It’s not surprising in an Ashes year that Australia and England contribute eight (male) players between them to the Test team of 2015. That’s a hint.
Nor are there any selection bombshells among the specialist batsmen – they pick themselves. In Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Joe Root, the team boasts three exceptional players, each seemingly destined for greatness. So much for the theory that the Twenty20 revolution would stifle the emergence of champion Test batsmen. Here we have three of them born 18 months apart.
Perhaps it’s because the modern game is tilted heavily towards batsmen; the bowling attack is harder to pick.
For the first time in this selector’s tenure, there is no Dale Steyn or Jimmy Anderson to take the new ball. The great South African spearhead battled injuries in 2015 and while Anderson was still a force, I’ve gone for a left-armer – Mitch Starc ahead of Trent Boult – in an attack featuring two specialist quicks and two spinners.
Apologies are extended to Adam Voges, whose 1000-plus runs at 85 revived memories of Mike Hussey’s remarkable first year in Test cricket. It’s not his fault he got so many of his runs against the West Indies, who at best lacked firepower and at worst lacked interest. But he couldn’t displace any of the top five in this side, and team balance demanded that we scour the cricket world for an all-rounder to bat at six.
New Zealand is the only country represented outside the big three of India, Australia and England. The absence of any South Africans is a sign of the Proteas’ decline. Special mentions, though, go to Pakistan wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed, whose support for captain Misbah ul-Haq underpinned the team’s three series wins, and Sri Lankan gloveman Dinesh Chandimal, whose runs were important in a young side.
Which brings us to the 12th man, or first woman. This selection is not meant to provoke a debate about whether the best female cricketer in the world is good enough to play with and against men. It is to recognise the excellence of a player who is the best in her field, at a time when men and women are starting to take notice, and big sporting organisations are waking up to the power of women’s sport. In that respect, she might just be the most important figure in Australian cricket.
David Warner, Australian vice-captain. Not a title many would have predicted for the brazen opener a couple of years ago, but an official leadership role has coincided with his best year in Test cricket. Not surprisingly, he has made his runs much more quickly than any of the other top batsmen, striking at 81 per 100 balls. We now feel it’s safe for him to share a dressing room with Joe Root, but under no circumstances should team celebrations be held at the Walkabout.
Matches 13, runs 1317, average 54.87
David Warner opens for the second year in a row Photo: Andy Brownbill
Alastair Cook (c)
2015 brought a welcome change of fortune for Cook, his previous struggles as a batsman and captain consigned to history when England won back the Ashes. His series against Australia was solid rather than spectacular – his highest score was 96 at Lord’s – but he made centuries against New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan and presided over the overdue rebuilding of the England side. In this team, he is a foil for the aggressive and instinctive Warner, which allows the Englishman to do what he does best – accumulate. Cook pips Smith for the captaincy purely because England won the urn.
Matches 14, runs 1364, average 54.56
Alastair Cook is skipper after regaining the Ashes. Photo: Getty Images
Williamson’s tour of Australia was one of the best by a visiting batsman in recent memory, made all the more admirable by the fact wickets were often tumbling around him. He took down Mitchell Johnson in Brisbane, making 140 out of the Black Caps’ total of 317, and backed up that performance with 166 at the WACA Ground. Johnson admitted he had underestimated Williamson, a mistake the Australians surely won’t make when they tour New Zealand in February. Little wonder Martin Crowe has tipped the 25-year-old to become the Black Caps’ greatest ever batsman, and that Allan Border would pick him (ahead of Smith and Root) to bat for his life.
Matches 8, runs 1172, average 90.15
Kane Williamson could end up being New Zealand’s greatest batsman Photo: Getty Images
Steve Smith (vc)
The best Test batsman in the world this year with more than 1400 runs and six centuries – at least one in every series – and there was plenty of competition from Williamson and Root. A double-century at Lord’s was a highlight, while the one lowlight was a run of failures when the Ashes urn was on the line later in the series. The transition to full-time captain appears to have gone seamlessly. There are few more entertaining sights in cricket than Smith batting towards a declaration, complete with Twenty20 trick shots and with the bowling at his mercy.
Matches 13, runs 1474, average 73.70
Steve Smith had 1474 reasons to smile in 2015. Photo: Getty Images
Is this the same batsman who was nailed to the crease by Australia’s bowlers in 2013-14? A much-improved and more free-flowing version of him, yes. Root was man of the series when England won back the Ashes, setting up the series with 134 and 60 in the first Test. Smith was the only batsman in the world to score more runs in 2015 and Michael Vaughan is the only Englishman to have made more runs in a calendar year. Root is scoring his runs more quickly than he used to, too, going at a very respectable 63 per 100 balls. The 25-year-old enhanced his credentials against spin with a strong series against Pakistan in the UAE.
Matches 14, runs 1385, average 60.21
Joe Root’s big Ashes helped seal his spot Photo: Philip Brown
There was no stand-out all-rounder in 2015, but the lone selector likes a bolter at No.6 and Stokes fits the bill. He averaged 29 with the bat and 48 with the ball, so there’s room for improvement, but Stokes oozes competitiveness. His six wickets at Trent Bridge and screamer of a catch in the gully to dismiss Adam Voges in the same match stick in the memory. Mitch Marsh’s contribution to the Boxing Day Test showed the value of a genuine seam-bowling allrounder in modern cricket and in this case, Stokes allows the flexibility to employ two spinners. Look for the young Australian, Marsh, to blossom in 2016.
Matches 14, runs 719, average 28.16; wickets 24, average 47.79
Ben Stokes is the allrounder and bolter Photo: Tim Ireland
BJ Watling (wk)
Watling’s 35 dismissals in only eight Tests give him the best ratio of dismissals per Test by any keeper in 2015, and his batting has been a crucial cog in New Zealand’s Test rise. His two centuries, against Sri Lanka in Wellington and England at Headingley, came in the second innings of matches won by the Black Caps. The Wellington hundred was part of an unbroken partnership of 365 with Williamson (the highest sixth-wicket stand in Test history, eclipsing the record Watling held with Brendon McCullum.
Matches 8, runs 536, average 48.72; dismissals 35 (32 catches, three stumpings)
BJ Watling after dismissing Australian captain Steve Smith. Photo: Getty Images
The most successful bowler in the world this year – 62 wickets at 17.20 from only nine Tests with seven five-wicket hauls is a mightily impressive haul even if his figures are inflated by the raging turners prepared for India’s home series against South Africa. (Ashwin took 12 wickets on a Nagpur pitch described by former England captain Michael Vaughan as “diabolical”.) Still, unlike many Indian off-spinners before him, Ashwin also consistently took wickets overseas, starting the year strongly against Australia in Sydney and with big hauls in Colombo and Galle.
Matches 9, wickets 62, average 17.20
Ravi Ashwin celebrates the wicket of South African captain Hashim Amla in Nagpur Photo: Rafiq Maqbool
One word – Nottingham. It’s enough to make Australians break out in cold sweats. Broad’s 8-15 in Jimmy Anderson’s absence will live on in Ashes infamy, for the way the provocative seamer had the ball on a string as he probed a line a touch wide of off stump and watched goggle-eyed as the batsmen wafted their way to 60 all out. Broad was the best-performed paceman in the world in 2015, finding ways to get good batsmen out in conditions much more challenging for bowlers than his Trent Bridge home. At 29, the Englishman is reaching a fast bowler’s peak, even if he doesn’t consistently notch express speeds like he used to.
Matches 14, wickets 56, average 23.82
The expression that said it all at Trent Bridge. Photo: AP
This was a tight call, and Josh Hazlewood is unlucky to miss out given he took more wickets (51 at 23.35) and made the ICC team of the year. But Hazlewood’s modest Ashes counted against him and with two off-spinners in the side, the selection panel wanted a left-armer. Starc developed into a proper spearhead at just the right time, his withering spell of 150-plus km/h bowling at New Zealand on a benign pitch in Perth signalling he was ready to take over from the retiring Mitchell Johnson. Starc finished the year in a moon boot, but the break for ankle surgery won’t hurt him in the long run.
Matches 11, wickets 46, average 25.06
Mitchell Starc cranks up the pace. Photo: Getty Images
Ideally, the second spinner should turn the ball in the opposite direction to Ashwin, but the other contender, Pakistan leggie Yasir Shah, was a late scratching when he tested positive to a banned substance and was provisionally suspended. In any case, Lyon is a more classical off-spinner than Ashwin and deserves his spot, routinely deceiving batsmen with flight and drop even if he doesn’t have a ‘carrum ball’. No Australian bowler has taken more wickets than Lyon in the past two years, and he is the ultimate team man. He leads the victory song.
Matches 13, wickets 48, average 28.72
Nathan Lyon is the second spinner Photo: Michael Dodge
12th Meg Lanning
The most controversial aspect of Lanning’s selection is not her gender but the fact she played only one Test in 2015, because there was only one to play. Never mind that she didn’t fire in that solitary and, it must be said, uninspiring fixture against England at Canterbury; Lanning led the Southern Stars to their first Ashes series victory in 14 years. She was voted ICC women’s ODI player of the year despite the Australians not playing much international cricket. At last, the excellence and exposure of female cricketers means they are regarded as serious sportspeople in their own right, players who need not be compared with their male counterparts. Arguments about whether Lanning would hold her own in a top order alongside Warner, Cook, Williamson and Smith, and against top male bowlers, are therefore a bit silly. But so is picking an imaginary team to play against Mars. The facts are, Lanning is a pure, positive batter, with a classical technique and the strength to hit down the ground and over the top. She is one of the most watchable batters in the country, male or female. She is dominating the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League. Oh, and she’s only 23. Lanning’s selection in the 12 is far from token, as it earns her a match fee to top up her annual pay packet of roughly $85,000 a year, about one-third of the salary paid to the average Australian male cricketer and much, much less than that compared with the top players.
1 Test, 3 runs, average 1.5; 3 ODIs, 195 runs, average 65, 6 T20Is, 106 runs, average 21.2; WBBL 7 matches, 326 runs, average 65.20, strike rate 121.18.
Meg Lanning. Photo: Ken Irwin
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