The difficult task of selecting a cricket team

So here I am in Auckland awaiting the start of the first semi-final game between New Zealand and South Africa due to start in four hours time. I will be watching it on TV instead of going to the nearby Eden Park grounds. If Sri Lanka had beaten South Africa and made it to this game I would have tried to get tickets even though it would have been very hard. The four semi-finalists (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and India) are not surprises and all the games should be close ones.

I have written before about the difficult job of the cricket umpire but another challenging role is that facing the selectors of a cricket team, because of all the trade-offs that have to be considered.

A cricket team of eleven players usually has six players who are specialist batsmen, four who are specialist bowlers, and one player who is the wicket keeper. Of these eleven, one player is the captain. Unlike the case in baseball, American football, or basketball where the captain of the team, if they even have one, has only a nominal role and the non-playing coach or manager makes all the key decisions, in cricket the captain has real responsibilities. He is the one who makes all the decisions once the game starts, such as who should be given the chance to bowl, the field settings, the batting order, what tactics to adopt at every stage of the game, and so on. It is a very important position. A good captain will consult with his other players when necessary but the final decision is his and his alone.

This raises the question of how to select the captain. Should you first pick the team based on who are the best players and then select a captain from one of the players among the eleven or should you select someone you think would make an excellent captain even if that person is not quite good enough to make the team if he were not captain?

Most teams favor the first option (as do I) though there have been occasions when teams (mostly England as I recall) have gone with the second. The reason that it is better to select the best player first is that it is necessary for all the players to respect the captain because they are obliged to follow his orders on the field. It is easier to command respect if you yourself are an outstanding performer worthy of a position on the team in your own right, though a captain who has an excellent reputation for astuteness and a winning record can overcome the liability of not being an excellent player.

As far as I am aware, the teams in the current World Cup pick the team first. This is why I was surprised that the West Indies captain is Jason Holder who, at 23, is the youngest player in the team. This is not because he is not good but the fact that he is so young might make it difficult to have the senior players follow him. So far it has not been a problem, as far as I can see. He is also a fast bowler, a role that few captains have occupied.

But the selection problems do not end there. Another question is whether you select the very best wicket keeper even if their batting is not that good, or go with a so-so keeper who can bat well. I tend to favor the former, unless there is a wicket keeper who is pretty close in abilities to the best one available but is far superior in batting. The reason is that an excellent keeper who can take difficult catches and make good stumpings can make the difference in a game, while a poor keeper can lose one and adds to the sense of slovenliness in the fielding.

This was demonstrated by Pakistan who had been playing Umar Akmal as wicket-keeper even though Sarfraz Ahmed was a much better keeper. Akmal had been dropping catches regularly but bringing in Ahmed for the game against South Africa paid huge dividends for Pakistan because not only did Ahmed take six catches including one brilliant diving one, he also batted well, enabling them to beat the much more fancied South African team.

Since four bowlers are not enough, you also need to have at least one or more of the specialist batsmen bowl, and again the question arises as to the extent to which selectors are willing to go with a lesser batsman who can bowl fairly well over the best batsman. The same thing with selecting bowlers, whether one should go with the four best bowlers or sacrifice one of them for a lesser bowler who can bat better. Then there is the issue of what mix of bowlers to have, how many fast and how many spin, and what kind of spin bowlers.

This problem is eased for selectors if they have a very good all-rounder, someone who is a real threat with both the bat and the ball, but such players are few and far between. The genuine great all-rounders that come to my mind are Gary Sobers (West Indies), Imran Khan (Pakistan), Richard Hadlee (New Zealand), Kapil Dev (India), and Ian Botham (England). Interestingly, all of them were fast bowlers. I don’t see any players among the current teams who reach that level with both bat and ball. More common are batsmen who can bowl (fairly well) or bowlers who can bat (fairly well).


  1. Brian E says

    It’s interesting, to me anyway, that Australia has no genuine all-rounders, but a few decent batsmen who can bowl and the odd decent bowler who can hit a few runs.

    The batsmen-

    Shane Watson, cough, can reportedly bat and bowls mediums-fast to tie down an end . OK, he did manage to survive Wahab’s brilliant spell by luck and guide Australia to the semis with the bat, but even a broken clock is right sometimes.

    Steve Smith debuted as a leggy who could bat, and is now Australia’s premier batsman, but doesn’t seem to roll the arm over anymore, so I guess he’s not even a batsman who can bowl.

    Michael Clarke is still OK as a batsman, and a good captain, who tweaks a bit of filth from time to time.

    Glen Maxwell is a devastating limited-overs batsman, a bit of De Villiers or McCullum, and tweaks filth to pass a few overs and trick a batsman into giving up his wicket with surprise (that something so bad could be bowled at this level!)

    The bowlers-

    Mitchell Johnson can bowl, though lately he’s been leaking runs, and has made 90 odd batting in tests and can score well, but hasn’t lately.

    Mitchell Marsh took 5 for against England, and was in the team as an all-rounder.

    Faulkner bowls at the death and also hits handy runs and is in as an all-rounder.

    On the subject of genuine all-rounders, wasn’t Keith Miller fairly decent for Australia in his day?

    Go NZ!

  2. Mano Singham says

    When I was listing the great all-rounders I toyed with the idea of including Miller but decided against it. He was very good but not quite in the same class as the others, in my judgment.

    A great contributor to cricket who was not in the top rank in any single category is Richie Benaud. He was a very good leg spinner, a competent batsman, one of the most astute captains and, later in life, a great commentator.

  3. Brian E says

    That makes sense. How’s the jetlag? You’re only 3 hours flight from where I am, and 2 hours ahead in time.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I almost never have jet lag, even thoughI travel to places with huge time differences. I put it down to sleeping as much as possible on the journey and then immediately moving to local time for my meals and sleep. I am usually adjusted within 24 hours of arrival.

  5. Suido says

    Jacques Kallis. Another pace bowler, and fully deserving of being in that list. Sth Africa have really struggled to find the right balance in their team since he retired.

    I agree that Australia have never had a great all rounder. Keith Miller would be the best of a small bunch. According to this shortlist, Miller has the best differential between his batting and bowling averages.

    However, Australia have a long tradition of big-hitting bowlers who can handle a bat pretty well. Not all-rounders, but capable enough to hang around and make the opposition work for the last few wickets. Since sport went fully professional in the 70s and 80s, this is one area which Australia has been consistently ahead of the pack, and definitely contributed to their dominance through the 1990s/2000s. How many times did Damien Martyn make 50s and 100s when batting at 6 because of the support from the lower order?

  6. fentex says

    Code blue! Code blue! I need some paddles here! My heart’s in difib!

    Oh man that was exciting! Up, down, around, high, low, maybe, certainly, probably not, easy, difficult -- can we? Oh lordy.

    No shame losing that game, as hard as it will be for South Africa. Exciting fielding -- including the mishaps.

    It’s really been New Zealand’s year -- the rain biting the big finish off the end of South Africa’s innings was a bit of good luck I think.

    Now I’m not sure if I want Australia or India in the final -- on the one hand I think India would be easier to beat (and it’d amuse NZ for Australia not to be in the final at home) but it’d be more fun to beat Australia in the final at home.

  7. auntbenjy says

    delurks because *cricket*

    Holy crap…could that have been a more exciting finish? Welcome to NZ, and I hope you enjoy your stay.

    Off to celebrate now. 🙂

  8. Brian E says

    The Kiwis are charmed at the moment. De Villiers looked ready to break a few records before the rain. Then the fielding issues. A few missed runouts, the collision instead of catch by the Saffers. I’m not sure where Australia are at the moment, they could take all before them, or collapse and not make the final. I wouldn’t mind if NZ won it, just as long as the remaining games are any where near as exciting as today’s.

  9. Holms says

    The main thing I like about Miller, and incidentally the main thing I dislike about Bradman, is the attitude he had for sport -- that a good game was a game in which all played to their best and gave tough competition for the other team; that both teams had to work regardless of who won. Contrastingly, Bradman’s was that all games need to be aggressive, win-at-all-costs or go home as losers.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Wow, that was some game! It is the kind of game that you wish there were no losers. I had never seen de Villiers bat before and it was great to see him in action. He makes it look so easy, a sign of a really good batsman.

    SA did have some bad luck. The rain delay came at a bad time for them and while their fielding was in general excellent (I can’t count the number of times they cut off boundaries and singles), the chaotic collision leading to the dropped catch and the botched run-out near the end did them in.

    I hope NZ can win the final, whichever team they end up playing. Australia and India have already won multiple times and I like to see victories spread around. It is good for the game.

  11. fentex says

    the chaotic collision leading to the dropped catch and the botched run-out near the end did them in.

    I don’t think that works, as a reason for SA losing -- I think it’s a return to the mean. The general level of their fielding was excellent, if you traded the runs they prevented for those two outs they likely still would have lost because NZ would have accumulated a victorious total faster.

    The thing that made that game exciting was that there was never a decisive advantage gained by either team -- it see-sawed only fractionally through out and was still at issue with two balls to go.

  12. fentex says

    I should add that SA was unlucky with rain -- the odds would have favoured them more if it hadn’t rained I think with their strong finish, tonnes of wickets in hand, I think they would have gone well past 350.

  13. Suido says

    Agree that the D/L system has not caught up with the increased scoring since new fielding restrictions were put in place.

    New Zealand were set 298 from 43 overs. That’s a run rate of 6.93, equivalent to chasing 346 in 50 overs. Sth Africa were almost certainly going to score more than 350 -- I would have bet on 360 +/-10 in the moment immediately before the rain stopped play.

    So New Zealand probably should have been chasing an extra 10 runs, approximately. Still, that would have changed the nature of the chase a little bit, and New Zealand still may have chased it, so it’s not fair to say this caused Sth Africa to lose.

    Steyn’s first 3 overs going for 39 are as much to blame for the loss as anything else, probably more so than any missed catches or run outs. New Zealand won the game more than Sth Africa lost it, full credit to NZ.

    As an Australian that despises the Australian team’s attitude on the pitch, I can honestly say I won’t be upset by India winning today, as it means I can and will whole-heartedly support NZ on Sunday. As long as there are two more cracking games in this WC, I won’t be unhappy with any results.

  14. bargearse says

    The main thing I like about Miller, and incidentally the main thing I dislike about Bradman, is the attitude he had for sport

    There’s an old story about Miller being asked by a reporter how he dealt with the pressure of test cricket. Miller was a fighter pilot in WWII and replied,”Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.” Perspective is a wonderful thing.

  15. jockmcdock says

    This was a fantastic game. Up and down. NZ to win, SA to win, back and forth. And what a finale. You could see the disappointment on the faces of the South Africans. I think the weather helped NZ a little, or maybe a better way would be to say it disadvantaged SA.

    NO SPOILERS: the Oz v India game is concluded. The other finalist is known.

    Keith Miller is an absolutely fascinating figure. he was a very genuine, very good all-rounder. He also played Australian Rules footballer. Quite a few cricketers played some form of football in a period not-so-long-ago -- some playing at international level in both sports. Gary Lineker could have played at Test level, some say, but the modern sports calendars prevent such feats these days.

    But back to Miller…he was a pilot during WW2. On one occasion, he tried to drop a bomb but it refused to detach and remained dangling from the wing. Miller was obliged was obliged to land the plane in that state. The bomb did not go off.

    But my favourite quote is the one he made on Parky. Parky asked him about pressure in cricket. Miller’s response was “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not”.

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