SportTrump card: Can Australia be great again without grating in new era?

22:12  09 november  2018
22:12  09 november  2018 Source:   watoday.com.au

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Trump card: Can Australia be great again without grating in new era?© ALEXANDER JOE Too nice: Runs at Shield level might not be enough to get Alex Doolan back in the Test side.

If there’s one thing Australian cricket has in common with Donald Trump, it is a relish for firing people.

Of those who held senior positions at the start of 2018, only the team butler remains. The others have been fired with dramatic variety. Executive Ben Amarfio was this week redacted from his office. High performance chief Pat Howard was fired before he could make his own way to the door. Chairman David Peever fired himself before someone else did it, and director Mark Taylor couldn’t even wait that long.

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All this on top of coach Darren Lehmann ("You’re not fired! Um, yes you are!") and captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner ("You’re fired! Oh, hell, did we do that?")

And to cap it off, the game also managed to get rid of several hundred thousand television viewers as a result of its migration to the dark web.

Perhaps this need to shed is a symptom of scandal in the age of Twitter, where firing someone, anyone, is a sugar hit for the mob. While CA’s new chief executive, Kevin Roberts, deserves commendation for acting decisively, destruction should not be mistaken for action. The insatiable bloodlust and the calls for a new head to roll are loud and passionate and born of disappointment; but firing is the easy part.

Now comes the hard part: reconstruction or, how to Make Australia Great Again. (Social media falls momentarily silent.) Eventually, someone has to stop firing and start building. In cricket, the buck stops with the national selectors. Unless they get fired too.

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The quality of Australia’s batting in the early stages of this season has notionally vacated all positions in the Test top six except Usman Khawaja’s. In short, we have no batsmen. Who would have thought that a policy of firing everyone would end in this?

As a place to restart, the radical suggestion has been offered that selectors look to the Sheffield Shield. Intriguingly, the Longstaff review also recommended that only Top Blokes be picked, if they weren’t already.

So if, in reconstructing an Australian batting order for the first Test match against India in four weeks time, we consult those benchmarks – Top Blokes who make Shield runs – who are we left with?

The highest scorer in the Shield so far is Alex Doolan with 350 runs at 58.33. Passing the half-century mark four times in six innings, Doolan has also produced consistency on some difficult wickets. Four years ago, Doolan played Test cricket for Australia in South Africa, scored an attractive 89 on debut, but then was not the first man to lose his way after getting through duty-free in Dubai.

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There was an impression that Doolan was a little too nice to succeed for Australia. Those were the days. A month after his fourth and last Test match, Doolan went metaphorically into the foetal position when his close mate Phillip Hughes died, and his grief almost stole his career.

Emotional sensitivity has never been a great character reference in the hard men’s world of the Australian Test team, and Tom Cooper (third in the Shield tally with 342 runs at 68.40) and Matthew Wade (fifth with 261 at 87.00) were also close to Hughes. In one of those sad ironies that left lingering discomfort that still bubbles up from time to time, Smith and Warner dedicated century after century to Hughes during their bumper season the last time India were here, while Hughes’s closest mates were struggling to get on the field.

Cooper (making the most of a late call-up for South Australia) and Wade (been there, done that) have had fine starts to the season but will not play for Australia in Adelaide. However, if Victoria’s Marcus Harris (348 runs at 116) isn’t picked, then neither Shield form nor a solid personality count for anything.

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Harris scored 706 runs at 41.52 last year, has amassed 4000 career first-class runs, and his average, while only 35, was distorted by early struggles after being selected as a teenager for Western Australia eight years ago. If Harris doesn’t get a chance, every Shield player might ask what is the point.

It’s often the case at this time of year that the batsmen the selectors really want to score Shield runs don’t, and those they don’t care for, do. There are the perennial annoyances of Cooper, the only batsman to make two Shield centuries so far this season, Doolan and Joe Burns (top of the averages last year with 725 at 55.26, plus 216 at 43.20 so far this year).

More desirable would be heavy scoring from Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb, both proven quantities at Test level before the selectors sent them back to purgatory, but each has made just one good score in four innings: tantalising, but not convincing. Similar could be said of the always teasing Kurtis Patterson, whose three fifties this season go with his five last summer to leave him, as ever, on the cusp.

Going on current Shield form, Khawaja would be joined in the Test top six by Harris, Burns, Doolan, Jake Lehmann (298 at 74.50) and one, but please, only one, of the Marsh brothers. We can state with some confidence, however, that the line-up will look nothing like that.

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Aaron Finch, notwithstanding a career first-class average of 36.58, did well enough in the Emirates to keep his position and gets extra points for being a fully certified Top Bloke. Travis Head will also gain a head start from incumbency. Renshaw and Handscomb only need one more score to vault above rivals deemed too nice to play for Australia.

The question does arise of how far Australia are really prepared to commit to this character thing. The Top Bloke criterion has been doing the rounds for several years in other sports, but it has its limits.

The Sydney Swans made it their brand, but when wins dry up, a professional club wants to win. Place too much value on Top Blokery and you end up with some ridiculous outcomes like, say, Adam Ashley-Cooper being reanimated at 34 to play for the Wallabies.

So it’s a balancing act. How long will Aaron Finch’s popularity counterweigh his technical susceptibility outside the off stump? How many chances would Alex Doolan be given before he is again judged too nice a person? How much Elite Honesty has Mitch Marsh stashed in the bank before it is decided that you can be the best bloke in the history of Top Blokes, but if your feet are cast in lead, we can’t keep saving you?

All facets of cricket, on and off the field, require patience. Telling people they are fired is a short-term fix. Eventually the firing has to stop, or else there will be nobody left. What takes real character is holding the line and telling people no, they are not fired, they have earnt their leaders’ faith. The question for this summer, from beginning to end, will be how much patience the decision-makers can sustain before succumbing to the pressure from those who want to Make Australia Grate Again.

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