How did it all come together for Australia in the Ashes? Chief selector Trevor Hohns tells us
Trevor Hohns remembers it well. An instinctive selection decision, made in the crucible of the Newlands scandal, to make Tim Paine the 46th Test captain of Australia.
"We didn't have much time to have much discussion at all, because we arrived at the ground all together on the bus, and Steven [Smith] mentioned to me that he'd had a call and planned to step down. Straightaway, I had to get that clarified off with the Cricket Australia board, of course. Darren Lehmann was the coach at that stage, and he was a selector too, and he didn't know anything about it either.
"Within about five minutes we'd made up our mind, and what led us to Tim was simply, we thought he was the right type of person - he was touted as a leader previously. We went through the other candidates that could possibly do it and immediately we just came up with Tim.
"We went back to the dressing room, and it was announced that the boys [David Warner and Smith] would be standing down, and all I said was, 'Tim, sorry mate, no notice, but you're the captain.'"
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There could have been other avenues taken. Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh and Nathan Lyon had all captained state teams; Pat Cummins' reputation was burgeoning as a leader as well as an outstanding fast bowler. But the decision to pick Paine, a matter of months after his surprise selection as Australia's wicketkeeper had drawn harsh criticism from within the system - New South Wales a particularly vocal conscientious objector - was the first plank of Australia's ultimately successful Ashes defence in England, 18 months later.
That decision was also just about the apogee of a selection tradition Hohns had long been a part of: involving weighing up performance and character, and making some use of analytics. It is largely unchanged from how Hohns first learned the tools of the trade from the legendary Australian chairman of selectors Laurie Sawle in the mid-1990s. "A lovely man, really got on well with him and just quiet but very good in his judgement," Hohns says. "Wasn't afraid to make a hard call, wasn't afraid to talk to the players."
When Hohns joined the panel in 1993, Australia were on the cusp of becoming the world's best side. When Sawle, selection chairman since 1983, retired in early 1996, the crown had been claimed from West Indies, and Hohns was charged with keeping it.
Through the next ten years he played a vital role in doing so, most notably by managing the exits of a generation of players who had taken Australia to the top: David Boon, Craig McDermott, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Mark Waugh and Steve Waugh all left the scene, in circumstances occasionally harmonious but often far from it. For someone who had been a member of the vaunted 1989 Ashes touring party that all but two of those players had been a part of, the task of making such calls weighed heavily on Hohns.
"I'd played with a few of the boys that eventually we had to make a call on. That's always difficult, it's also not the nice part of the job. But if you can have that rapport with your players, they understand that from time to time there may be a harsh call made. They also, most times, would know when the pressure's on them a little bit anyway."
In 1999, Hohns and his panel faced a moment without parallel in Australian cricket history, having their recommendation for national captain vetoed by the board. Shane Warne duly lost out to Steve Waugh, adding another fissure to the fracturing of a previously close relationship. Waugh was able to fashion a powerful post as captain, taking all before him with a team of players largely chosen by Hohns. That, though, was another relationship that would be challenged when Waugh's career began to wind down and he successfully fought the panel's quiet encouragement to retire in 2002-03, carrying on for another year.
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The decision, celebrated at the time, changed the power balance between prominent players and national selectors. Those who followed Waugh into retirement did so largely on their own terms. An older team went to England in 2005 and lost, drawing a wave of criticism onto Hohns, among others. Bruised by the experience, he stepped down from the panel in 2006, ending act one of his selection career.
Another decade passed before he returned to head the selection panel. Andrew Hilditch, John Inverarity and Rod Marsh all held the role in the interim, overseeing one losing tour of England each, in between successful Ashes series at home in 2007 and 2014. When Marsh quit in 2016, Australia had lost five Tests in a row that year, after a somewhat shambolic Ashes tour, and already the wheels were in motion for a better showing the next time around, in 2019.
Pat Howard, then the team performance manager, helped construct a foundation around which Hohns, Greg Chappell, and ultimately the coach, Justin Langer, would build a team: Dukes balls in the Sheffield Shield, an Australia A tour to coincide with the World Cup ahead of the Ashes, and increasing amounts of data for selectors and coaches to sift through when making their deliberations.
"Eighteen months to two years," Hohns said when asked how long he had been planning for the 2019 Ashes. Newlands made for a significant dent in that planning. Hohns acknowledged that having Australian cricket's culture so thoroughly examined led to a reappraisal of the degree to which character and behaviour needed to be weighed up in selection. This went hand in hand with the approach favoured by Langer as a coach, emphasising discipline and hard work to meet the required standards of fitness and mental toughness to succeed.
"We are taking serious account of people's personalities and their past history, whether there's been any misdemeanours or what have you," Hohns said. "You don't really know sometimes, but you do by being around them a fair bit, you get to know their personalities etc, etc - you hear a lot of things.
"That is now coming into our selection process... but we'll always go for the best players. There's no doubting that, and if anyone has an issue, then it's up to us and team management to make them understand what the expectations are."
Experience in England was a major factor in most selection calls for the Ashes too: every player in the final 17-man squad had either played county cricket or Test matches in the UK. "With this one in particular, we wanted our fast bowlers to be fit," Hohns said. "That happened and we were very lucky to have all our key fast bowlers. We also wanted bowlers who could be aggressive but also give us some control as well."
"Looking at the batting side of it, we wanted to make sure we had some pretty good experience there, apart from David Warner and Steve Smith."
Hohns and others had long wanted to call upon each of Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson for the one tour. Granted this luxury at long last, after a litany of injuries for Pattinson in particular, the selectors also brought in Peter Siddle and Michael Neser as expert users of the Dukes ball.
How much of an impact did the increased use of statistical analysis and data make?
Hohns said Troy Cooley was vital in his role as fast-bowling coach. "He got our bowlers together, and worked out, through the data he received, just what the prime length was to be successful in England. From day one he kept educating our fast bowlers on just what it is and what was expected.
"I think sometimes data is very good in that regard because you can get anything you want these days. As a batsman it's very difficult because there's nowhere to hide. How they get out, where they hit the ball in the air, where their strengths are. We always used it previously but not to the extent we do now."
Australia, then, were exceptionally well prepared for the assignment. But from the moment of the internal trial match in Southampton that pared the squad back from 25 to 17, there were an abundance of hard calls to make. In one striking image, Hohns was seen walking across the Rose Bowl and staring at half a dozen players prostrate on the ground. The chief high executioner would go on to host 25 individual meetings with the players to inform them of their fate.
Joe Burns and Kurtis Patterson were particularly narrow omissions, on the basis that others were playing more capably at the time: namely Cameron Bancroft and Marnus Labuschagne. As subsequent results were to show, this judgement call was only 50% successful. Bancroft, first, was to be dropped after only two Tests. His replacement, Marcus Harris, fared even more poorly, reflecting top-order struggles for both sides, and for Australia's left-handers in particular.
Hohns said that replacing Bancroft with Harris had been a matter of letting the former know that he had some key things to work on before he could be sure of a longer-term place. "At that stage we considered that he just wasn't batting very well and I'm not speaking out of school here because we told him," Hohns said. "Prior to that he was obviously playing very well, and he's the hard-nosed, hard worker that we want in this team, and he knows that as well.
"He's now had the opportunity for the last three Test matches to work very hard on his game and any deficiencies that the coach may have pointed out to him. I have no doubt that Cameron has quite a good future for us. It's in his court, of course, he's got to put some runs on the board, but he's the type of player the Australian cricket team want."
Another hard call arrived ahead of the pivotal fourth Test of the series, in Manchester, where Khawaja was dropped after having occupied the No. 3 spot for Australia for most of the preceding four years. This decision may well come to be seen as having longer-term implications, since Labuschagne slotted into first drop and continued to show why he may well stay there for quite some time. Either way, Khawaja has the job ahead of him to come back.
"Usman's record in England, as has been widely publicised, isn't that good," Hohns said. "He's a senior player, so I guess what we're saying to him is: we want more out of him. We need our senior players to lead the way and stand up. The door's not closed on anybody, but when we get back home, the first three or four Shield games will matter a great deal, because we've still got positions available."
Khawaja and Travis Head, who was left out of the final Test, at The Oval, once the urn had been secured, had reason to feel hard done by when considering that both their returns had well and truly outstripped those of Warner, whose return to Test cricket after the Newlands ban was as disastrous as Smith's was delectable. Hohns defended the retention of Warner, but also pointed out that there is not a left-hander in Australia who will not be challenged by a line from around the wicket, like that employed by Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, in future.
"At the start of the series our left-handers were the ones that we thought were the better players," Hohns said. "[The England bowlers] bowled very well to them, so they have to do something about it. They have to adjust their game, they've got to want to improve, want to get better, but they've got to find a way of working out how best to play bowlers when they bowl from around the wicket to them."
More successful, and much more series-defining, was the balancing act between the Australian fast bowlers. Only Cummins played all five Tests. Hazlewood slotted in for four, Siddle three, Pattinson two and Starc one. Paine had spoken of this concept being "sold to" the pacemen, and Hohns said the conversations between selectors, coaches and bowlers had now evolved to the point where all of Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Pattinson can be expected to enjoy longer careers.
"We have had Josh, Patty and Starcy leading up to this series as the ones who were the standouts," Hohns said. "Because we had a lot of injuries as well, so they were pencilled in all the time, rightly or wrongly, and they did a wonderful job, got through a lot of hard cricket for a period of time. But now I'm hoping they understand that the cartel we're starting to develop will be able to look after them a little bit better, which will help them play for longer, and that's the plan.
"Same with Patto [Pattinson]. It's great to have him back, he's exciting, but he also now understands that he can't play every game. With what we've got available to us, it will allow us to manage him better too, and hopefully he can play for a long time as well.
"It just becomes a trust issue. We have to trust that they're telling us the right stuff, and they trust that we're genuinely trying to look after them or we genuinely want them to play, and no one's there to burn them out or try to break them."
In addition to Smith's genius with the bat, the contributions of Cummins and Hazlewood were the biggest single factors in retaining the urn. Top-quality fast bowlers remain the game's most precious resource.
There was a sense of achievement at the end of the Ashes, but also one of uncertainty. Australia's batting troubles mean that as many as three of six places are up for grabs come the first Test of the home summer, against Pakistan at the Gabba. Paine's captaincy is tied closely to his own performance, which trailed off with the bat in England. And Hohns himself now faces plenty of questions for the future, as a new national teams manager, Ben Oliver, looks to fashion a fresh selection approach. Hohns' contract is up at summer's end.
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Will he be around to guide selection decisions beyond 2020? This too is shrouded in doubt. The CA chief executive Kevin Roberts has flagged the need for more T20 knowledge in selection, and also a closer link between the national team and the states. The matter of greater analytics use also hangs in the air.
"I think the way it's working at the moment is fine, it's not broken or anything," Hohns said. "Whether it can be done any better, I don't know, and yes there is in the next 12 months a massive amount of T20 cricket, so we've got to take all of that sort of thing into account. Whether you have a specialist selector for that, that'll be up to the powers that be. It's a matter of what suits, I think, and it's also not a matter of trying something for the sake of trying it. I think you've just got to have the right people involved, if that's at all possible."
In times vastly changed from his first selection meeting more than 25 years ago, Hohns still thinks he is one of those people.