A good selector goes beyond the mere statistics that any cricket fan can see: a good selector can see potential. They can see the player who isn’t performing well at first class level but has the right technique, the right temperament for the big time. They see fast bowlers with raw pace but are erratic who could do well in tests. They see spin bowlers turning it a mile but not taking wickets because they line is wrong.
They see batsmen who have mediocre records but lift themselves for the big games. That’s the difference between a good selector and any average member of the public. But when the selectors pick these hunches, plucking players out of obscurity, and it consistently doesn’t work, that’s when the public have a problem. When the selectors are doing worse than anyone sitting at home on their armchairs, then we need to ask questions.
The latest selection of Marnus Labuschagne is just one in a large number of hunches that we’ve gone with, players who did nothing to earn their spot, failed once they were there, and then did even less to get it back, but were selected. It’s an appalling choice and yet we are told that it is a choice of bad or worse, of Labuschagne or Mitchell Marsh.
Hunches, for the record, include players who have had one good match. Lloyd Pope had one good innings but then failed in every other match he played in. He wasn’t selected but he could have been. Jason Sangha similarly had one good innings surrounded by lots of failures. Will Pucovski had one big innings then retired. Marcus Harris replaced Pucovski in the Victorian team, had one good innings and then is suddenly in the test side. These are hunches.
In recent years, Australia has had a lot of them. In the UAE, Australia selected three hunches: Marnus Labuschagne, Aaron Finch and Travis Head. None of them legitimately earned their spots. They were gifted positions on a hunch, the kind of selections that make selectors look great when they work out, but horrible when they don’t.
For the Ashes last season, Australia picked Cameron Bancroft and Tim Paine out of obscurity, the latter soon afterwards becoming Australia’s test captain. Paine wasn’t even playing first class cricket regularly and hadn’t kept wicket at first class level for some 4 years prior to his elevation to test wicket keeper. He had to be talked out of retirement. Cameron Bancroft had been in atrociously bad form for two years straight, then had two good innings and there he is in the test team.
Hunches can work out. Don’t forget that Nathan Lyon was a hunch when he was selected, as was Michael Clarke back in the day, neither player legitimately earning their spots. Shane Warne was perhaps the biggest hunch of all, yet he did really well. Glenn McGrath back in the day was a huge hunch, selected from obscurity based on nothing. Peter Taylor was picked because they thought he was Mark Taylor. There have been a lot of hunches that have worked out, but, in amongst those few that have worked out have been a lot more that haven’t.
The problem is that we are going with too many hunches. It’s okay once in a blue moon to go with your gut feeling and pick a hunch. Marcus Harris has kind of worked out, as has Travis Head, and Tim Paine has done reasonably well too, but others, like Aaron Finch, Marnus Labuschagne and, of course, Mitchell Marsh, have not.
Hunches are meant to be forced to prove themselves immediately or be dumped. They are meant to get one test match, see how they go, then if they fail you dump them. Maybe you’d give them two tests just in case, three at the absolute most. Mitchell Marsh has now had 31 tests, which is about 30 too many.
The problem is not just that we are persisting with hunches too much but we are also not persisting with players who earned their spots.
Matthew Renshaw earned his spot with a weight of runs at first class level, then was picked, did well, then was unceremoniously dumped without even failing at test level, just because the selectors wanted to try out their latest hunch in Cameron Bancroft. It was an appalling decision. Bancroft may well have been a good test player, had he had a good run of form, but not based on two good innings. It’s like we are having someone who picked the winner in two horse races in a row being predicted to pick the third one, when they haven’t backed a winner for two years prior. It’s just silly.
The problem with cases like Renshaw’s is that not only was Bancroft selected on a hunch but he continued playing for an entire test series on a hunch. One test was forgivable, maybe even two, and, heck, since Australia won the test series 4-0 you may as well give him the whole series, but he should never have gone to South Africa. Renshaw was then the Sheffield Shield leading run scorer, so should have replaced him in South Africa. It was just daft.
On top of that, Renshaw was then picked to replace Bancroft when he was banned for cheating, then was meant to go to UAE only to get injured, and then, when he recovered, he was randomly replaced by another hunch in Marcus Harris!
If the Renshaw case was a one-off, we could forgive the selectors but unfortunately it is far from a one-off.
Joe Burns was selected into the Australian team, did pretty well, and solidified his place, then, after one bad test match in Sri Lanka, was dumped, and never even thought of again. While Renshaw was a fair consideration to replace him, Burns is also pretty good in the middle order, and could have been given another shot. He did get a go in South Africa after the bans, but, rather than persist with him in the UAE and in Australia against India, they dumped him again.
Renshaw and Burns, make no mistake, were not hunches. They deserved their spots. Harris and Finch, the current openers, did not.
Glenn Maxwell is another case in point. Granted that he is mostly considered to be a white ball player, but he has shown that he lifts for the big occasion, but in difficult batting conditions, mostly in India, his batting average has been a little on the low side, over seven tests. He was meant to play in the Ashes, but didn’t quite make it. It was close, we were told, but not quite, as he was dumped and replaced by Mitchell Marsh, who is not as good as Maxwell, not at test level, not even close. The batting of Maxwell is far better and the ability to take wickets at test level is far better for Maxwell.
It’s not just that Maxwell is a better player than Mitchell Marsh so much as Mitchell Marsh never had to earn his spot, while Maxwell had to earn it and earn it again and still wasn’t considered good enough. He was asked to score centuries, so he scored a double century, but that wasn’t good enough.
Maxwell somehow missed the cut to go to South Africa, and didn’t even get into the squad, which was more than a little unfair. Even when three players were banned, still Maxwell didn’t get to play. He was meant to go to UAE to play against Pakistan, but then at the last minute was cut as they went with Marnus Labuschagne instead.
Because of that, combined with Maxwell playing ODI and T20I cricket for Australia, he hasn’t played a single first class match this season. Not his fault, as he is busy playing for Australia. So now, when both Mitchell Marsh and Peter Handscomb have failed, Marnus Labuschagne comes in, not Glenn Maxwell.
The problem is that we are combining far too many hunches with inconsistent messages to the players who have legitimately earned their spots. The Renshaws, Burnses and Maxwells of Australian cricket, who actually earned their spots, are being replaced by hunches, and then, when the hunches fail, these deserved players aren’t getting a shot.
In the bowling stakes we are doing okay, by pure chance, as we have a top 4 bowlers who are our top 4 bowlers, but beyond that we keep stuffing up too, as we are missing our best first class bowler in Jackson Bird, ignoring a guy who was once our best bowler in James Pattinson, and forgetting that Jason Behrendorff and Chadd Sayers are actually pretty awesome. Instead of them, again we are going with hunches, in picking the likes of Chris Tremain and Peter Siddle, who get to be on the sidelines for all three tests so far, neither having done anything to warrant a spot in the first place.
We’ve also got players like Shaun Marsh who started off as a hunch, failed, was finally dumped, then earned his spot, did well, failed, was picked back on a hunch, failed, earned his spot, did well, failed, and so forth and it isn’t completely sure whether he is there legitimately or not. While he has had a few good moments at first class and at test level, he has also had a lot of failures.
The selectors are not picking the best batsmen, that much is certain. While they say that nobody is averaging 50 so it doesn’t matter, that’s not completely true. Picking someone who averages 33 in preference to someone who averages 43 is a big difference, and we have people who average 43, or at least 41 or 39. We have the likes of Jake Lehmann and Kurtis Patterson, who have averaged around 40 for a long time now, who would be reasonable picks, who would not be hunches, but are simply being ignored in favour of absolute hunches.
The hunch situation has become so bad that many Australian cricket fans are confused and think that someone like Marcus Harris is a legitimate choice because he scored 250 in an innings. He still averages 35 in first class cricket, so he is very much a hunch. Cameron Bancroft, who averaged 38 in first class cricket, was a pretty big hunch too, considering he had 2 years of bad form leading up to his test selection. He was someone who never looked any chance of doing well, and then he didn’t do well.
If our very best lose, then we don’t mind too much. If a hunch does well for us, we stop calling them a hunch. But it is quite frustrating when we are not picking our best, when we have a team full of hunches, when we replace one hunch with another hunch, and consistently ignore the best players.
Maybe the results wouldn’t be any different if we picked the players that deserved it, but at least team morale would be better, and the players who had earned the spot would be feeling better about it, instead of wondering what the ones who were picked as hunches are doing in the team.
If we are to learn nothing else from this, I hope that we learn to pick the best team from now on.