will be people, some who are reading this right now, who won’t be convinced. They lived through Border, Harvey, Chappelli, Waugh, Benaud and McGrath. They know somewhere the great avenger is out there. That Australia will find him, and that all this insanity will be over. And they know that he is probably not bowling decent economical offspin.

In the entire history of English cricket, they have picked five teenagers. Australia has picked two in the last three years. How many Lyons, Siddles and Hughes will Australia misuse in search of something that may never exist.

Paul Kelly said of Bradman “Even his friends say he isn’t human”. This Australia team is human. And humans have bowling averages of 33, good days and bad days, and need better treatment than immortals.

Tagged ,

6 thoughts on “Australia’s constant search for the one

  1. SpryCorpse says:

    Very enjoyable piece again.
    Despite the lack of sensibility in some of the selections at the moment I still prefer watching the chaotic Australians over the boring Poms. Aside from KP and Swann they are so dull. The mad scramblings and inconsistency of Warner, Watson and co and the aggression of Clarke, Smith and Harris I find much more entertaining.

    Still not entirely sure of your position on selecting youngsters. Are you saying that it shouldn’t be done because they can’t be carried unless part of a champion team? Or that they may be selected but should just be cut more slack for their errors in their first years?

    Either way you’ve provided some excellent food for thought about Australian selectors have operated across the years. I tend to like the principle of giving young prodigies a go – don’t know how much of it is me being brainwashed and how much is that the young can have brashness and raw talent that can go a long way.

  2. beggyg says:

    Escapegoat. Love it.

  3. jogesh99 says:

    after losing the Ashes, the morons have vaguely figured out the DRS so all is forgiven – its there for the betterment of the game – ha ha ha!
    its there to help you win – that’s the whitey definition of neutral. and when it doesn’t, its flawed.

  4. spasteur says:

    Who’s whitey? I can’t believe you’re actually using it as a racist epithet.

  5. Gordon Grech says:

    Great article summising the short termism in the Australian selector’s selection policy. Need to learn to play the long game and back the young guys. If we had done this in 2007/9 when the Golden generation started to fall away then maybe the Australian team wouldn’t have been the laughing stock it has been.

Comments are closed.