Shane Watson has just as many Test centuries as Matthew Wade.
Photo: Getty Images
Cricket has been blessed with many great all-rounders over recent decades. Think of Richard Hadlee, Jacques Kallis, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Ian Botham, each of whom has claims to the sort of eminence achieved by Sir Garfield Sobers. We have also been entertained by outstanding men on the next tier down such as Sanath Jayasuriya (predominantly a batsman), Shaun Pollock and Wasim Akram (predominantly bowlers), and Andrew Flintoff, Shahid Afridi and Chris Cairns who lacked the consistency of the absolute greats.
All of these fine players have one thing in common: they are not Australian.
Top all-rounders in this country have become as rare as the thylacine. If you exclude Adam Gilchrist, it could be argued that Australia hasn't had a top-class all-rounder since Keith Miller – and Nugget retired in 1956.
The search for a man good enough to bat in the top six (or seven at a pinch) and earn his spot as one of the side's four best bowlers seemed to be over when Steve Waugh came along, but shoulder injuries restricted his time at the bowling crease. Shane Watson looked for a while like a genuine prospect, but he has a batting average of 37.02 and just two centuries from 38 Tests, and 62 wickets at more than 30. Those figures are not significantly better than those of Gary Gilmour, the all-round hope of the 1970s, or Andrew Symonds who was touted as a saviour in the noughties.
A quick trip to that most porous object, my memory bank, provides recollections of warm optimism greeting the Test selection of a procession of prospective all-rounders. Over the past 35 years I think of names like Trevor Laughlin, Graeme Beard, Trevor Chappell, Tony Dodemaide, Brendon Julian, Scott Muller, Andrew McDonald, Cameron White and Steven Smith. Brad Hogg was supposed to have all-round potential, there were suggestions that one-day players James Hopes and Dan Christian could make the leap, and no doubt there have been others who were supposed to be The Answer.
The simple fact is that, for whatever reason, we aren't much good at producing quality all-rounders in this country. Despite this, Steve Waugh's teams managed to win a lot of Tests. So did Mark Taylor's sides. And Ian Chappell's. Often, when Australia has picked its six best batsmen, a keeper who can bat, and four decent bowlers, success has followed.
All of which makes it inexplicable that the national selectors have picked a squad for India that includes putative all-rounders Smith, Glenn Maxwell and Moises Henriques. Let's look at their records.
In his five Tests, Smith has a batting average of 28.77 and three wickets at 73. His first class matches for NSW this season reveal similar figures: batting at an average of 37 and taking one wicket at 71.
Henriques made his first class debut in 2006. He has a career batting average of 30.57 with one century, and 77 wickets at 27. He is having a very good first class season, with a 161 not out skewing his batting average to 77 (it is in the low 40s without that innings included) and 14 wickets at 18. In his one Australia A appearance this year however he went wicketless from 16 overs and made six, and he is yet to sparkle in his five ODIs for the national side.
Maxwell is worth a million bucks in the IPL but has not looked a million bucks at domestic level. The super-confident Victorian has only one first class century and 27 wickets at 33.81. He has been wicketless in eight of his nine ODIs, and despite a sensational unbeaten half-ton in the Perth rout of the Windies his batting has been unconvincing. In first class games for Victoria this season he has averaged 22.5 with the bat and taken seven scalps at 25.42 apiece.
The simple question is: are any of these men good enough to bat in Australia's top six, and are any of them among Australia's best four bowlers? On the contrary, a strong argument can be made that they are not among the best dozen batsmen or the best dozen bowlers this country can offer.
This is one of the oddest Test squads in memory. Xavier Doherty has been chosen despite a record of three wickets at 102 in two Tests and a domestic season that has yielded two first class wickets for Tasmania. There are four specialist openers but no back-up wicketkeeper. The squad includes Watson, who has given up bowling and faces an uphill battle to prove that he is worth a spot on his batting alone. Mitchell Johnson is there too, an erratic and enigmatic bowler who some people think should be given a spot because of his rocks-or-diamonds batting, but being highly inconsistent at both of the sport's main disciplines does not an all-rounder make.
While we are unconvinced by Australia's top six, none of the unproven all-rounders is going to make it stronger. Additionally, the front-line bowlers (we use the term carefully, given that the rotation policy means we are not quite sure who the first-pick men are) include some useful batsmen, with Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc capable of hanging around when needed, and handy when attacking batting is required. If there was a long tail, it might make sense to pick an all-rounder to bat at eight, but this is not the case.
Playing India in India remains the sternest challenge for international teams. If Australia is to have any chance, the best batsmen and bowlers must be chosen, and the search for an all-rounder must be deferred for at least a little longer.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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