The ups and downs of Test selection
WHAT’S that old line about the No73 bus? You wait an hour without one in sight and then suddenly four come at once….
Spare a thought for Proteas selection convener Andrew Hudson, whose work has gone largely unnoticed for more than two years while the Test team, in particular, has stayed unusually fit as they maintained a winning habit. There was barely a decision for Hudson to make, let alone a difficult one.
Then, suddenly in Perth, he had four or five to make at once. Fortunately, he is not alone — although you could be forgiven for thinking so in recent weeks, as he has borne the brunt of the criticism for the omission of Thami Tsolekile from the Proteas Test squad.
As the word "convener" suggests, Hudson is responsible for chairing discussions between, and pooling the thoughts of Corrie van Zyl, Vincent Barnes, Shafiek Abrahams and coach Gary Kirsten.
He describes some of the dialogue as "robust", but says 99% of every decision taken in almost three years since his tenure began as "unanimous".
So when Jacques Kallis was unfit to bowl in the deciding Test match in Perth at the beginning of the month, Imran Tahir had been flogged out of the series and Jacques Rudolph was out of form, Hudson and his panel had some hard choices to make.
By playing a debutant as a seventh specialist batsman and opting for just three seamers and a spinner four years down the line from his last Test, they somehow contrived to mix a "high-risk gamble" with "safety-first conservatism". As it happened, Dean Elgar made a pair and South Africa effectively played the Test with 10 men for the third time in the series.
The three seamers were not just any old trundlers, though — Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, all ranked in the world’s top 10, ensured the game — and the series — was won. But what if the Test had panned out differently, or one of them had picked up an injury?
There wasn’t even a part-timer among the batsmen who could bowl half a dozen overs of anything respectable. And if Robin Peterson had been as effectively attacked as Tahir had been, Graeme Smith would have been down to three bowlers.
The obvious solution was to have played all-rounder Ryan McLaren. But captain and coach were adamant the best way to maximise the advantage of having their wicketkeeper at No5, was to play an extra batsman. Kirsten was later to call it the "X Factor".
Experienced onlookers were aghast to see second Test hero and centurion Faf du Plessis again batting at No7. But again, the gamble worked.
Did Hudson agree? We’ll never know because, as he says, "my job is to front up, whatever the decision".
Kirsten, meanwhile, had led Tsolekile to believe he was next in line to take the gloves when AB de Villiers returned to "normal life" after the Australia tour. And that WAS the plan — it was Hudson who pushed Tsolekile for a national contract.
"But selection is a dynamic process, it changes all the time. Nothing should be set in stone," Hudson said this week. "New evidence came to the panel’s attention in the form of De Villiers’s desire to dedicate himself to the job full time. Nobody had any doubt that, as long he was happy and committed, it was in the team’s best interests for him to carry on. Thami was very upset, and I understand that," Hudson said.
The absence of a black African in the Test XI for more than a year is not only disappointing, it’s embarrassing. But so is fast-tracking. Tsolekile has vouched for that by making a premature debut way back in 2004. Nonetheless, a review of the selection process is clearly needed to address the desire to promote the rise of black African players. If and when that happens, Hudson, if he is still "in office", would embrace it with sincerity.
In the meantime, it is important to remember that Hudson is a facilitator, not a dictator, and decisions attributed to him are made by a panel of five. Actually, it might not be a bad idea for one of the other four to speak up occasionally.
More in this section
- Clarke still on injury list but vows to be fit for Ashes
- Proteas have edge over Roses, but they’re still a thorny bunch
- AB de Villiers confident SA can win without Steyn
- Spinners hold their own in the fast lane
- Cricket South Africa should be careful when picking its bedfellows
- Proteas bank on Steyn, or may pray for rain