He should be in the Australian team. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Lloyd Pope, the actual Pope or someone else who just causes you to think, “nope,” people keep going to that pet line about their favorite players for Test selection: he should be in the Australian team. It happens year, after year, after year. This season is merely an extreme example of that speculation, fueled by the bans imposed on Steven Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft.
But there’s only so much of this stuff that one can stand. Even Matthew Wade, one of the more plausible candidates put forward during the early Sheffield Shield rounds for Test selection, thinks so. Instead of focusing on whether he will be throwing the ball back to Mitchell Starc and company from mid-on in the first Test against India, let us therefore consider the specialists he was throwing the ball back to in his most recent Sheffield Shield match: Jackson Bird, Gabe Bell, Riley Meredith and Gurinder Sandhu, especially the last three, who do not have Bird’s status in the game as someone who has played Test cricket. Gabe Bell is maybe the best bowler to never have taken a five-wicket haul in Sheffield Shield cricket, with the possible exceptions of Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble and James Anderson. Or, as Louis Cameron more soberly Tweeted:
Not a household name, but Tassie's Gabe Bell has sneakily become one of the better Shield bowlers going round. No five-fas but has 44 FC wickets at 20 in 11 games #SheffieldShield
— Louis Cameron (@LouisDBCameron) November 20, 2018
Apart from Bird, he is the only specialist bowler to have played in every Sheffield Shield match for Tasmania so far this season. Tom Rogers got injured, Sam Rainbird got dropped, and that last part is kind of the point. Now, I don’t think it was an outrageous decision, nor an indefensible one. But it was a decision that, if it were at a higher level, would have been the subject of greater debate. Rainbird is a good Sheffield Shield bowler. He is also a left-armer, arguably an important point of difference in an attack dominated by right-arm pace. And I can’t help thinking it would have trumped some of the pre-Test punditry that we have read.
That’s not to say there’s no analysis of such decisions. A recent T20 decision that turned out to be surprising was Karachi’s decision to sign Aaron Summers for the next Pakistan Super League in 2019. Malhar Hathi wrote a piece on this website looking at that decision and Summers in detail. I don’t entirely agree with it, based on what I’ve seen of Summers, but the point is that it exists, and the more local the focus becomes, the more rewarding it can be for writer and reader.
One of Summers’ teammates at Lindisfarne, his local Tasmanian club side, is Nathan Ellis. He, like Lawrence Neil-Smith and other players who went to Abu Dhabi as part of the Hobart Hurricanes earlier this year, shouldn’t be in the Australian team, isn’t in the Australian team, but collectively they are a part of what makes Australian men’s cricket strong (or what will make it strong again), by making those who are not quite of that level perform at their best to retain their spots.