Aspects of Australian Test selection

Bernard Whimpress … article in abstract … full version in Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, volume 15: 8, pp. 1100-09.

Aussies at Tilbury,IABSTRACT

Australia’s loss of the recent Ashes series brought widespread criticism of its Test selectors. This article offers a historical perspective on Australian selection and includes four case studies from the very first Test match of 1877 to the present day. What is revealed are not only sins of omission and commission but missed opportunities and factors such as mateship, bias, prejudice and politics which are evident in the selection process.


At the start of the 2010–2011 Australian summer, the Australian and English teams appeared to be evenly matched for the coming Ashes series. Neither side was as strong as they had been in 2005.

The English side was the more stable batting unit while question marks hung over two middle-order Australian batsmen, Mike Hussey and Marcus North. Hussey had made a late start to his Test career, aged 31, in 2005–2006 and produced sensational Bradmanesque figures for the first half of his career before regressing to the still respectable mean of 49.75 after 54 Test matches. North had a respectable five centuries in just 19 matches but had a much more worrying statistic of failing to reach double figures in 14 of his 32 innings. On paper, the Australian pace bowling attack of Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger seemed more likely to make breakthroughs than the likely starters for England, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn. England possessed the superior spin attack with Graeme Swann the best off-spinner in the world and Monty Panesar an excellent reserve. I had once stated that Nathan Hauritz was the ‘worst spin bowler to play for Australia’ but he had proved me wrong over the past two years in capturing 63 wickets at 34.98 in 17 Tests. Each side had an able wicket-keeper batsman in Brad Haddin and Matthew Prior. Neither was their country’s best gloveman but each was an aggressive batsman at number seven with an average around 40. My prediction for the series was 2-1 either way although at the back of my mind was the thought of a surprise. For some reason, 1989 came to mind when the two sides were evenly matched and the Ashes series was won convincingly by the Australians.

With the first Test due to begin at Brisbane on 25 November 2010, the Australian selectors Andrew Hilditch, Greg Chappell, David Boon and Jamie Cox did a peculiar thing. They announced a 17-man squad for the match 10 days before. The squad was: Ricky Ponting (captain), Michael Clarke (vice-captain), Doug Bollinger, Xavier Doherty, Callum Ferguson, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Nathan Hauritz, Mike Hussey, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson, Simon Katich, Usman Khawaja, Marcus North, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith and Shane Watson.

A full round of Sheffield Shield matches and an Australia A tour game against England were being played before then and the justification for the size of the squad was that the selectors were being forced to keep their options open. The early selection of such a squad was nonsense. The team announcement could have been delayed, a fact underlined by chairman of selectors Hilditch who stated in a press conference, ‘This squad of 17 will be reduced to a 12 or 13-man squad at the conclusion of the next round of Sheffield Shield games and prior to the team arriving in Brisbane.’ Hilditch then went on to boost the claims of a number of players – ‘Nathan Hauritz has performed exceptionally well over the past 12 months’; ‘Xavier Doherty has been very impressive in both limited overs and first-class cricket’; ‘Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson have both enjoyed extremely good interstate seasons’ – but was it wise to do so?2 It could destabilize players uncertain of their positions. Moreover, what was the effect on the confidence of reserve opening batsman Phil Hughes who was left out of the squad? He had made a poor start to the season but had been selected in the Australia A match.

The purpose in selecting the squad seems to have been a public relations (PR) exercise as the announcement was made at the unlikely site of Circular Quay in Sydney. I am only guessing but perhaps a PR guru came up with the idea as a way of linking the Quay to the days long ago when English cricket teams would make their arrival at that point. In the event, the parade was rained on and one of the few pictures of smiling Australians during the summer showed Hilditch, Michael Clarke and Nathan Hauritz grinning under umbrellas with Hauritz giving a thumbs up sign.3

As the series unfolded there were surprises. Brisbane was a testing ground and a match of comebacks. Peter Siddle’s hat-trick and a superb partnership of 307 for the sixth wicket by Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin put Australia well on top. Millimetres saved England captain Andrew Strauss from a second innings first ball duck and pair of spectacles for the match. That escape set the visitors on the path to a phenomenal 1-517 declared, numbers which brought back memories of 7-903 at The Oval in 1938. With only one wicket falling on each of the last two days, each side revealed weaknesses in attack. At Adelaide, Australia never recovered after the horror of losing three wickets for two runs on the first morning and lost by an innings, but the home side bounced back with an eight-wicket win in Perth to level the series. There was a strong possibility the Ashes would hang in the balance until the last game in Sydney. Instead England vanquished Australia by innings margins in the last two matches for a convincing 3-1 margin and serious questions began to be asked.

Was this the worst Australian team ever? At a sports history meeting in Adelaide on 1 February 2011, at least half the 25 members whose average age was about 50 replied that it was ‘the worst performance by an Australian team in their lifetime’. A couple of members reinforced the view by stating that the performances were worse than those of an inexperienced Australian side which lost the 1978–1979 series 1–5 to Mike Brearley’s English team. The same gathering believed the Australian cricket selectors were ‘clueless’.4 A lot of blokes in Australian front bars also believed they could do a better job than the current panel.

Historical perspective

It would be nice to think that Australia’s Test cricket selectors have always picked the best players for home Test matches and for tours abroad. Unfortunately a lot of influences come into play in selection: mateship, bias (regional and personal), prejudice (class, religion and race), politics and personalities among them. Selectors (like players) can become entrenched.

Twenty years ago Allen Synge wrote a splendid book on English selection, Sins of Omission,5 which revealed that England have had more problems with their system than we do with ours. Sins of Omission are part of our problem too – well-credentialed players overlooked when fit and ready for action, or their careers truncated before their time. However, other categories can also be considered. Sins of Commission are a major issue – players wrongly chosen in the first instance and persevered with when figures do not support their retention. Opportunities Missed can be examples where selectorial flair is demanded.

Selecting Test cricketers actually means selecting teams and the best men to lead them. An occasional genius may lead to a paradigm shift. It is important that such players are accommodated. Selectors frequently have a different idea of a player’s potential than the player himself recognizes. What I will offer in the remainder of this article is four case studies involving Ashes contests which demonstrate some oddities in decision making by Australian selection panels.

The Combined Eleven (1877)

English cricket was stood on its head at the Albert Ground in Sydney in January 1877 when James Lillywhite’s All-England Eleven were beaten by a New South Wales XV by 13 wickets. The clamour went up for a combined eleven from NSW and Victoria to play the All-England Eleven but the English side had arranged to play a series of matches in New Zealand so the contest for supremacy would have to await their return in mid-March.

John Conway arranged Lillywhite’s matches and venues and was asked to organize an All-Australia versus All-England match on equal terms. Writing as ‘Censor’ in the Melbourne-based weekly newspaper, The Australasian, he suggested that the Australian team would comprise six men from New South Wales and five from Victoria, and discounted a proposal that the two main colonies should have five men each with one Tasmanian to provide a national look.6

In the event, there ended up being six Victorians and five New South Wales players. There was no such thing as a selection panel and the side was chosen in two parts. Match organizer Conway submitted the names of the NSW players to a meeting of the Victorian Cricketers’ Association (VCA) held on 6 March without even consulting the New South Wales Cricket Association (NSWCA). The Victorians were more bureaucratic, the selection of their players and an emergency was delegated to a match committee. This it did in two parts. On 7 March, it picked 10 players and three days later met again to reduce the number by four.7

Conway, a 35-year-old former round-arm Victorian fast-medium bowler, had represented his colony from 1861–1862 to 1874–1875 with modest success. In 1873–1874, he played a succession of games against W.G. Grace’s All England Eleven where he met James Lillywhite. Conway wrote to the leading NSW players directly.8

Conway chose Charles Bannerman, Nathaniel Thomson, brothers Dave and Ned Gregory, and Tom Garrett. New South Wales wicket-keeper Billy Murdoch was overlooked. The main effect of this was that Fred Spofforth declined to accept an invitation while Edwin Evans was unavailable due to work. The New South Welshmen arrived in Melbourne on 8 March, were accommodated at the Duke of Rothsay Hotel in Elizabeth Street and practised at the MCG the following day along with Victorians Bransby Cooper and Billy Midwinter who must have felt sure of their places. The delay in the final selection by the match committee meant that the combined team had little opportunity to understand one another’s play before the game began.

Jack Blackham won the nod as wicket-keeper and his expertise over the next two decades behind the stumps, which brought him the sobriquet ‘Prince of Wicket-keepers’, justified the selectors’ judgement but there were other surprises and omissions. Out of the Victorian committee’s ten, Frank Allan, all-rounder George Alexander, wicket-keeper batsman Edward Elliott, Edward Hastings, a right-hand batsman who had made a pair of ducks in his only first-class appearance, and aggressive right-hand batsman Thomas Kelly dropped out. Allan preferred to attend the Warrnambool Agricultural Show with Richmond left-arm fast-medium round-arm bowler John Hodges a surprise replacement. The final team in batting order was Charles Bannerman, Nathaniel Thomson, Tom Horan, Dave Gregory, Bransby Cooper, Billy Midwinter, Ned Gregory, Jack Blackham, Tom Garrett, Thomas Kendall and John Hodges.

One of the difficulties about choosing a national team was the lack of first-class form, so club cricket and odds matches against the tourists were the main guide. Only one previous first-class game had been played that summer. Australia’s players had to be chosen on their performances in only a few first-class games over several seasons, odds matches against the tourists or their club form. Team veteran, 38 year-old Thomson, had played 19 first-class matches over 19 seasons although he was outranked by English-born Bransby Cooper who turned 33 on the first day of the match. Eighteen-year-old Garrett had played just one first-class match, but that put him ahead of Tom Kendall and Hodges who were each making their first-class debuts. With seven of the combination team having been born overseas, it might have been expected that Cooper would be appointed captain on account of his experience. Instead the players elected Dave Gregory to that position. Gregory was born in Fairy Meadow, now a suburb of Woollongong.

The Combination team won the match by 45 runs and such was the euphoria associated with the win that suddenly it became known as ‘Australia’. In addition, Charles Bannerman with his first innings of 165 retired became a new ‘national’ hero. Apart from the result being widely acclaimed as evidence of the great improvement made in Australian cricket, it also affirmed imperial loyalty by assserting that ‘in bone and muscle, activity, athletic vigour, and success in field sports, the Englishmen born in Australia do not fall short of the Englishmen born in Surrey or Yorkshire’.

Sin of omission: Alan Kippax (1926)

Some selections in Ashes touring teams are more controversial than others; so are some omissions. In the 1950s, middle-aged men still used to weep whenever Alan Kippax’s omission from the 1926 English tour was recalled. As Johnny Moyes wrote in 1950:

Alan Kippax was a batsman of rare beauty and rich performance who would have reached even greater heights had the Australian selection committee of 1926 done its job with vision or even with normal competence. It gathered its team in relays, announcing ‘certainties’, and then had to choose between Kippax and Woodfull for the last place. Woodfull was selected, and ultimately topped the averages, thus emphasizing once more that the last should be first. Kippax, who had more present achievement and infinitely greater future prospects than some of the ‘certainties’, stayed at home.9

Australian captain Herbie Collins, tourist Jack Ryder and former captain Clem Hill were Australia’s selectors and they reverted to an old process of picking the team in two parts, announcing 12 automatic selections in early December leaving just three places to be added later.

Besides opening batsman Collins and all-rounder Ryder (although his bowling was then negligible), the 12 included batsmen Tommy Andrews, Warren Bardsley, Charlie Macartney, Bill Ponsford and Johnny Taylor, all-rounders Jack Gregory and Hunter Hendry, leg-spinners Arthur Mailey and Clarrie Grimmett, and wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield. While some of these players were among the greats of Australian cricket those such as Andrews, Taylor and Hendry were marginal figures and Bardsley’s best days were behind him.

At the end of January 1926, Hill joined his fellow selectors gathered in Sydney for the New South Wales–Victoria Sheffield Shield clash which the home state won easily by an innings. Kippax was in outstanding form with 271 not out and among the bowlers he thrashed mercilessly were Ryder and Hendry. His selection for England appeared certain. It did not work out that way.

Kippax was 28 and Richardson 31 so they were not in the full flush of youth, but instead were cricketers at the peak of their powers whose careers were stopped in their tracks. In Kippax’s case, this was particularly marked because in the previous four years which coincided with just one Test tour by England he had made 2521 runs from 37 innings at an average of 79 with nine centuries. He was a dominant as well as artistic batsman whose sole reward was a single Test cap in the fifth match of the 1924–1925 series when the rubber had been decided. It was a travesty of justice to deny his development at crucial time.

It is also worthwhile dwelling on those four years from 1922–1923 to 1925–1926 as it represented a good time span in Australian cricket in which to judge a player’s worth. In that time, the home season first-class figures for the ‘certainties’ were as follows (see Table 1):

The overall figures are solid enough and yet Kippax heads the list, even ahead of the prolific Ponsford with twelve centuries, and whose average was boosted by his quadruple-century against Tasmania. Kippax’s numbers were more than one and a half times the rest of his competitors, and two and a half times those of Ryder. Interestingly, the batsman who was third for the period was Woodfull with whom he vied for last place. Woodfull’s average was 62 from 43 innings. Of the group, only Ponsford and Woodfull were younger; Taylor was 30, Andrews 35, Ryder 36, Collins 37, Macartney 39 and Bardsley 43.

Richardson’s figures were not as impressive in the same period as an average of 43 attests. However, he had made a brilliant century (138) in his second Test at Melbourne in January 1925 only to be dropped after one further match. His solace for missing the English tour was playing in a football club premiership with Sturt in the major South Australian league competition.

In a wet summer, the first four Tests were drawn and only the fifth provided a definite result, a 289-run win to England which saw them regain the Ashes for the first time since 1912. At home, there were casualties with Collins and Hill losing their positions as selectors. Collins bore the most severe brunt as he was removed from the captaincy of his club and state which led to his swift retirement.10 Ryder survived, captained Australia in the next series against England in 1928–1929, but was left out of the side to England in 1930 by his fellow selectors.11

The Don’s last selections (1970–1971)

A lot of cricket followers think that Sir Donald Bradman could do nothing wrong. His service as a national selector spanned 35 years if not all of them as a knight. Yet given his shrewdness and tactical acumen his last season along with fellow Invincible panel members Neil Harvey and Sam Loxton was marked by one scandal and continual chops and changes in the bowling attack in the 1970–1971 Test series against England.

The scandal was the dropping of captain and opening batsman Bill Lawry for Ian Chappell (as captain) and Ken Eastwood (as batsman) for the deciding sixth Test of the summer. Lawry’s omission brought severe criticism. What was surprising was that the selectors picked 35-year-old journeyman, fellow Victorian opener Eastwood, who was 15 months older than Lawry, to replace him.

This is not to suggest that Eastwood was not a good player. After beginning his cricket in New South Wales, he made his first-class debut for Victoria in 1959–1960 but did not begin to appear regularly for the state until he was past 30. At the beginning of the 1970–1971 season, he was not able to make the Victorian team but after carrying his bat for 201 not out against NSW at the Sydney Cricket Ground in November, he added another big hundred (177) against the same opponents at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day to give him 408 runs at an average of 136 from three matches. Plainly overawed in his only Test, Eastwood was dismissed by Peter Lever and John Snow for scores of 5 and 0 although he made the South Australians pay dearly in the Sheffield Shield game which followed by peeling off a career-best score of 221. He finished the season with 742 runs at 92.75 from six games.

Replacing Lawry as captain might have been a bold move: replacing him as a batsman was foolish. Lawry might have not been in his best form – the season was one of the few when he failed to record a century – and his scoring rate in the Test series was a pedestrian 13 runs per hour. Nevertheless his 324 runs at 40.50 had occupied 24 hours 43 minutes so he was plainly hard to remove. Just two matches before he was dropped he also carried his bat through the Australian innings for 60 not out at Sydney as a rampaging Snow captured 7/40 in England’s win. Lawry’s first-class season yielded 709 runs at 47.26.

The twin tours of India and South Africa the previous summer had led to player discontent and following a 0-4 loss against a Springbok side playing at the peak of its form and confidence the Australians’ mood must have been dampened during the winter. However, when the first Test team was named at Brisbane at the end of November, there was still a solid look about the team. There were three newcomers but the six batsmen – Lawry, Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Ian Redpath and Paul Sheahan – who had appeared in the previous Test at St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, remained. Faith had also been kept in stalwart fast bowler Graham McKenzie whose Test figures of 1/333 on the veld were rightly regarded as an aberration, and flick-finger spinner John Gleeson who had taken 19 wickets in the series. The one unfortunate omission was that of Victorian medium-pace bowler Alan Connolly who had captured 20 wickets in South Africa but who had a hamstring operation which hampered his start to the season.

The debutants were powerfully built 23-year-old Western Australian wicket-keeper batsman Rod Marsh who replaced Brian Taber; Victorian opening bowler Alan ‘Froggy’ Thomson who would turn 25 on the last day of the match and 26-year-old leg-spinner Terry Jenner from South Australia.

The first four Victorian games were a virtual play-off between Thomson and Connolly to determine McKenzie’s new ball partner. The wrong-footed windmill action of Thomson netted him 31 wickets at 19.90 compared to Connolly’s nine wickets at 41.88 with the crucial game being that against the MCC when the younger man took nine wickets. However, Thomson had also taken 120 wickets at 17.36 in only 22 first-class games in less than two years. He had to be picked.

Jenner’s progress was more measured over seven years but significant improvement had been made since his move from his state of origin (Western Australia) to Adelaide three years before. In the last purely domestic season played in Australia in 1969–1970, he had taken 34 wickets at 27.32 in eight matches and he followed that with a productive tour of New Zealand, including taking career-best figures of 7/84 in the second unofficial Test at Christchurch. In the first four games of the 1970–1971 season, he had taken 21 wickets at 24.77.

The bowling attack had a nice shape to it in the first Test with the pace of McKenzie and Thomson backed by the spin of Gleeson and Jenner, with reserve pace to be supplied by Walters, and spin from Stackpole and Ian Chappell if necessary. Unfortunately Marsh made a clumsy beginning, dropping three catches and gaining the moniker ‘Iron Gloves’ which stayed with him throughout the series. A tame pitch and tamer batting meant there was little chance to force a result.

Australia had held the Ashes since 1959 and captain Lawry was not disposed to give them up in a hurry. However, negative selection for Perth’s first-ever Test saw Jenner dropped to twelfth man and the home side play seven batsmen – Greg Chappell made his resolute debut century in that position – and just three main bowlers in McKenzie, Thomson and Gleeson.

It is a truism that bowlers win matches and just as much a truism that stable bowling attacks win series. In this respect, the selections of 1970–1971 were all over the place. For the third Test in Sydney, Connolly replaced Thomson and batsman Sheahan made way for off-spinner Mallett who proved Australia’s most penetrative bowler with six wickets in the game. It did not do him any good though for a fortnight later he was replaced by 21-year-old New South Wales leg-spinner Kerry O’Keeffe for the next match in Melbourne while Thomson came back for McKenzie and 26-year-old former Queenslander Ross Duncan (who had moved to Victoria at the start of the season) took Connolly’s position. At this stage, Gleeson was the only bowler to have maintained his spot and he kept it for just one more match in Adelaide where 21-year-old Western Australian express Dennis Lillee produced a baptism of fire with first innings figures of 5/84, Thomson played his last game and Mallett swapped places with O’Keeffe.

With the series not determined until the sixth Test in Sydney, there were further changes as 23-year-old Queensland left-arm fast medium Tony Dell came into partner Lillee, Jenner returned for Gleeson, and O’Keeffe for Mallett. When Ian Chappell took his side into the field in his first Test as captain, the combined total of Test appearances of his main bowlers was three – Lillee 1, Dell 0, Jenner 1, O’Keeffe 1. Never was so much demanded of such an inexperienced group.

STUART MAGILL -steve christo Macgill —pic by Steve Christo

Sin of omission: Stuart Macgill (1998–2007)

Stuart MacGill played 44 Tests and took 208 wickets, the best strike rate of balls per wicket for all the world’s spin bowlers who have taken over 200 wickets; better, in fact, than Shane Warne. Yet he had to live in Warne’s shadow and was only ever regarded as Australia’s number two spinner. Australia played 117 Tests during the duration of MacGill’s career so he missed 73. That is a lot of wickets he might have taken. In Ashes matches, he played six and missed 19 over five series.

After an outstanding Sheffield Shield season in 1997–1998, MacGill made his Test debut at the Adelaide Oval in the third (and final) Test against South Africa. He bowled in partnership with Shane Warne in this match, the first time the selectors had picked two Australian leg-spinners since the Adelaide Test against England three years earlier when Peter McIntyre had also played alongside Warne. Perhaps MacGill was fortunate that the selection panel consisted of three spin bowlers in Jim Higgs, Trevor Hohns and Peter Taylor as well as former pace bowler Steve Bernard and batsman Andrew Hilditch. However, he made an impressive debut taking match figures of 5/134, better than Warne’s 3/147 in a drawn game.

There is no doubt that MacGill at this point regarded himself as an apprentice willing to learn from bowling in tandem with the master Warne. Yet, despite this performance MacGill found himself cast aside for Australia’s three Test tour of India a month later. MacGill stamped himself as Australia’s leading spinner in Pakistan in October 1998 due to Warne’s absence with a shoulder injury and became Australia’s first-choice spinner for the Ashes series against England in 1998–1999 while Warne was recovering from an operation.

After taking four wickets in the first Test in Brisbane, being left-out for Colin Miller’s mixture of seam and spin in Perth, he captured four more wickets in the third Test in Adelaide and 7/142 in Melbourne as a curtain-raiser to his dominant performance in Sydney. At the SCG in January 1999, he extracted huge turn in company with Miller and Warne, who had returned to the side. MacGill took 12 wickets for 107 runs (5/57 and 7/50) to enable Australia to win the Ashes series by a convincing 3–1 margin. In four Tests in the series, MacGill captured 27 wickets at 17.70 – outstanding figures by any measure.

The year 1999 which began so promisingly for MacGill ended in frustration. Australia’s tour of the West Indies with Steve Waugh as captain and Warne his deputy in March–April 1999 was a good opportunity to test the Warne–MacGill combination and MacGill proved far more effective with 12 wickets at 29.33 compared to Warne’s 2 wickets at 134.00 before the latter was dropped for the last match. At this point, MacGill had played 12 Tests for 59 wickets at 23.41 yet he played no more Tests that year when Australia toured Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, nor did he appear in the two home series against Pakistan and India in 1999–2000.

MacGill missed five series and 13 matches until November 2000 when he reappeared as a replacement for Warne (broken finger) against the West Indies at the Gabba. He played in all but the Perth Test during 2000–2001, taking 16 wickets at 31.31 with best innings figures of 7/104 at Sydney in a series Australia won 5-0 but received little thanks. A pattern of being merely regarded as Warne’s replacement or an SCG specialist was established. Over the next two years, MacGill was overlooked for the Indian tour in February–March 2001, was overlooked for the 2001 Ashes party and played in only three Tests out of 25. These were the third Test against South Africa at Sydney in January 2002 in which he took seven wickets and the final two Ashes Tests in 2002–2003 after Warne dislocated his right shoulder. In these games, he took a further 12 wickets. As a spasmodic selection for five years MacGill had captured 94 wickets from 19 Tests.

MacGill’s only extended run in the Australian side was in the final year of Steve Waugh’s captaincy in 2003–2004 (when Warne was serving 12 months suspension for testing positive to the use of two diuretic drugs) and he gathered 53 wickets in 11 games. Thereafter, MacGill was back in familiar terrain as number two spinner and after pulling out of a tour to Zimbabwe in May 2004 for moral reasons, he missed the next Test tour of India in October and November.

Australia had not won in India since Bill Lawry’s tour of 1969–1970 and against the best players of spin in the world Warne’s wickets on two previous tours in 1998 and 2001 had cost him more than 50 runs per wicket. Yet his support spinners were the novices, Victorian all-rounder Cameron White and Queensland off-spinner Nathan Hauritz. MacGill with 152 wickets at 29.22 from 32 Test matches was left at home.

MacGill had a stupendous season in 2004–2005, in which he took 70 wickets at 23.01, but continued to be overlooked until called up for the last match against Pakistan at Sydney. In this game, he captured 8/170 and was named man of the match.

MacGill deservedly won a place in Ricky Ponting’s Ashes party of 2005 but was mystified by his treatment on the tour when despite Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz failing to take wickets, he was continually left out of Test reckoning. England has traditionally had a weakness against high-quality wrist spin and while Warne was magnificent with 40 wickets, the Australians would have been better served if MacGill had replaced a pace man. Warne might then have taken 30 wickets and MacGill 20. Warne’s loss would have been Australia’s gain.12

The 2005–2006 summer was one of relative security in the Test side for MacGill as he partnered Warne in seven of 12 Tests, and gathered 38 wickets at 20.42, including a career-best 8/108 in the first innings of the first Test against Bangladesh at Fatullah in April. MacGill began the 2006–2007 season with 198 wickets from 40 Tests but was given no opportunity to increase his tally in the Ashes series Australia won 5–0. He was not even called up for the final match in Sydney in which Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer retired.

It was expected that MacGill would slot into Warne’s place for the next couple of years and pick up another 100 Test wickets while a new generation of Australian slow bowlers would emerge. Regrettably, it did not happen and MacGill’s final season in 2007–2008 produced more lows than highs. An operation on a knee injury hampered his fitness and he bowled poorly in two Tests against Sri Lanka although reaching the 200-wicket milestone, the fourth quickest bowler to do so behind Clarrie Grimmett, Dennis Lillee and Waqar Younis. He then missed most of the summer following an operation for carpal-tunnel syndrome on his bowling hand but gained selection for the West Indies tour in May and June. Although optimistic about his comeback, MacGill was disillusioned with his performance and retired during the second Test.

Stuart MacGill was dropped from the Australian side 12 times and came back 13 times which says a lot for his perseverance rather than that of the national selectors. Warne might have revived wrist spin as a force in world cricket in the 1990s but the dominant Australian paradigm was pace, three pace bowlers plus Warne. It is often argued that MacGill was unlucky to be born at the wrong time, 17 months after Warne. However, had the selectors been prepared to pair them more often, they could have been as great a strike force as Grimmett and O’Reilly in a different age.

MacGill and Warne played together in 16 Test matches in 10 series over 8 years. Despite Warne having first use of the bowling crease in 25 of the 30 innings, MacGill took 82 wickets at 22.11 compared to Warne’s 74 wickets at 29.97. Plainly MacGill stole Warne’s wickets. MacGill’s wickets also came 6.91 runs cheaper than his career average, whereas Warne’s were 4.56 dearer. In Ashes matches, Warne took a remarkable 195 wickets at 23.25 in 36 Tests an average of 5.41 wickets per match. MacGill took 39 wickets at 24.71 in six Tests at an average of 6.50 wickets per match. Sadly they played just one Ashes Test together.


The problem of Test Selection is clearly not new and is often governed by regional and local bias, prejudice, politics and personalities. Indeed, one suspects that they will continue to provoke debate and produce deep disagreement. Judgement is rarely impartial.


 1 Leading Australian sports historian whose most recent book is The Official MCC Ashes Treasures.

 2 Conn, ‘Xavier Doherty the bolter in Australian Ashes squad’, downloaded 10 February 2011.

 3 Photograph from Getty Images published in The Australian, 15 November 2010.

 4 Meeting of the South Australian chapter of the Australian Society for Sports History, Whitmore Hotel, Adelaide, 1 February 2011. I was speaking on the subject of Australian cricket selection and conducted informal polls on team and selector performance at the start of my talk.

 5 Synge, Sins of Omission: The Story of the Test Selectors 1899–1990.

 6 Australasian, 13 January 1877, p. 43

 7 Ibid., 10 March 1877, p. 300.

 8 Rodgers, ‘John Conway: An Old but Neglected Warrior’, 37–46.

 9 Moyes, A Century of Cricketers, 99.

10 Harte, A History of Australian Cricket, 300–1.

11 Young, ‘Choosing Sides: Jack Ryder and Cricket Controversy’, 44–5.

12 I discussed some of these issues in an ‘Afterword’ in Whimpress and Hart, Great Ashes Battles: From Melbourne 1877 to Trent Bridge 2005, 304–5.


  • 1. Conn, Malcolm . “ Xavier Doherty the      bolter in the Australian Squad ” . In The Australian November 15,      2010, (accessed February 10,      2011)
  • 2. Harte, Chris . 1993 . A History of      Australian Cricket , London : Andrew Deutsch .
  • 3. Moyes, A.G. 1950 . A Century of      Cricketers , Sydney : Angus and Robertson .
  • 4. Rodgers, Patrick. ‘John      Conway: An Old But Negelected Warrior’. Baggy Green 5, no. 1 (October      2002): 37-46
  • 5. Synge, Allen . 1990 . Sins of      Omission: The Story of the Test Selectors 1899–1990 , London : Pelham      Books .
  • 6. Whimpress,      Bernard and      Hart, Nigel . 2005 . Great Ashes      Battles: From Melbourne 1877 to Trent Bridge 2005 , 2nd ed. , London :      Andre Deutsch .
  • 7. Young, Jim. ‘Choosing Sides:      Jack Ryder and Cricket Controversy’. Baggy Green 6, no. 2 (April 2004):      35–45


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