Brad Haddin’s decision to retire from international cricket – the fifth Australian to quit the Test team this season – may appear to have left skipper Steve Smith, coach Darren Lehmann, Chief Selector Rod Marsh and his colleagues with their hands full in their task of hauling the squad back on rails.
On the face of it, it may never be easy replacing players of the caliber of Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Ryan Harris and Haddin himself. But look carefully and you may see that Australia has already braced itself up for that. Harris was not part of the Ashes squad while Watson and Haddin were sidelined during the iconic series in England.
Clarke’s problems with his back have been too well documented to bear recounting now. It was becoming increasingly apparent through the Ashes that he was struggling to find the wonted touch, let alone form that made him such a dominant batsman on the world stage. And, Rogers was pushing 38 years of age and battled with a couple of hits that he took on his head.
It was almost as if Time was telling Australia that it needed to brace itself up for some departures. Few nations will be as aware as Australia that Test squads are nearly always work in progress, having dealt with the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh in 194 and that of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer in 2006-07.
Australia’s real problems will now stem from the departures of Rogers and Clarke. It will have to find a solid, quality opening batsman to not only take Rogers’ place but also provide some insurance against the profligate – and often frustrating – methods of David Warner. It will also have to reorganise an already brittle middle-order around Steve Smith.
It is no secret that the dismal form of Adam Voges, Clarke and Mitch Marsh, who replaced Watson with no great success, let Australia down in the Ashes. Barring the top three, Rogers, Warner and Smith, none of the Australian batsman averaged even 30. Small wonder then Chief Selector Rodney Marsh called for batsmen to be ‘selfish’ in occupying the crease for long periods of time.
How well Rodney Marsh & company as well as Lehmann and skipper Smith handle the situation and build a squad will determine whether Australia’s aspiration of regaining the top ranking in Test cricket from South Africa can be actualised or not. Yet, only the foolhardy would write off the steely Australian resolve from resurfacing soon.
Three decades ago, Greg Chappell was involved in the selection group that with coach Bob Simpson developed a vision and a strategic plan that ultimately brought together a group of cricketers who challenged the existing West Indies dominance but also took world cricket to a new level by raising standards in areas like, talent identification, selection criteria and player support.
The result was the emergence of a highly competitive, stimulating and creative environment. It also has a reward structure that recognises high performance through team selection processes and key performance indicators. Critically, the ‘middle’ group of players has always been elevated to ‘top level’ performers in this dynamic structure.
By the looks of it, Australia will continue to back Voges, Shaun Marsh and his brother, all-rounder Mitch Marsh, as well as wicket-keeper Peter Nevill in the middle-order. Aaron Finch, Joe Burns, who has more than 3000 runs in four years in first-class cricket, and perhaps Cameron Bancroft, who had a good tour of India with Australia A last month, may answer the opening conundrum.
It is not as if Australia is facing a barren cupboard. It is more a question of letting the talented get the opportunity to express themselves at the right time and of giving that talent an extended run. Perhaps, there will also be a slight change in mindset of the batsmen, eschewing an all-out attacking mode in favour of a more balanced approach suited to Test cricket.