If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that the final siren in AFL grand final brings with it equal elements of anxiety and sadness – that is, unless your team was the one holding the Premiership Cup aloft. Yes, there’s the trade period (with the ubiquitous Trade Radio – sponsored by Continental Tyres – in tow) and of course the draft too, but for me, the month of October (and this year, November) appear like a desert in the normally full Australian sporting calendar. Nestled between the high drama of the football finals series and summers that promise warm afternoons, cold beers and the ever-present sound of leather on willow, for the Aussie sports fan this time exists like a bad hangover on a Sunday morning – you know it’s going to be bad, but you’ve just gotta load up on Powerade and greasy food, and hope that you can sleep off the worst of it.
In order to deal with the ‘post football/not quite cricket’ blues I thought I’d have a little bit of fun and have a look at the squad named for at least the first two Ashes Test matches, and suggest their footballing equivalents. Where possible, I’ve tried to veer away from the attitude that batters are midfielders/forwards and bowlers are defenders, but sometimes the comparison is apt. In the interest of full transparency, I should admit that I started writing this piece about six weeks ago – when there was no squad named and Tim Paine was still captain.
Of course, time makes fools of us all, and as a result, I have whittled what was an initial list of about 25 names down to the 15 below, so if you notice any references that are out of date, or sentences that don’t make sense in light of recent events, I humbly ask that you take pity on someone who has spent far too much time trying to predict selections only to have mind-numbingly stupid events overtake any sense of rhythm or humour that may have previously existed.
1 – David Warner – I know who people are going to say straight away – Toby Greene, right? And it does kind of work, both are prodigiously talented players who just can’t seem to round off the sharp edges of their personalities, leading to on-field trouble and off-field punishments. But despite this, and perhaps at the risk of alienating many readers, I have to confess that I like Greene (and don’t really like Warner) and as a result believe that there is a more fitting comparison in AFL ranks – it’s Jaidyn Stephenson. Hear me out on this – both players entered their careers under some doubt – Warner was seen as a T20 gimmick with no proven longer-form record, and Stephenson had a heart condition that threatened his draft prospects – but nevertheless hit the ground running almost immediately. Then came some largely self-imposed setbacks (Stephenson’s gambling, Warner’s on and off-field conduct, including punching Joe Root in a bar, challenging Quinton de Kock to a fist-fight, and ultimately leading to ‘sandpaper-gate’), before some image restoration and in Stephenson’s case a trade to a new home, was required.
Since this, we have seen what both are capable of, and despite Warner’s lack of success away from home (he averages 34.5 away from home compared to more than 60 at home), he is still a commanding presence at the top of the Aussie line-up. But once again both Stephenson and Warner can’t get out of their own way. Time will tell whether Warner can re-capture the recapture the imagination of the Australian public, and at age 35 this may be the last chance he gets, but a home series against old rivals James Anderson and Stuart Broad provides the perfect script for a dominant display. Just don’t mention his wife’s name.
2 – Marcus Harris – Since David Warner made his debut in December 2011, the Australian Test selectors have treated his opening partner spot with the same respect that Geelong have shown ruckmen. Across his career, David Warner has shared the responsibility of opening an innings with 12 different batters – that’s right, an entire dozen! Of course, it only seems fitting that, at the start of another Ashes summer, there are several options to fill the post. Yes, I can hear every one of you Victorians shouting “Harris is the incumbent, he deserves the spot”. And of course, you’re kind of right. Harris did indeed open the batting the last time Australia played a Test match, but does what happened in January 2021 really matter in December 2021?
Well, it does to chief selector George Bailey, who announced a couple of weeks out from the First Test that Harris was joining Warner at the top of the order. There’s a fair argument to be made that Harris’s Test record to date is underwhelming to say the least (his average is in the 20s after 19 innings, with no centuries), and should preclude him from being selected in the Test team. However as I’ve already mentioned, the selectors have cycled through so many opening options that, like U2, it seems they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. Perhaps part of the problem has been that the selectors have moved from one option to the next too quickly, not allowing a partnership and fledgling career to flourish. Harris himself has already been dropped twice, and if he were not selected for the first Test, he would have added another notch to that belt. It’s crazy to remember that he was only 18 when he made his first century in Sheffield Shield cricket and was almost immediately being touted as a player with a Baggy Green in his future. More than a decade later (and after switching states from WA to Victoria), however, he no longer has youth nor potential on his side and the time to deliver has arrived. Like Jordan Clark at Fremantle, the pressure is on, and if the results produced are not what the talent promises, his name may have a permanent line drawn through it.
3 – Marnus Labuschagne – Be honest, when Marnus Labuschange was picked to make his Test debut back in 2018, you didn’t expect much. A middle-order batter with a funny last name (is it pronounced ‘loose bus change’?) who could bowl handy leg-spin, his state record was alright without being remarkable and he seemed the type of selection that is made more out of desperation than a belief that he is in the best XI male cricketers. And really, his first five Tests proved this to be a pretty fair judgement – he averaged mid-twenties with the bat and though he averaged mid-twenties with the ball too, he hadn’t shown himself to be any more than a part-timer. A selection for the Ashes tour of 2019 was fair enough, considering his County form, but he was still seen as the seventh or eighth best batter (at best) in the Aussie squad. Then Steve Smith was hit by a Jofra Archer bouncer, leading to a sequence of events that saw Labuschagne become the first concussion sub in Test history.
And then something amazing happened – Labuschange became a star! Over the course of the next nine Tests (15 innings) he would pass 50 ten times, converting four of these to centuries (including one double-century). His ‘Energizer-bunny’ type behaviour on the field further endeared him to an Australian public desperately wanting to return to the days of alpha-dominance that were all the rage in the late 90’s and early 2000s. While he was a little down on form last summer – just one century and two half-centuries – Labuschange still averages more than 60 with the bat in Test cricket and at just 27 years of age, seems poised to make a fool out of doubters like me for the best part of the next decade. While he was left out of the recent captaincy discussions – the prevailing attitude seems to be that he has a little more growing up to do – there’s little doubt that he will become a leader of this team in time. I struggled to find a good AFL comparison for him, until I realised that there was one staring me in the face. Drafted a few picks later than where he was predicted to go, he burst onto the AFL scene and immediately became a cult sensation with his bubbly, infectious, ‘thousand minutes per second’ personality. Despite playing at a club that won two premierships while he was there, for tragic reasons (he was forced to miss the end of the 2019 season after undergoing two surgeries to fix a brain bleed) he never got to taste the ultimate success, and has since been traded to the club he grew up supporting as a child. That’s right, it’s Jack Higgins. Both Higgins and Labuschange appear as hyper-active, over-exuberant ‘locker-room’ type guys with an almost childlike affinity for playing their chosen sport at the highest level. This type of teammate is perfect for when the rest of the team is struggling for a bit of energy, but maybe a bit much at other times.
4 – Steve Smith – If Steven Peter Devereux Smith isn’t the most unique sportsperson on the planet, then he has to be top three – probably alongside baseball’s Rickey Henderson and basketball’s Dennis Rodman. (Don’t believe me about the other two? Feel free to google them). Smith is the guy who, at the start of last summer, claimed that he had ‘found his hands’ before peeling off consecutive sixty-ball hundreds. Why was it important that he had ‘found his hands’? Oh, just because he occasionally forgets how to hold the bat. Blessed with eyes and hands that are surely amongst the best to have ever existed and an almost pathological desire to make runs, Smith’s ascent to the top of international Test cricket’s batting ranks is, like Labuschange after him, anything but normal. With dyed-blonde hair and more than a little puppy fat, Smith was initially picked as a potential replacement for leg-spinning legend Shane Warne back in 2010 (Warne had retired three years earlier). This was a tough time in Australian cricket, as we quickly became aware that our golden era had well and truly ended. Smith was dropped, then re-selected for the final three Tests of a disastrous home Ashes series loss, before effectively being exiled from the team for two years.
Finding yourself so quickly in the wilderness of Australian Test cricket must have been a disappointing and crushing blow for the 21-year-old, and lesser players may have become jaded and frustrated at not being given more time to flourish at the top level. But not Smith. Instead, he responded in a way that even the most optimistic of members of the ‘Steve Smith fan club’ wouldn’t have thought possible. After initially being seen as a leg-spinner who could bat reasonably well, Smith used his two-year hiatus from the Test team to become one of the best batters in domestic Australian cricket, earning a recall to the national team in the wake of ‘homework-gate’. Despite his flourishing domestic form, however, Smith’s re-entry to the Australian Test team didn’t bring immediate success. Leading into the final Ashes Test of the away series in 2013 at The Oval, Smith had played six consecutive Tests (for a career total of 11), had passed 50 just five out of 22 attempts, and had yet to make a hundred. His career average was less than 30 and another failure could have seen him dropped again, and despite being just 24 years of age, see him legitimately struggle to return.
But of course, Smith didn’t fail. He made 138* in the first innings, would back that up with two more centuries in the home Ashes series later that year, and never look back. Since his first Test hundred, Smith has averaged almost 70 with the bat, underlining an incredible last eight years that has at times seen comparisons with Don Bradman seem justifiable. Of course, one of those years was lost as a result of a ridiculous suspension, but that has more to say about Smith the leader than Smith the batter. So, who is his AFL equivalent? I must admit, I struggled to find a current player quite like him and was forced to delve into the history books. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go too far back on time to find someone as freakish in their talent, and single-minded in their approach, as Smith – Gary Ablett Jnr. One of the most amazing things about Ablett Jnr. is that, according to the AFL’s player ratings, his worst 40 games across a four year span (from the start of 2009 to the end of 2012) were still better than the best 40 games of the second-best player in the AFL. I reckon at the end of Smith’s career, his first 11 Tests aside, we’re going to find the same thing.
5 – The Australian Test team has never really had a stable number 5 batter since Michael Clarke called time on his career at the end of the 2015 away Ashes. In the ensuing six years, eight different players have cycled through the spot, with none of them ever truly making it their own. As a result, the selectors are met with the same question that has greeted them for the last half dozen summers – who bats at number 5?
Travis Head – I don’t think there’s an Australian cricket fan alive who doesn’t want Travis Head to succeed as a Test player. He has a great temperament as a batter, he’s got captaincy experience at domestic level, can bowl some handy off-spin and is a good (albeit not great) fielder. And yet twice he has found himself dropped from the Australian Test team for crucial matches. This is because, while he is gifted with a ton of ability, he just hasn’t been able to put it together against the best teams at the international level. Yes, he has technical flaws in his game (you don’t to flash at everything outside off-stump, Travis), but he’s not alone in this. Plenty of players have had great international careers despite having obvious technical flaws and it might just be a matter of time before Head puts all of the pieces together and becomes an elite player. He is still only 27 years of age, has played over 100 domestic first-class matches, and his career trajectory to this point matches so many great past Australian champion cricketers. He has plenty of time (and skill) on his side, and with increasingly dominant displays in domestic cricket, signs are pointing in the right direction for him. His AFL equivalent might be a bit harsh on both of them, but really Stephen Coniglio and Travis Head are both just a couple of games away from proving that they are amongst the best at what they do. They have hit a wall professionally, but as any good renovator will tell you, that wall needs to be crashed through.
Usman Khawaja– For the last decade, Khawaja has been the mystery man of Australian cricket. Looking at his record, it seems insane that he would even be in the same conversation as the likes of Travis Head in battling for a spot in the team. In a career spanning 44 Tests across the last decade, Khawaja has averaged more than 40 with the bat and has made eight Test centuries (interestingly, he averages nearly 70 as an opener in Test cricket, with two centuries in seven innings). Like Shaun Marsh before him, though, I can’t help but get the impression that his selection in the team is often mistimed – he is selected when he is not in form, performs below par, gets dropped, then proceeds to find form again and dominate domestic cricket. When the English last toured Australia four years ago, it appeared Khawaja may have finally come of age. In Australia’s 4-0 triumph, he made more than 300 runs, averaging in excess of 47 with a century and two half centuries to his name. Of course, Australia’s next Test series involved sandpaper, and the first series post sandpaper, which produced Khawaja’s finest effort, happened in Dubai. It’s often a joke amongst Australian cricket journalists that overseas series involving the Australian cricket team may as well have not happened, such is the interest of the Australian cricket public to these results. Regardless, in conditions that most Australian batters would charitably regard as ‘inhospitable’ Khawaja made his own, battling for nearly nine hours as Australia fought out an uncharacteristic draw. He would add one more century to his record in the summer of 2018/19, making an unbeaten hundred against Sri Lanka in Canberra, but following a slow start to the 2019 away Ashes, coupled with his below-par showing against India at home in 2018/19, Khawaja’s Test career would come to an end. In spite Australia’s struggles both at the top and in the middle order, Khawaja has yet to be recalled. Regardless of his record, and perhaps because of his great form so far this summer, he bears some resemblance with Swans midfielder Luke Parker – a career that is better than he is credited with. Parker was taken with a late second-round selection in the 2010 draft, and virtually since his debut in round 8 of 2011 has flown under the radar of almost everyone in the AFL, making only one All-Australian team. Despite a superior record to many who have been selected ahead off him, Khawaja looks to be leaving a few thousand runs on the table as his international career grinds to a halt.
6 – Cameron Green – Cameron Green is like that toy that you asked your parent’s to buy you for Christmas, but never really believed that they would. You wait with anticipation, counting down the days to Christmas, allowing yourself only a few brief moments to imagine your dreams coming true. Then, come Christmas Day, you open your first present and bam – a brand new scientific calculator! Wait, no one else wanted that? Oh well, continuing on… Starting his domestic career as a promising young fast bowler who could bat a little bit, (he took a five-wicket haul on debut as a 17-year-old) it quickly became apparent that the opposite was true – this was a batter in bowlers clothing. Green now averages over 50 with the bat in the Sheffield Shield, having made eight domestic centuries from just 56 innings, while taking his wickets at 33. Admittedly, if we zero in on his form over the last three summers, his batting average sits at a Smith-esque 62.5, while his bowling average balloons out to a tick over 60, indicating the impact that multiple stress fractures of the back have had on his ability to train as a bowler.
As a 200cm tall batter, Green is an oddity in the history of international cricket. The list of successful batters over six feet tall is only about ten players long, and for an all-rounder like Green, that list is essentially just Tony Grieg. The likelihood that someone his size is successful with bat in hand is low, but if he is, he’ll be an all-time great. For the past 15 years, Australian cricket has been looking for our version of 2005 Andrew Flintoff and outside of Shane Watson, we’ve never really got close to finding it. With Green, though, we seem to have happened upon a chance at unearthing Australia’s Jacques Kallis. At just 22 years of age, the world is at his feet (not literally, of course), and really the only AFL equivalent is Essendon’s Nik Cox– a tall player who currently plays like a much smaller player. Looking ahead, though, I can’t help but think the best comparison for Green is to have a career like Nic Naitanui – a few best and fairest awards, some All-Australians, and a heap of critics who misunderstand your role in the team.
7 – Alex Carey – Following the stunning, tragic and ultimately self-inflicted demise of former skipper and ‘keeper Tim Paine, Alex Carey was given the nod over West Australian Josh Inglis to assume the mantle of Australian Test wicketkeeper. It’s been anything but a simple, uncomplicated rise to the top of ‘keeping ranks in Australian cricket for Carey. His path to the top job began in earnest when he was cut from the GWS Giants list at the end of 2011 – then Giants coach Kevin Sheedy cited a lack of leg speed as the reason for his sacking. Carey returned home to South Australia as a devastated 20-year-old, initially planning on continuing to play football before making a u-turn and deciding that cricket was where his true passion lay. From there he started his steady ascent up the ranks of South Australian cricket, making his state debut just two years after he was cut from the Giants. Five years after this, in 2018, he found himself representing his country for the first time in a One-Day International against England at the Gabba.
Since then, Carey has represented his country over 80 times across one-day and T20 cricket, and was amongst Australia’s best players in the 2019 One-Day International World Cup, averaging more than 60 with the bat (at a healthy strike-rate of 104) to go with his 20 dismissals with the gloves. While not as destructive with the bat as Inglis (or Inglis’s Western Australian Josh Phillippe, for that matter), Carey has proven himself as an attacking stroke-maker as well as displaying consistency with the gloves. For Carey, there are a couple of easy, if not lazy, comparisons one could make to footballers – do you go with the dual-sport champion in MarkBlicavs, arguing that since they’ve both been talented at two sports, that makes them similar? Too on the nose for mine. Or do you simplify it and say Alex Carey the cricketer’s closest comparison is Alex Carey the footballer? Once again, a little too simplistic. Instead, I’ve decided to go with Geelong’s Tom Stewart. Stewart was similarly a late addition to the ranks of the elite in his sport, but has since made every post a winner, proving to be almost impassable at times across the Cats half-back line. Maybe it’s me, but I’ve always thought ‘keepers are kind of like half-back flankers – they can be attacking or defensive depending on the game, the best one’s are rarely beaten and barely ever let anything past them, and when they are on song and controlling the game, it bodes extremely well for their teammates.
8 – Mitchell Starc – I had a theory about Mitchell Starc that I have just found out is completely untrue. The theory, based on poor memory and subjective thinking, goes that Starc has been worse as a Test bowler since sandpaper-gate. Using Cricinfo’s wonderful Statsguru, I have now been proven comprehensively wrong. Since the events of Cape Town, Starc is actually getting his wickets faster, for less runs and at a better economy rate now than prior to March 2018. So why does it feel like he has gone backwards? Perhaps it’s that the other fast bowlers have gotten better at a faster rate? Perhaps it’s that his stats against the best teams have left a little to be desired (he’s averaged more than 37 with the ball in the last two series against India)? And perhaps it’s our own expectations that hewas going to be the generational bowling talent for Australia, winning the team games that they had no right winning, using that yorker of his to crush both the toes and hopes and dreams of opponents.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t become this player, at least not in white clothes. With the red Kookaburra ball, his influence on games seems to wane considerably after the first 10 or so overs, and he is left trying to ball short and getting batters caught in the deep rather than beating them with skill. Of course, none of this is to say that he doesn’t deserve to be in the team for the First Test – he absolutely does. A fit and firing Mitchell Starc just about walks into any bowling line-up in history. But I think the problem is that you can’t help but get the impression that there’s another gear that he has yet to access. If he does access it, he could be the reincarnation of Wasim Akram. If he doesn’t, he’ll still be a bloody good bowler, but just not the best we’ve seen. It might be me, but is he cricket’s version of Gold Coast’s Jack Lukosius?
If not, let me lay out my argument for you – they are both supremely talented, both could be the best at what they do, but both give off the impression that they have yet to reach their final form. Admittedly, in the case of Lukosius, this is because he is only three seasons into his career, but nevertheless, if we were to extrapolate based on what he has produced to this point, you’d have to have rocks in your head to say that you’d be satisfied with what both Lukosius and Starc (the Test version) have produced. Time is still on their side, and with talent like theirs, if they were to fulfil it the next five or so years could be great fun.
9 – Pat Cummins – It’s almost unfathomable to think that, at the age of just 18, Cummins was already deemed ready for Test cricket. In fact, not only was he deemed ready, but he was Seeing him toy with the legendary Jacques Kallis in South Africa’s second innings, before mercifully dismissing him, left fans with the impression that this was the second coming of Dennis Lillee. He finished his debut match with seven wickets (as well as being part of an unbeaten, match-winning 18-run partnership with Mitchell Johnson) and was awarded Man of the Match honours. Unfortunately, as has so often been the case with young Australian fast bowlers, injuries struck. A series of lower-back stress fractures kept Cummins away from Test match cricket for six years. In his return Test match in March of 2017 – against India in Ranchi – Cummins proved how durable he had become, bowling 39 overs sending down 39 overs in searing heat, finishing with figures of 4/106.
Since this return match, Cummins has missed only two Test matches, making up for the lost time with an insatiable hunger for wickets. It was this durability, coupled with his leadership skills and status as Australian cricket’s golden child that saw him elevated to the captaincy in the wake of Tim Paine’s dick-pic related misdemeanour. Over the last four years, Cummins has proven himself to be a once-in-a-generation talent, possessing the rare ability to break through for a wicket when his team needs it most. At just 28 years of age, it doesn’t feel unreasonable to suspect that his best is still ahead of him, a thought which must send tremors through opposing dressing rooms. Last summer, Cummins became the tenth-fastest to reach 150 Test wickets, in terms of games played, reaching the mark in the same amount of Tests as both Lillee and Shane Warne – 31. Of course, these are just numbers and words. What they don’t convey is the feel of a Pat Cummins spell. The edge-of-your-seat anticipation that a wicket is just one ball away. The look of worry and concern on a batter’s face when Cummins turns at the top of his mark. The eager expectation of the ‘keeper and slips who ready themselves before every ball, knowing this could be the one that brings them into the game. Throughout the history of Test cricket, there have only been a handful of bowlers capable of transfixing everyone in attendance. Since his return, Cummins has quickly become part of this group.
As mentioned, the scary thing for batters around the world is that Cummins is only reaching the prime years of his cricket career now. A young phenom at the beginning of his best years, surpassing the previous ‘leader’ as the best in the team, displaying a rare mix of consistency and elite performance – the comparisons between Pat Cummins and Sam Walsh are uncanny.
10 – Nathan Lyon –When Shane Warne announced his retirement effective the end of the 2006/07 Ashes, it was presumed that he would hand the mantle of Australia’s number one Test spinner to Stuart MacGill, who would carry it through the next few years. Yes, ok, MacGill was the same age as Warne and hadn’t really had to lead a spin attack for Australia since Warne’s drug suspension in 2003, but if he’s not up to it, we’ll have plenty of other options. Any one of Brad Hogg, Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain or Steve Smith could become our number one spinner. What’s that? None of them did? Oh boy… It was in this climate that Nathan Lyon debuted in Sri Lanka in August 2011. And since then, he has toiled away and quietly become Australia’s best ever off-spinner. 100 Test matches and nigh on 400 Test wickets later (at a more than respectable average of a tick over 32), Lyon has proved to be a consistent and reliable ‘lock-down-an-end’ spin bowler that Australia has never truly fallen in love with.
Yes, there are the ‘Nice Gary’ chants at grounds around the country, but they tend to lack the whole-of-stadium bellowing that used to used to accompany the chants for Lillee, Warne, McGrath et. al. If you don’t believe me that Australia has never been head over heels for Lyon, ask yourself why it is that anytime some barely known spinner who manages to land the ball on anything resembling a cricket pitch is heralded as our next great spinning option with breathless commentators falling over themselves to anoint this mystery man the second coming? Lyon has shared the spinners spot in the team with several players throughout his career – Ashton Agar, Steve O’Keefe and Jon Holland – but every time people start to doubt his place in the line-up, he rises to the challenge. Lyon can’t bowl Australia to victory? Think Adelaide 2014. Lyon doesn’t play well in the sub-continent? How about dual tours of India and Bangladesh in 2017. Lyon can’t bowl in England? His record in three tours would suggest otherwise. Already this summer, there has been scuttlebutt that Lyon may be replaced at some point by the likes of Mitchell Swepson, young New South Wales leg-spinner Tanveer Sangha, or even Australia’s white-ball specialist Adam Zampa. It’s tough to think of a cricketer who has been as doubted and discounted as Lyon. Even now, I bet there are some of you reading this saying “Yeah, but…” And look, the truth of it is that Lyon is not as good as Shane Warne. He was never going to be and it’s unfair to expect that he will be. Warne was a once in a generation talent – by definition, players like him come along once every 30 years at best. And if you think any of Lyon’s replacements will be as good as Warne, well, it’s 2021 and life is full of disappointments. Lyon is the cricket equivalent of the phrase “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” And Lyon is good, bloody good.
He’s cricket’s Jack Darling – a player unfairly judged by standards that shouldn’t be applied to him. And if we step back and look at the whole picture, we quickly realise that while we’ve spent so much time complaining and wanting them to be something else, they’ve crafted out a career that all bar very few would be happy with.
11 – Josh Hazlewood – The perfect foil for the attack of Starc, the finesse of Cummins and the reliability of Lyon, Hazlewood occupies the slot of the bowler entrusted with the ball when things have got a little out of hand. This isn’t to downplay his role in the team, nor his ability with the ball. Hazlewood is a phenomenal fast bowler with the happy knack of keeping the ball on a length that Tony Grieg would describe as “just short of a good length” – neither bringing the batter forward nor allowing them to play off the back foot with any comfort. As a result, comparisons have often been drawn between Hazlewood and Glenn McGrath, and were he born ten years earlier, he could very well have been the focal point of an Australian attack through the early-to-mid 2010s. Instead, he’s often been cast in the role of playing second or even third fiddle to Cummins and Starc.
For some people, this role would gnaw at them, acting as a constant reminder that, despite their ability, they’ll never be regarded as the best. Though few and far between, however, there are those people in elite team sports who are happy playing a sacrificial role for their teammates, willing to forgo ego for the greater good. Think of point guards like Steve Nash in the NBA, or closing pitchers like Liam Hendriks in MLB, or indeed defenders in the AFL like Dylan Grimes who just get their job done with minimal fuss. They’re not the guys on posters who your snot-nosed kid wants to put on their bedroom wall, they’re not guys who will sell out memberships, or have long lines waiting for their autographs on family days. What they are, though are guys who remain calm when all others are not and save, by a factor of ten, the games that they lose.
12 – Jhye Richardson – The first fast-bowling reserve is likely Western Australia’s Jhye Richardson, who has barely put a foot wrong since debuting for his state at the age of just 19. Blessed with a whippy action that allows him to extract the most pace possible from his 178cm frame, Richardson has a happy knack of being able to pick up wickets when his side needs them most. Now at 25 years of age, he seems to have worked through the injuries that typically hobble young fast bowlers, coming out the other side a fast, economical wicket-taking machine. Couple this with a reputation as a more than handy lower-order batter – he averages more than 20 with four half-centuries from 28 innings – and one of the best outfield arms in the country, and you have a prospect who should see a lot of national team selections over the next decade, if only he can dislodge any of the ‘big three’ fast bowlers in front of him.
His form so far this summer (23 wickets at 13.43 across the first four games of the Sheffield Shield season) has been impressive, but is unlikely to be good enough to usurp Starc. Indeed, when it comes to selection, Richardson’s situation is one that’s not unfamiliar to the AFL – the history of football is littered with examples of potentially great players who existed for too long on the cusp of elite selection. I may be wrong, but I think an apt choice is Melbourne’s Bayley Fritsch– a player who dominated the lower levels for longer than should have been necessary, before finally getting his chance at the big time and taking it with both hands.
13 – Michael Neser – Australian cricket is obsessed with fast bowling. I mean really obsessed. If you can bowl in excess of 145 km/h (or 90 mp/h if you still use the imperial system), you’re a better than even chance of representing your state. If you can land the ball in the batter’s half of the wicket, your odds-on to play Tests for Australia. It doesn’t matter if you take wickets as frequently as a Glenn McGrath half-century, if you can crank that speed dial into the red, well, this is Australia where we bowl fast and only fast. The nation’s obsession with speed has hampered (and arguably prematurely ended) a few Australian careers along the way – careers of bowlers like Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers who, despite glittering state records, rarely if ever got a look into the national team. As we stand on the brink of another summer, it seems like Neser’s name may get added to this list of bowlers who never fulfilled their potential on the international stage. This is despite his last four Sheffield Shield seasons, where he has taken a combined 123 wickets at a tick over 21.
Just to prove his elite status, Neser went to the UK over the Australian winter and played County cricket for Glamorgan, taking a further 23 wickets at less than 17. Despite these stats, and despite the fact that there’s going to be a pink-ball Test in Adelaide (and possibly one more in Hobart) which suit Neser better than just about any other bowler who has represented Australia, it feels almost inevitable that he’ll be overlooked for selection. At 31 years of age, Neser has experience and a record that others could only dream of, yet lacks the extra 10-15 km/h that would see him be a constant fixture in the team. In some respects, Neser is Australian cricket’s version of David Mundy, who despite a stunning record over 18 seasons has only won one club best-and-fairest (2010) and made one All-Australian team (2015).
14 – Mitchell Swepson – A spinner who has come of age in the longer form of the game over the last two years, Mitchell Swepson looks likely to be Australia’s next number one ‘spinner-in-waiting’. Over the last two Shield seasons, Swepson has become the dominant spin bowler of the competition, taking 46 wickets at less than 26, and importantly (at least for the way Australia likes to use their spinners) going at an economy rate of roughly two-and-a-half. He already has some experience in international cricket, playing seven T20’s, and has far from disgraced himself taking 11 wickets at less than 16, and an economy rate of seven-and-a-half. Australia does love itself an attacking leg-spinner, and at 28 years of age and his increasingly excellent record, Swepson appears to be close to harnessing the power of cricket’s most difficult art. Chances for him appearing this summer, though, appear slim given Lyon’s status, but with a tour of Pakistan pending for March 2022, a Test debut in the near future seems likely.
Perhaps the one question mark may be around Swepson’s batting against genuine pace, but really if the reason you are not picking a bowler in the XI is because of their batting, then you have rocks in your head. A young player on the brink of becoming elite in their position, despite not yet being a household name, I’d argue that (regardless of the disparity in height) Swepson and North Melbourne’s Nick Larkey have quite a bit in common.