Manchester Weather Rules, OK!
So it came to pass that after Australia played attractively, aggressively and England gutlessly, intent only on avoiding defeat, that a draw resulted on a rain-ruined last day. When I watched the first three day’s play on TV with glorious sunshine, cumulus clouds, bright green grass, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was un-Mancunian! Old Trafford cricket is always dull just like the old black and white photos and grey skies used to reveal.
When I was a boy in short pants the top six of the Australian batting order was Simpson, Lawry, Harvey, O’Neill, Booth, Burge. It was as though God made the selections and Moses carved the batting order on stone tablets. It was almost immutable. In fact, the selection committee of Sir Donald Bradman, Jack Ryder and Dudley Seddon might not have been a Holy Trinity but were definitely Three Wise Men.
Things are not as they were. Michael Clarke’s overdue move up to number four might cover for O’Neill but there’s no Simpson, no Lawry, no Harvey, no Booth and no Burge in the current line-up. And yet with a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck (as the song lyric goes) Australia might not be 0-2 down as it is, or 1-1, or 1-2 down, but 2-1 up. It sounds like a stretch but counterfactual history is like that.
It’s not easy being an Australian selector, hard when the batting is wobbly, but surely now that the series has been effectively decided it’s time to settle the order. I know Watson keeps getting starts and keeps getting out in the same way but if he’s been promised an opening spot – remember that he and Rogers did put on 71 in this last match – at least leave him in place for Durham. Rogers looks like an opener so he has to stay there. Warner (who should be doing penance in Australia until the summer) is emblematic of an anything goes policy to which I shall return. If he has to play keep him at six. Persevere with Khawaja at three and Smith at five. What’s the point of further change? Any more destabilising could see us get a belting in the last two matches.
I’ve written about selection rotation before but even though Australian coach Darren Lehmann keeps talking about picking the best side the squad mentality remains at the forefront. A team was chosen for this Ashes tour and yet Steve Smith and Ashton Agar vaulted over team members into the first Test at Trent Bridge. And Warner, suspended and then shot off with the A side to Zimbabwe and South Africa leapfrogs back over other team members to play in the last match.
In the case of injury I’m not opposed to players being called into the Australian side from elsewhere. In 1981 Mike Whitney had a dramatic introduction from Northern Lancashire League club Fleetwood and Shaun Young likewise from county cricket with Gloucestershire in 1997, but if official team members are fit and able surely they should get the first opportunity. Otherwise why have a team at all?
The past couple of years has seen players appear out of nowhere. ‘Who’s Michael Beer?’ a lot of cricket followers asked when the left-arm orthodox spinner was picked for the fifth Test of the 2010-11 Ashes series in Sydney on the back of just seven first-class matches and 16 wickets at 43.31. ‘Who’s Ashton Agar?’ Australian fans wanted to know at the start of this series. I knew the answer to that but in mid-February I asked the same question. After two first-class games and eight wickets Agar found himself taking 3 for 107 against India A at Chennai and being discussed as a possible Test selection ahead of fellow spinners and official team members Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell. I was totally confused, however, when I looked up Cricinfo and the scoreboard of Australia’s tour match against Sussex which followed the Lord’s Test. While noting that we had made a creditable score of 5-366 off 100 overs the next man listed to bat was AJ Turner.
‘Who the hell is AJ Turner?’ I mumbled to myself before discovering that he is another Ashton – there must be something in that name – and a twenty-year-old all-rounder (right hand batsman/right-arm off-spinner) from Western Australia who was making his first-class debut. His only appearance in senior cricket had been a Ryobi Cup match for WA against Tasmania in Perth on 19 February when he made 51 (off 43 balls) and took 1 for 32 from six overs. Against Sussex he didn’t get a bat in either innings and bowled just four over for 16 runs. He’s possibly a nice young kid who is now the first Australian player since Sammy Woods in 1888 to appear for his country without first having played a first-class match for his state. My question is why? It’s all very well to have promising young players meet the Australian players, bowl to them in the nets, but not take the field with them in first-class matches. The Australians had just been flogged in the second Test, we needed to rebuild confidence and team unity, and yet we were mucking about like this.
On a different matter a final question concerns me. Who agreed to (or maybe even demanded) such a ludicrous open schedule towards the end of this Ashes tour? Between the Durham Test ending on 13 August and that at The Oval beginning twelve days later Australia is playing a two-day game against the English Lions on 16 and 17 August. Imagine if the series hadn’t been decided and was tied going into the final match. Current players complain about burn-out and its true they often have little rest, but old-time Australian sides would have warmed up with three county games in that period. Whatever will the players do for the other nine days? Lie on a beach at Bognor or do a weekend’s shopping in Paris perhaps?