A job clearly botched up

The Australian SELECTORS were only paying lip-service to the issue of youthful promise in their deliberations.

Forgive my mixed architectural metaphors when I write that it seems to me that the writing is on the wall: the foundations of the supremacy which the Australian team has exercised over the cricket world for the past two decades are beginning to crack. Such at least is the inference of the selection inconsistencies in the make-up of the Aussie Test squad chosen to contest the three-match series against Graeme Smith's Proteas.

The previous rotation of personnel between Ponting's One and Five-Day combinations were comparatively seamless — dictated by factors of fitness, the absence of personal problems, the need to rest key players, the suitability and adaptability of individuals to the long and short formats of the game, recent form, past experience and youthful promise.

Until the recent cricket-jams, crammed schedules and the constant chopping and changing from one code of the game to another, the selection waters were comparatively clear. Trevor Hohns and his co-selectors usually chose their debutants or replacements from the ranks of the Commonwealth Bank cricket academy graduates who could point to a good provenance in junior national sides and the Pura Cup Competition.

The selection waters of the 2005-06 season, however, have been muddied by a shortfall of up-and-coming youngsters in Australia's domestic competitions — with the result that the list of 14 which chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, handed to Ponting for the South African Tests contained the names of only three players — Michael Clarke, Shaun Tait and Brett Lee — under the age of 30: of those three only Lee seems assured of his place in the final XI.

Skipper Ponting confessed that he himself was confused about the criteria behind the selection — and I can sympathise with his confusion. I feel that the selection process was initially complicated by some mistaken pigeon-holing of talents into One-day and Five-Day suitability, and an overly compassionate tolerance of youthful eligibility — and failings.

The hard-hitting Matthew Hayden would have been an asset in both forms of the game; and on the evidence of "Pup" Clarke's top scores of 14 and 25 in One-Dayers against the West Indies and South Africa respectively — he would have been better served by spending time at the crease for New South Wales. Yet Clarke survives to fight another day, while the desperately unlucky 31-year-old Brad Hodge finds himself on the sidelines — nursing a Test average of 58, three games after notching an unbeaten double century against South Africa.

Hodge may have been left in the wings because he does not represent Australia's international future. But paradoxically the same yardstick has not been applied to the 34-year-old Damien Martyn, who, with a three-match average of 23.67 for Western Australia this year and a 178-run failure against England in the 2005 Ashes series, has been reinstated.

One must admit in Martyn's favour that he is experienced and has a fine record of six Test hundreds and a 97 in the 12 months which preceded his Ashes disaster. Moreover, the Perth batsman is one of the best technically equipped players in the touring side, able to bat on all types of pitches and with an overall Test average of 47.96.

This sort of invaluable experience is also the quality which accounts for the inclusion of the 34-year-old pace bowler, Michael Kasprowicz, in the Aussie XI. With 16 years first-class experience at his back and 937 wickets in 234 matches in his locker, "Casper" is day-in, day-out, the most consistent pace bowler in Australian domestic cricket.

Recently he has suffered from a tendency to be costly when bowling "at the death" in ODIs, but has forced his way back into the national side by heading the first-class averages with a tally of 44 victims.

The unusual fact for an Aussie bowler remains, however: "Casper" gets his place because there is no better younger bowler.

Brett Lee lays claim to the role of Australia's leading strike bowler on three grounds. At 29 he has the speed of youth and the skill of swing on his side. Moreover, he is a youthful "veteran" — with 192 wickets in 49 Tests to his credit — figures supplemented by his 231 victims in his 131 One-Day-International appearances. I am of the opinion that the penetration of the Aussie attack hangs on the success or failure of Lee.

But if Lee was born to be a great fast bowler, and Kasprowicz acquired his greatness, the 197cm tall New South Wales speedster, Stuart Clark, had Test greatness thrust upon him. He bowls below express speed and very much in the vein of Glenn McGrath. He has a modest 22 wickets to show for his 13 appearances in ODIs. Importantly, he numbers chief selector Trevor Hohns amongst his supporters — as a consequence of Hohns having witnessed Clark bringing the Pura Cup home to NSW in 2004-05. But again the fact remains that Clark's promotion is by default — there is no better paceman available than the 30-year-old.

The composition of the tourists' side for the first Newlands Test suggests that Messrs. Hohns, Hilditch and Hughes have racked their brains to balance their side with a blend of youth, experience and specialist Test players.

I wish I could say that they have succeeded, but on the evidence of the omission of batsmen of the calibre of the 36-year-old Darren Lehmann — 1068 Pura Cup runs at an average of 97 — Brad Hodge, and the retention of Martyn, I fear I cannot.

The dropping of Nathan Bracken and the retention of Michael Clarke merely serves to underline the fact that the selectors were only paying lip-service to the issue of youthful promise in their deliberations. In the final analysis their choice was dictated by personal preferences which can never be justified if Australia's best possible XI is to be chosen — and it is only by selecting their best players that current world champions remain the future world champions.