Australia selectors build a squad from hunches

Rod Marsh on Peter Nevill: “I think we needed the best wicketkeeper for India.” © Associated Press

“I don’t work from drawings and colour sketches into a final painting. Painting, I think, today – the more immediate, the more direct – the greater the possibilities of … making a statement.”

Jackson Pollock said this in 1950 of his art, which confounded the opinion makers of the day by abandoning the conventions of the easel and observation for something less empirical, more personal. Others worked from the outside world, whereas Pollock’s vision came from within.

A similar sense of shock pervaded Australian cricket on Monday at the announcement of Australia’s World Twenty20 squad. Rather than carefully drafting and sketching, Rod Marsh’s panel had seemingly chosen to throw paint at the wall in their final effort to pick a winning combination. There are Pollock-esque hunches all over this squad, including as it does three players yet to make their T20 debuts for Australia.

The last time Australia gambled so brazenly in an established format was ahead of the 1987 World Cup, when Tim May, Tom Moody and Andrew Zesers all made their international debuts at the global event. Twenty-nine years later and the 2016 choices include Peter Nevill, Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar. Marsh and his panel have reasons for choosing all of them, but they are less about performances than impressions.

Were the selectors to have simply chosen the best performing T20 players available in these positions, they would have chosen Tim Paine, Cameron Boyce and Michael Beer. Instead, Nevill, Zampa and Agar are set to fly to India to try to win a tournament that, as was the case in 1987, Australia have never won. Marsh ran through the panel’s logic behind each choice, and it can be said that cricketing instincts were strong factors in every case.

On Nevill: “I think we needed the best wicketkeeper for India. With our depth in our batting — particularly the fact we’ve got three allrounders in the squad — if we were to play those three all-rounders then it gives us very big depth. In T20 cricket if your top five or six don’t get them then you’re not going to win the game anyway usually. It’s different from 50-over cricket in that regard.”

This selection made sense on a wicketkeeping level. Nevill is an outstanding gloveman, even if his returns in T20 are decidedly modest – his greatest contribution to the BBL this summer was arguably the moment where as non-striker he was run out from a rebound off the face of Zampa. Matthew Wade has struggled in India before, and in the case of Paine he has been away from the national set-up for a long time, and also bats in the top order.

On Zampa: “Cameron Boyce was unlucky. He was very close and it was a very tight call between those two. But we couldn’t take both of them. That’s the thing, we were never going to take two leg spinners. [Zampa] bowled well. He’s shown good temperament throughout the Big Bash, he’s bowled very well to good players and he’s been pretty consistent in that format. But Cameron was unlucky, he bowled beautifully in Sydney, so a very tight call.”

Unlucky is putting it mildly for Boyce. Very little separated him and Zampa during the BBL in terms of wickets, and their gap in economy closes when Boyce’s excellent T20 international record is taken into account. Add to that the fact that Boyce has often bowled to wicketkeepers inferior to Nevill and there is more reason for the Queenslander to feel at least somewhat aggrieved. Zampa is considered a competitor, and a lower order batsman of some ability – that is probably all that squeezed him ahead at the final selection meeting.

On Agar: “We thought the 15th player should be another spin bowler, and we thought that Ashton was the best package as a spin bowler. I know he didn’t bowl a lot during the Big Bash, but we’ve been tracking his progress and we’ve had him since 2013. He’s coming along nicely and he’ll continue to develop. Maybe at the end of the tournament, if we get that far and the pitches are turning, maybe it’ll prove to be a wise decision, maybe he won’t play.”

Marsh’s mention of 2013 was telling. The two weeks of Agar’s burst to Ashes prominence – via his batting not his bowling – remain a vivid memory for many, though not everyone was impressed by how the selectors and Cricket Australia as a whole handled the left-arm spinner who was then still very much a teenager. The Western Australia coach Justin Langer is one of many who believe Agar will be a major player in Australia’s future, and Marsh is hoping the future arrives next month.

Recent form lines for the Australian T20 team have been difficult to track, largely because the team seldom plays together – only once in the 12 months prior to the January series against India. That is as big a factor in Steven Smith’s elevation to the all-format captaincy as any, offering continuity that the T20 leader Aaron Finch simply could not have. Smith at least has a record of success as a T20 leader, having helmed the Sydney Sixers’ inaugural BBL victory.

What he has been bequeathed by the selectors is a squad full of hunches, and also full of top- order batsmen. Apart from the hyperactive Glenn Maxwell, Smith has a galaxy of top-three talent in David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson and Finch. Knowing this, Smith may have to drop himself down the order after the fashion of George Bailey, another who might have made the team.

History shows that Allan Border’s 1987 team went on to win the tournament, though that had more to do with a rigorous preparation and strong displays from more experienced players than the cameos of May, Moody and Zesers. Smith’s group has been thrown together a little more haphazardly, and the selectors will wait with some trepidation to find out whether their hopeful work will eventually be as celebrated as Pollock’s has become.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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