At a time Australian players are under a harsher microscope than any other every four years, it should be noted that the selection panel itself is also facing close scrutiny.
The meeting of interim chairman Trevor Hohns, national coach Darren Lehmann, Mark Waugh and interim selector Greg Chappell in Brisbane on Wednesday to determine once and for all the team for the first Test may well be the final instance a selection panel picking a Gabba Ashes side.
Should the current arrangement last until 2021, it will be in defiance of the strong opinions of the Cricket Australia team performance manager Pat Howard. Among many other battles, he has spent much of the past six years arguing strongly that the model of a selection panel is outdated and difficult to square with the lines of accountability set out by the Don Argus-led review of 2011 that spawned his own appointment.
ESPNcricinfo has learned that Howard has petitioned on numerous occasions for the disbanding of any selection panel in the form known classically to Australian cricket. His preference is to replace the present model with a streamlined setup where the national coach Darren Lehmann has the final call on any tight decision, having consulted with a national selector who is the single point of communication for the labyrinthine debates over who should be in and who should be out.
That scenario would coincide with the one adopted some six years ago by New Zealand Cricket, when the former Australian coach John Buchanan was acting as the Kiwi game’s impresario. “The national selection manager would operate with the head coach to form a ‘two man selection panel’, with the head coach of the team having the final say on debated decisions,” Buchanan said in 2011.
“A large part of the role will be liaising with our first-class coaches and assessing their views on the leading players in our domestic competitions as well as consulting with high performance staff, cricket stakeholders and of course the captain. It is a challenging role that requires the skills of a highly organised individual with great cricket knowledge and who is respected among the cricket fraternity.”
Drawn from a background in rugby union high performance, Howard is less wedded to the concept of a selection panel than others in the national game. He is also known to favour the use of objective measures like deep statistical analysis and computer-based modelling to judge the suitability of players for Australia. Sabermetrics, the concept championed by the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, is far more in line with his thinking than purely anecdotal or visual evidence compiled by selectors watching domestic matches.
This would also align – a favourite term of CA in recent years – with the now predominant domestic model whereby the old state selection panels have been pared back to simply feature a talent manager and the coach of the Sheffield Shield and domestic limited-overs team. That sort of operation was emphasised heavily by the New South Wales chief executive Andrew Jones, also the former head of strategy at CA, in explaining the decision to drop Ed Cowan in favour of the younger Daniel Hughes for round one of this season’s Sheffield Shield.
It would also offer the possibility of simplifying lines of accountability regarding selection of the national team, a problematic area that Argus tried to address by naming the captain of Australia as a formal selector. Pre-Argus, Ricky Ponting had often complained that as captain but merely a consultant on selection he had “leadership but no ownership”. However the decision to afford the captain formal selector status was rescinded two years into Michael Clarke’s tenure, after which he made similar complaints to Ponting.
The greatest obstacle to structural change of Australian cricket’s selection process appears to emanate from the CA Board, for decisions over the shape of the panel remain one of the nine directors’ two remaining responsibilities directly related to the performance of the national team.
For more than a century, the Board has been responsible for the appointments of the selectors and also holding the final responsibility for approving the identity of the Australian captain. In a climate where CA’s move to an independent Board has encouraged corporate achievers to lobby for directorships, the ability to debate such questions so central to matters like the selection of an Ashes team is deemed an attractive element of the job when lined up against countless far drier discussions when serving on other boards.
Equally there are questions marks among directors about whether CA management, in this case Howard given his purview, should be given full responsibility for such appointments, or if it is wiser to let them be given the oversight of the Board’s nine directors. The perceived importance and prestige of selection roles was underlined earlier this year when the longtime director Mark Taylor stated publicly that he was interested in serving in the job, having been a CA director for more than a decade alongside his commentary for Channel Nine and universal respect as the man who captained Australia to world dominance between 1994 and 1999.
The Board’s desire to remain directly involved in the strategy around selection was demonstrated aptly little more than a year ago, when the directors put together a resolution for the panel that convened amidst a fifth Australian Test match loss and either side of the resignation of then selection chairman Rod Marsh. Their directive was principally to look for younger players with prospects of representing Australia over the long haul.
At the same time the shape of the panel was redefined to include as interim Chappell, the national talent manager with a youth focus, while the role of Waugh was more sharply defined to be primarily responsible for the selection of the Twenty20 international team. Nevertheless, Waugh remains one of four Test selectors and is in Brisbane for Wednesday’s meeting to choose the Ashes squad.
Hohns, also appointed on a purely interim basis, chairs a panel sitting astride a national network of talent managers that was installed in 2010 to help supersede the idea of selection panels purely concerned with picking the best 11 players in each state, when a more strategic outlook was deemed necessary. However, the uneasy compromise between the current selection panel, Howard’s ideas and the predominant models of contemporary professional sport can only be expected to last as long as Australia keep winning home Ashes series – if that.