Australia's decision to drop George Bailey is the wrong one

Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh are no better than the player they replaced, and will destabilise a winning team

George Bailey
George Bailey should have been granted more time to bed in with Australia. Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
George Bailey should have been granted more time to bed in with Australia. Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

Last modified on Wed 21 Feb 2018 13.23 EST

As Australia rolled to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash, one new nickname for the team was The Unchangeables. Consistency and a lack of injuries allowed them to choose the same XI for each match, a distinct contrast to the chopping and changing that has characterised recent years. But The Unchangeables’ brief reign has ended, with George Bailey excluded from the squad for February’s tour to South Africa. If this is an attempt to show ruthlessness, it looks instead like a return to confusion.

Keeping the other 10 Ashes players makes perfect sense. So does keeping all-rounder James Faulkner in the squad, given his patience as 12th man throughout the Ashes, and his recent match-winning exploits in one-day games. So do the back-up bowling selections, with the fire of James Pattinson and the accuracy of Jackson Bird ready to fill any gaps in Australia’s first-choice attack.

The dubious choices, though, are Bailey’s potential replacements in the top order: Alex Doolan, who was first drafted into the squad for the final Ashes Test in Sydney, and Shaun Marsh, returning to the Test scene after a two-year exile.

Bailey’s patchy Ashes series was always going to put him under scrutiny. Twelve top-order batsmen outscored him. Aside from a confident 53 at Adelaide, his first-innings scores for the series were 3, 7, 0 and 1. Still, he found ways to contribute. His second innings offered 34, 39* and 46. He equalled the world record for runs from an over in Perth to demoralise James Anderson and England. His Sydney partnership with Chris Rogers took Australia from a borderline to a winning position. He took more catches than anyone, including some corkers at short leg.

While his batting wasn’t entirely convincing, neither are the cases of his replacements. All are experienced first-class players with less than imposing records. Outside Tests, Bailey averages 38.3 from 98 first-class games, Marsh averages 35.7 from 78, and Doolan averages 37.92 from 53. Bailey is 31 years old, Marsh 30, and Doolan 28, so age is not a factor. None are young batsmen on the up.

Like Bailey, Marsh is a fine one-day player who has not translated his results to the next level. Bailey averages 26.14 from five Tests, Marsh 27.36 from seven. Bailey has the far superior ODI record, averaging 54.48 to Marsh’s 40.4. Marsh’s recent achievements are an ODI hundred against Scotland and two half centuries in the current England series. Bailey had a run of 14 innings in England and India that included two hundreds, two 90s, three 80s, two 50s, and four unbeaten scores.

The selectors have long had an itch to get Marsh in the Test team, but it seems to be based on some mystical faith in his lineage rather than his own deeds. While Marsh made a century on Test debut, he fell apart thereafter. His last seven innings were 0, 0, 3, 0, 11, 3, and 0, mostly at home against a barely conscious Indian side who were flogged 4-0. It makes Bailey’s series looks positively dynamic.

Doolan, meanwhile, is 17th on this year’s Shield tally, starting with a century and a half century, but subsiding to 31, 41, 12, 0, 19, 30, 17, 9, and 75. Marsh is 34th in the Shield, his lone century against Victoria surrounded by scores of 42, 4, 4, 13, 6, 47, 1, and 4.

On a statistical level, then, there is absolutely no case for either batsman to be elevated ahead of Bailey to the Test side. Instead, as on the 2013 tours to India and England, we come back to selectors trying to force a team into a certain shape rather than picking the best players.

Marsh and Doolan are seen as number three batsmen to fill the spot Shane Watson has lately occupied. Watson is a non-negotiable selection for Darren Lehmann, but the selectors have long wanted the all-rounder at six. They need a long-term No3 to make that possible.

Like many things, the rationale only makes sense superficially. Pushing all-rounders down the order is a reflex obedience to convention, based on the idea that they need rest after bowling. But Watson doesn’t bowl late in innings: his job is to provide relief during top-order partnerships. He rarely bowls more than a dozen overs. Why not be equally concerned at your No6 batting through an innings, then having to bowl within an hour of the reply?

In any case, Watson is not suited at six because he’s not a manipulator of the strike or the field. Working singles is not in his game plan. Batting with the tail would confuse his approach. At three, he can bat with partners who take care of themselves. It clearly suits him: Watson has averaged just under 50 in his six Tests since being installed at first drop, scoring two of his four career centuries, and an unbeaten fourth-innings 83 to smooth the Melbourne run chase. Now is hardly the time for yet another shuffle.

One of the lessons from Australian cricket’s recent highs and lows is the value of consistent selections. Over recent disastrous series, selectors have swapped players on a whim. One bad Test and you’re ditched for a hunch about some kid with potential. Glenn Maxwell, Moises Henriques and Ashton Agar got debuts. Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Ed Cowan got the flick after a bad match. Nathan Lyon got dropped after good ones. No one felt secure in their place.

Test players take some time to acclimatise – someone like Bailey, who has raised his game at international level in the limited-overs teams, deserved a better shot. A winning side allows the luxury of giving him one. Instead, one candidate is thrown back in the spin cycle of domestic cricket, while two who are no more qualified are promoted for no discernible reason. Whichever of Marsh or Doolan gets the nod, the selectors have just ensured he’ll be looking over his shoulder.

Australia Test squad for South Africa

Michael Clarke (c), Brad Haddin (vc), Jackson Bird, Alex Doolan, James Faulkner, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Marsh, Nathan Lyon, James Pattinson, Chris Rogers, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, David Warner, Shane Watson.

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