Cricket Australia selectors have been criticised ahead of the first Test match of the summer. Thursday's Test in Perth against South Africa will feature a brand-new face in South Australian seamer Joe Mennie, who was thrust into the Australian squad with relative surprise.
Selection chairman and former Test wicketkeeper Rod Marsh announced the 12-man squad last Friday, with Mennie's name met with shock. Mennie was one of several new bowlers thrown into the deep end in last month's disastrous ODI tour of South Africa, with Australia suffering a humiliating 5-0 whitewash. Regardless of Mennie's prolific wicket-taking ability in Shield cricket, he has no Test experience to his name.
Jackson Bird had been tipped to take the spot after being a squad member in Sri Lanka, as well as bowling well in New Zealand earlier in the year as Mitchell Starc's backup. With Starc absent while recovering from ankle surgery when the Aussies toured New Zealand back in February, the selectors turned to Bird. In some stellar displays of swing bowling that overshadowed mainstay Josh Hazlewood, Bird knocked over seven New Zealanders, one of which was run-machine Kane Williamson for 97, to help Australia to a 2-0 series win and a World No. 1 team ranking.
Bird is as consistent as they come, with 226 first-class wickets coming at a measly 24.53. He is a proven wicket-taker at Test level. In contrast, Mennie has 156 first-class wickets at 26.94 and is a known asset for South Australia, but has only the two one-day games against South Africa to his name in the green and gold.
Some believe that, because the selectors favour bowlers that can deliver long spells, Mennie's efforts for South Australia last summer were enough to convince the panel he may be able to perform the same role in a Test match. This seems strange, because Bird is capable of tying down an end. It is obvious that both players have the mettle to take wickets, but Marsh had other ideas.
In a puzzling move, Bird missed out simply because his batting isn't good enough.
"I talked to Jackson again this morning and I said to Jackson the thing that probably cost him a place was his batting," Marsh said on Friday. "We've got to get runs at the bottom of the order as well, particularly against a very good attack.
Australia's embarrassing batting displays in Sri Lanka seem to have triggered Marsh's decision, with Mennie's batting ability helping him beat Bird and others to take the last place in the squad to face South Africa in the first Test at the WACA Ground.
Batting stability is a key to winning against South Africa and Pakistan this summer, but it seems unjust that a bowler of Bird's quality should go to waste, especially when it isn't his job to make hundreds. Former Aussie captain and ex-selector Allan Border ridiculed Marsh's justification, joking that Glenn McGrath wouldn't have got a game if his batting prowess ever stood in the way of his skills with the ball.
"It should be about who gives us the best chance of taking 20 wickets, not how many runs he might score down the order," Border told foxsports.com.au.
"Does that mean you don't pick Glenn McGrath because he's not going to feature much with the bat?"
Border also stressed that if selectors saw Mennie and Bird as bowlers of equal talent, then the call to reward Mennie for his batting would be justified. However, Border was even more disturbed when Marsh conceded lower-order runs were a concern.
"I get the thinking but it worries me that you're (Rod Marsh) making that comment given that you want your top six to score the bulk of the runs, don't you?"
In his own right, Mennie is an outstanding bowler and deserves a crack at a Baggy Green. However, if the Australians need lower order runs and Mennie's off-stump is sent cartwheeling by Dale Steyn or Vernon Philander, how would Bird feel? With five first-class fifties to his name, Mennie is no slouch with the bat, but would anybody care if he can't take a wicket?
Through it all, it may not matter, with veteran Peter Siddle likely to round out the Aussie pace attack at the WACA next week anyway and Marsh to leave his post when his contract runs out next year. Nonetheless, the Australia selectors have pinched another nerve that could potentially derail the Australian summer before a ball has been bowled.