Alex Doolan looks like a modern cricketer. He is chiseled and athletic. His technique looks like a top order batsmen’s technique should look. He is elegant, together, composed.
Shaun Marsh is a wonderful batsman to watch when he is scoring runs. He has the sort of technique that makes hard things look easy. He “flows”, making the difficult task of batting look ridiculously easy.
Ashton Agar would be a gift from heaven to the marketing department of any sports team. Attractive, clean cut, well spoken. Off the field you couldn’t ask for a better cricketer. He also looks pretty good rolling the arm over, he bats a bit. He is the sort of guy who just looks like he should be good, you don’t even really need to see him play right?
Cameron White (the legspinning version, not the batsman who rolls the arm over occasionally) and Steve Smith (version one- the legspinner) bowl leg spin. The theory goes that Australia needs a legspinner.
All these players have one thing in common. They all look like cricketers. They all fit a pre-defined “box” of what an Australian cricketer should look like, how they should go about their cricket, or they at least spin the ball the right way. This commonality they all share is also the major reason they have all earned call ups to various Australian teams in the recent past. They just look right.
Arguably, none of them should have earned call ups to the Australian team when they were first picked (Smith rightly won a spot as a batsman eventually). Their selections were seemingly based not on whether they were likely to be successful, but whether they looked like they would be successful. Whether they looked like cricketers. Or bowled legspin. The Australian selection panel just can’t seem to move away from picking players based on the vibe, which is fine in “The castle”, a fictional story about a family sticking it to the man. Not so fine if you are picking a cricket team. They are still stuck in the pre-moneyball dark ages (in fairness cricket is in general). Modern sport has moved on. They haven’t read the memo that looks don’t matter for shit, getting the job done is what matters.
So let’s break down the FC careers of some of the players mentioned above.
Alex Doolan may look like a very good cricketer. However, his performances at first class level suggest that he isn’t actually a good one. His career FC average is 37.59, which is alright. Picking a player with a record like that would be fine if that player was in a fine vein of form that they had maintained for a season or two before earning a test call up. That wasn’t the case. He averaged 42.05 and 35.72 at FC level during the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons respectively. It seems the major thing going for Doolan is that he looks like a cricketer.
Shaun Marsh was anointed the next great hope as an 18 year old. He never lived up to the hype and over the last decade his record is mediocre to say the least. He has a FC career batting average 35.72. He looks like a cricketer though and he is great to watch when he is scoring runs, lyrical even. Fact remains, he probably shouldn’t have ever been picked in the test team, especially when he was recalled to the side last year. He not only has a poor FC average he averaged 19 and 36.5 in the 2012/13 and 2013/14 respectively. Those aren’t good numbers. For comparison during last years shield season (2013/14) fifteen players averaged over 50.
Nathan Lyon was dropped to accommodate Ashton Agar. Nathan Lyon is balding and spins the ball the wrong way. Nathan Lyon looks like an accountant. Ashton Agar was 19, he had very few runs on the board, but at least he spun the ball the right way and looked good doing it. Ashton Agar may one day become a good spinner, he may become an all rounder, he may earn a call up to the test team on merit in the future. He is undoubtedly a talented kid. But he is just a talented kid. His elevation to the test team was lunacy.
Anyone who had watched much of Steve Smith or Cameron White before they were selected in the test team as spinners could have told you that both needed to do a lot of work on their bowling. They were promising batsmen who bowled serviceable(ish) leg spin (I’m a huge fan of Smith as a part timer, I love the fact that he could bowl a ball tearer at any moment. Usually it’s half trackers and full tosses though, which really builds the suspense). That didn’t matter though, they bowled legspin and Australia needs a legspinner. So they were picked as spinners. It was almost like the selectors hadn’t even really watched either play. Steve Smith career FC the bowler average 54.36. Cameron White career FC bowling average 40.15.
Now there is nothing wrong with taking a gamble on a young kid who is in good form. At the very least they will gain valuable experience, if you get lucky they may even excel. There is nothing wrong with picking guys who have toiled for a decade or more with mediocre results who are having a renaissance later in their careers and consistently scoring runs or getting wickets, ala Stuart Clark. There is no problem with picking a guy with a technique/temperament that the selectors feel is more suited to test cricket over another player with a slightly better FC record or in slightly better form. There is nothing wrong with preferring a legspinner over an offspinner when the two players are of similar talent.
There is however something wrong when players get picked just because they look like cricketers. Just because they bowl legspin, bugger analysing how well they actually do it. There is something wrong when the gambles the selectors are taking are seemingly based on nothing but the vibe, how much players resemble what a cricketer should look like.
Scoring runs and taking wickets should still be the way most players earn a spot in the test team. They are the nuts and bolts of being a good cricketer. Looking like a good cricketer doesn’t count for much. The Australian selectors need to hire a statistician. At the very least they need to learn to use excel. Because looking like a cricketer doesn’t mean you will be a very good one.