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Selectors in the dock

Nick Bryant | 08:30 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Is it too early to hire the open-top bus or to the warn the gardeners at Downing Street that a victorious England cricket team might soon be on its way with its own ideas about how to irrigate the flower beds? Just two tests old, this Ashes series is far from over. But England could be forgiven for making the journey from their hotel to Adelaide airport, a trip that will take them down Sir Donald Bradman Drive no less, with at least a couple of skylights open and Jerusalem at half volume. This is England's first victory in a live Ashes on Australian soil for almost a quarter century, and a lop-sided one to boot. Cause for celebration.

"Are you England in disguise?" has been the taunt of the Barmy Army, while scribes in the press box have called Australia the new England. The problem for Ricky Ponting's men, however, is that at times they have looked more like the new Bangladesh: a side against which visiting batsmen look to fill their boots and inflate their averages.

When England was last here in 2006/7, cricket was still a unipolar world, in which Australia was the sole superpower. Given the depletion of its playing resources since then - any team losing legends like Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer was always bound to suffer - the Aussies were never going to retain such complete dominance. But what has been surprising to outsiders, and depressing for Australian fans, is the speed of the team's regression.

Put simply, Cricket Australia has been poor in managing its post-imperial decline.

For a selection policy that has been erratic at best and completely incoherent at worst, the Australian selectors led by Andrew Hilditch must surely shoulder some of the blame. Since the retirement of Shane Warne in 2007, they have played eight different spinners. Then, when they appeared to have settled on Nathan Hauritz, who performed well against Pakistan this time last year, with two five wicket hauls in consecutive tests, he was dumped on the eve of the Ashes.

In his place, the selectors opted for Xavier Doherty from Tasmania, whose record in first class cricket is modest, and who only recently fought his way back into his state side. As his performances at Brisbane and Adelaide suggested, his talent seems better suited to the Sheffield Shield rather than the test arena.

Since the end of the McGrath/Warne era, Mitchell Johnson has been Australia's only regular match winner with the ball, and yet he, too, was dumped after just one test of this series through lack of form. Johnson has 166 test wickets to his name, and in 2009 was the world's top wicket taker. To tread the dark path of sporting cliché, form is temporary but class is permanent, and many experts think he should have been allowed to play his way back into the wickets.

On the batting front, the opener Phillip Hughes, who is the youngest player ever to have scored centuries in both innings of a test match, has surely been treated harshly. Dropped during the last Ashes series in England because of a technical deficiency against short bowling, he has been badly out of favour with the selectors when he is clearly Australia's best long-term prospect as an opener.

Instead, Shane Watson has been sent in at the top of the innings, even though he appears to belong in the middle order in the place presently occupied by Marcus North. The adopted Western Australian, who seems to start virtually every game with his place on the line, has a test average of 35.48, which offers further statistical proof Australia's decline.

North's possible replacement, Usman Khawaja, was taken to England for the series against Pakistan, not given a game, and then not invited to tour India a few months later. Again, weird.

Ricky Ponting has clearly lost faith in the selectors, as evidenced by his very public disavowal of their decision to drop Johnson. Clearly, he does not think he is taking to the field with Australia's best and most balanced side behind him.

We have spoken before about the departure of the greats, the uneven captaincy of Ponting, and even the dilution of the Baggy Green culture nourished by Steve Waugh, in particular.

This time, however, it is the selectors who might find themselves in the public stocks. They can only hope that the fans and cricket writers hurling the rotten fruit have the accuracy and menace of their favoured Australian attack.

PS There appears to be a problem with the Comments function, as on the last blog. We are trying to rectify it.


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