Why do Australia rate the player with potential over the one in hand?

Why do Australia rate the player with potential over the one in hand?

Jan 31, 2019

  • Jarrod KimberWriter for ESPNcricinfo

Will Pucovski has had more concussions than first-class hundreds, and now he’s in an Australian cricket squad. Anyone who has seen him will understand why: square of the wicket, he’s top-class; he builds innings and he bats time. Is he good enough for Test cricket? No one knows.

But he could be great. Potential is the heaviest word in sport.

That’s what Australian cricket has always been looking for. And that is what Cricket Australia, especially, is looking for. In private, those involved have declared this to be a competitive advantage over a nation as large as India and its enormous talent pool.

They are looking, they have always been looking, and they will probably always keep looking for what they refer to as once-in-a-generation talent. What it really means is ten-year players. Having a few of those at once is the surest way to build a number one team.

Australian cricket is built on the back of finding the young bloke who plays the game the right way, getting him into the team, and seeing him become a household name. Australia’s success is built on the back of a lot of young guys who were sacrificed to the gods of Tests before they were ready. Shane Warne recently said in the Herald Sun: “Australia has always had a history of getting young players in who have shown signs they can play. From Doug Walters to Ricky Ponting, the list goes on. We’re a country that likes to get them in – let’s not make them wait, just get them in.”

What Australia don’t rate, and never have, is the bridge player. The player who comes in late in his career to take a spot that’s open. No one expects them to hang around. They are just there until a younger, or better, or younger and better, player comes along.

No one fits this template better than Tim Paine. After an early Shield double-hundred, he was seen as a ten-year player. He made his international debut at 24, but he was not in the team for almost ten years because Brad Haddin was in place as wicketkeeper, and a series of finger injuries destroyed Paine’s confidence.

Then he was back, first as a stand-in keeper and then, after the ball-tampering scandal, as the short-term captain. Paine is a temporary keeper and temporary captain. He is the bridge player in the right place at the right time.

“Other nations believe in schoolboy or underage cricket; in Australia, they only respect boys when they play against men”

When Australia lost to South Africa in 2016, Matt Renshaw was brought in as an opener. All doe-eyed and long-limbed, he looked Dorothy-like, shocked by the weirdness of the yellow brick road. His scores of 10 and 34 from a combined 183 balls were applauded, maybe not as much as Usman Khawaja’s 37, and not as ridiculously as Rob Quiney’s 9, but there was serious Renshaw hype. Even as it was clear he had a limited game, Australians wanted to believe. Nine Tests later, with a string of scores below 50, he was gone.

Renshaw sat out of Tests as Australia tried six other openers (he returned for one Test after Sandpapergate). He was good enough to play as a kid and make 184, but then suddenly he wasn’t among the best seven openers (if you include David Warner) over the next couple of years.

So how good would Pucovski have to be to last longer than Renshaw’s 11 Tests? He has played fewer first-class games, would have to survive an Ashes, and would need to play twice as many Tests as he has done other first-class matches. The press, the spotlight, analysts and bowlers all get ten times more stringent in Test cricket. A bad shot in a first-class game is a bad shot. A bad shot in a Test match is back page.

Pucovksi is 20, and batsmen who bat in the top six at that age average 31. And to play at that age, you are usually seen as a potential great, meaning even the most talented young players rarely succeed when that young.

How well does he need to know his batting to survive under the limelight, let alone prosper? Not to mention that with Warner and Steven Smith most likely coming back, there will be fewer spots to grab, meaning even decent performances will be judged harshly.

Like Renshaw, no one believes Pucovski is one of the best six batsmen in the country yet. But that’s not how once-in-a-generation works in Australian cricket. It’s more like the witch trials: dump the kid in the water of Test cricket, and if they float, they have special powers, and if they don’t, well, our bad.

Many teams believe the best way to train people for Tests is to play them. That as much as first-class cricket can help, it doesn’t prepare you enough. Alastair Cook recently pointed out that county cricket is a front-foot game, while Tests are back foot. For years the wickets in Tests were flat, while the bowlers who succeeded in first-class cricket often did so on friendly wickets made to ensure results inside four days. There are many in the game who think spending too long in first-class cricket can ruin the techniques and skills needed for Tests.

We also know that since Test cricket is harder, it’s far more likely that experienced players will succeed. The prime batting years in Tests are 27 to 29, according to research by independent analyst Mainuddin Ahmad Jonas. We also don’t know how many of those players are in their prime in Tests as much because they played the format earlier.

Australian cricket is hardwired to think this way. Other nations believe in schoolboy or underage cricket; in Australia, they only respect boys when they play against men. This means getting the young lads into Tests and seeing what they have, which makes Australian selection a constant lottery.

Cricket fans are obsessed with selection the way football supporters are obsessed with managers, US sports devotees with the draft, and golfing buffs with equipment. Once you have picked your best eight or nine players – which is usually pretty straightforward – the other two selections are relatively unimportant. The players chosen first will always have the biggest say in a game.

Most cricket writing in the world is not writing on the sport but writing about who is in danger of losing their spot and who should come in next. The international fixture list is so vast it’s almost impossible for writers or fans to see the players in the level below. But it doesn’t stop the conversations. According to Kartikeya Date, no team of the same 11 players has ever played together more than 11 times. So teams are in near-constant change, and we obsess over most of it. Over 50% of Test cricketers play seven Tests or fewer.

But when you break down international cricket, there are basically three kinds of selections. Future ten-year players you hope will end up on your version of a Wheaties box. Bowlers are often in this position, as teams have always taken a flyer on bowlers. Then the role players: a spinner for a turning track, your best player of fast bowling for the tour down under. And finally, the bridge players. This is the reductionist way of looking at roughly 3000 Test players; it doesn’t include teams taking punts on allrounders, for example.

If you look at the Australian team of recent times, you can see these different styles. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were anointed future stars at a young age. Players like Chadd Sayers, Jon Holland, Steve O’Keefe and Shaun Marsh were selected based on certain conditions. And Peter Handscomb and Chris Tremain were form picks.

Paine was a ten-year pick early in his life. He became a role player when Haddin was injured, and now he’s a bridge player. His current selection is because Australia had run out of keepers. No one expects him to be there for five years. He will either fail, and they will look for someone else, or he’ll do well but be replaced by a longer-term option.

“Australia don’t rate the bridge player, the one who comes in late in his career to take a spot that’s open. They are just there until a younger, or better, or younger and better, player comes along”

That’s what bridge players do. They bridge the gap from your last long-term player to your next. They are players in form, no matter their age or reputation, but not players in your long-term plan, because you expect them to be found out, or replaced, reasonably soon.

Australia have always looked down on such players. If a player isn’t young, there is very little excitement shown when they are being picked. And Australia have found special talent in every generation, almost always overlapping, which is why they have been a consistently good team for most of the game’s history.

But in the professional era, things have changed. A first-class player in Australia at the age of 28 has been in a set-up designed to make top-class athletes and talented cricketers. Gone are the days you played a bit of Shield cricket in between work commitments; now you spend all your time honing your skills and being the best cricketer you can be as your full-time job. Players like Damien Martyn, Matt Hayden and Justin Langer were thrown into the game at an early age and they struggled. But because of the professional structure, they stuck around and came back. They were failed ten-year players who came back to have long careers because when they returned, they were ready.

When Australian domestic cricket became professional after the pay dispute of 1997, Cricket Australia feared the age of Shield players was going to go up because players were sticking around longer. The numbers actually say the change was so minimal that Cricket Australia’s belief was bizarre. But what the rise in professionalism did was allow late bloomers to have access to cricket’s best system to improve. That meant for the first time Australia was producing a lot of ready-made players.

Anyone who saw Colin Miller play in the early ’90s will not have seen a Test player then; at best a medium-fast nagger. In 1997-98, he started bowling offspin as well as seam-up, and broke Chuck Fleetwood-Smith’s record for the most wickets in a Shield season. Less than a year later he was playing for Australia. In 2001, he was named Australian Test player of the year. Think of the players he beat: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist.

Adam Voges has a Test average of 61. He was always a talented player, but no one expected him to be picked for his first Test at 35 and to average 85 in his first year. But when he was selected he had been involved in Australia’s elite pathways (or whatever terms they had then) for nearly 20 years. He knew his game well, got some average Test bowling to dine on, and averaged 15 more than in first-class cricket at large. His average is an anomaly, but his success makes sense.

Stuart Clark spent nearly a decade in first-class cricket paring back his bowling until it was designed to take top-order wickets. At 30, he made his Test debut as the best version of Stuart Clark he could be. Ninety-four wickets at 23.86 followed.

All three of these players had better Test records than first-class ones. That is because when they were picked, they were ripe. But once they showed any sign that they were no longer at their best, or there was a possibility that there was someone better (or younger), they were gone. Clark set up an Australian win by slicing up England’s top order in his penultimate Test, Miller took 26 wickets in his last four Tests (including six in his final match), and Voges was out after failing to score a 50 for five Tests even though he had made a double-hundred in Wellington shortly before. These players are only valid while they are necessary.

These are the successful bridge players; there are plenty of players who have been picked for the short term after ten-year apprenticeships and not done well. England have a long, proud history of champion opening batsmen. And they have tried several bridge players in that position of late. Nick Compton and Mark Stoneman both struggled to make consistent runs in the team.

But Graeme Swann was a 30-year-old with a dodgy elbow who was brought in as a role player for an Indian series. He bowled so well he took out the long-term player, Monty Panesar, and Adil Rashid was shelved. Swann went from role player to bridge player to long term. He stayed in the team as long as his elbow allowed. He is a perfect illustration of how a bridge player can fly. His former Northants team-mate Mike Hussey played even longer.

The myth of Hussey being overlooked because of an incredible generation of cricketers is strong. But he had been dropped from Western Australia, and from 2000-01 to 2003-04 he averaged 36 in Shield cricket. Australia was in love with the one-in-a-generation qualities of Michael Clarke and the potential of Shane Watson. Not to mention Andrew Symonds’ all-round allure. And Hussey was an opening batsman when Australia had Hayden and Langer, and their back-ups were Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, and Chris Rogers.

“Dump the kid in the water of Test cricket, and if they float, they have special powers, and if don’t, well, our bad”

Hussey was an unfashionable player: no power, pretty but not the most eye-catching. People said his record was bloated by county cricket (in his poor period it was). And he was Western Australian; to be picked from Western Australia, you have to be seen as something special, or make 10% more runs than everyone else.

When he finally came in as an injury replacement, he made a hundred so impressive that he was given a role in the middle order. Here is a professional cricketer with ten years of difficulties, who knew his game intimately and who averaged 84 in his first 20 Tests. But by then, he had already moved in the thinking of fans and selectors, from a player filling in a gap to an automatic long-term choice. He was never dropped, and unlike other bridge players, when he faded he was afforded special treatment, similar to Ricky Ponting, whereas Simon Katich (who averaged 47 in his last two years in Tests – two runs higher than his overall average) came back in as a bridge player and excelled, yet was still dumped while in form.

The difference between Hussey and players like Katich and Voges is that transcendence, partly because of age, partly because of the impact. But when Hussey came in for his first Test, no one was expecting an eight-year career and 79 Tests.

The two best bridge players are Rangana Herath and Clarrie Grimmett. Herath was picked from club cricket as a role player. When Muttiah Muralitharan left, Herath became a bridge player, and by the end of his career he was the second greatest bowler his country had produced. Grimmett, who had played in New Zealand, New South Wales and Victoria before ending up in South Australia, wasn’t even picked for Australia until he was 34. And even as good as his first-class record was, to think he would take 200 wickets and play for 11 years would have been a story HG Wells would have disregarded as fanciful.

Hussey was the king of Australia’s modern bridge players. Yet he was seen as a missed young champion by the old Australian cricket folk, which is telling. He wasn’t lost, he was struggling. Hussey wasn’t special. There were players like him before, during and after his career. He proves that not picking players at 30 because of their age, or their lack of prodigious skills at 18, is a limited way of picking players. You wonder what would happen if all teams, and not just Australia, picked their best XIs for each Test, and not a bunch of players who might come good one day.

The only difference between Hussey and the many performing 30-year-olds in Shield cricket over that year was that he got the opportunity and he did something special. They have overlooked many players because they were already 30. How many players have been picked years ahead of their best? And how many players were never picked because there was another younger player who was seen to have a longer and brighter future?

Andrew Hilditch, the former Australia chairman of selectors, once remarked of his own career after he had hooked his way out of the Test team in 1985: “The best I ever played was actually after the ’85 Ashes, when I was no longer playing for Australia, but it was such a dramatic exit that I don’t suppose the selectors would have ever looked at me again.”

Mark Ramprakash was a far better batsman later in his career when he was mostly nowhere near selection. Murali Kartik didn’t receiving a Test cap after 2004 despite India struggling with spin following Anil Kumble’s retirement and Kartik being a seasoned pro in his best form.

Hussey was not different from many other bridge players. He was just better and he got the chance. He was a great Australian player who didn’t look like he should have been.

Will Pucovski wasn’t picked for the Gabba Test against Sri Lanka; Kurtis Patterson was. Patterson’s first-class average has been hovering around 40 since 2013, with six hundreds in 58 games. But in the warm-up against Sri Lanka he looked special, scoring a hundred in each innings. And when he is mentioned, it’s almost the law to recall his record as the youngest player to make a Shield hundred on debut. When he made that, there was significant hope he was the next big thing.

Since then, his career has been one of a grinder. But he has also had seven years at the professional level working on his game. That has got him into form at a time Australia are panicking. He’s no longer the new boy wonder, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll be great.

Paine won’t have the great career his talent hinted at when he was young. Greatness in sport is a weird thing; we look for the Serena Williams or Mike Trout kind of perfection. We want the obvious greatness of Eliud Kipchoge sprinting to break the marathon world record.

What Paine has done is different. He was virtually retired and he never recovered the magic from his youth. But when Australia needed a Paine to hold their middle order together for some big series, he stepped up. And when Australia needed someone in their most humiliating moment, he stepped up. Not to mention that in the history of Tests, Paine has the second highest batting average of any Australian wicketkeeper.

Lots of cricketers have the potential to be great, but almost none are. And then greatness is subjective. We struggle to define it, and in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is using your resources the best you can to win matches. On occasion that will be trying out a young kid who has Greg Chappell’s timing and Ponting’s back foot. And sometimes it’s giving a chance to a broken-down keeper who is already toying with taking a desk job.

Maybe Patterson will be great. Perhaps he’ll just come in and out a few times, or perhaps he’ll come in, fail, and then disappear. It’s possible he or Pucovksi will go on to have remarkable careers.

But chances are they won’t have the impact of the temporary keeper who stepped up when he was needed. Paine won’t ever be an all-time great, but what he has done for Australian cricket has sure seemed great.