Men's Ashes 2021-22
Six big calls that won Australia the World Cup and Ashes
The Australian selectors pulled the right lever at almost every juncture this summer, helping deliver huge success for the men’s team
23 January 2022, 05:07 PM AEST
After a period of success even the most optimistic fan mightn't have predicted, it's easy to forget the level of pressure Australia's men were under just three months ago.
Heading into a T20 World Cup opener against South Africa on October 23, many believed a semi-final berth would be a stretch for a team whose lead-in included 4-1 defeats in the West Indies and Bangladesh and whose squad featured big-name players with either questionable IPL form or little cricket under their belts.
And while hopes for the home Ashes summer were slightly more buoyant, question marks hung over a Test side that hadn’t pulled on the whites since India's historic series win in January.
But as we now know, those questions were put to bed in the most clinical fashion as Australia claimed both the T20 World Cup crown and a clinical 4-0 Vodafone Ashes victory.
The teams led by Aaron Finch and Pat Cummins secured the most successful period for the men's side in almost seven years, when they backed up a 2-0 Test series victory over India with an ODI World Cup on home soil in early 2015, and have duly received plaudits.
But an often maligned and highly scrutinised group are due some credit, too.
It's perhaps the ultimate compliment to the Australian selection panel of George Bailey, Justin Langer and Tony Dodemaide (who was appointed after the T20 World Cup) that the usual hyper-criticism of selectors has been almost non-existent in recent months.
At almost every key juncture during the World Cup and Ashes, the trio pulled the right lever to ensure the best possible XI were on the park.
1. Mitch Marsh’s promotion to No.3
Langer pulled a selection surprise on the eve of the West Indies tour in July and announced Mitch Marsh would be elevated to first drop.
"We see him as a bit of an enforcer up there, he faces fast bowling as well as anyone around the place," Langer said at the time.
"He hits the ball with brutal power and we're looking forward to giving him a chance at the top of the order."
The move paid immediate dividends as Marsh recorded three half-centuries in five knocks to finish top-scorer in an otherwise disappointing series in the Caribbean.
He backed it up against Bangladesh in August, again topping the run tally and – again – was the shining light in a poor tour.
However, the biggest call for selectors was to come, when incumbent No.3 Steve Smith returned to the side.
Langer and Bailey picked Marsh at first drop in the World Cup opener against South Africa and, despite some mid-tournament indecision when he was left out of the big loss to England, they stuck with the powerful right-hander for the final four games.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Marsh smashed a crucial 53 off 32 balls in the final group game against the Windies to seal Australia's semi-finals spot.
And, in an innings that will live long in the memory, a devastating 77 not out (off 50 balls) in the final against New Zealand earned him player-of-the-match honours and saw Australia hoist its first ever T20 World Cup trophy.
2. Pace to prevail in the UAE
For much of Australia's lead-in to the T20 World Cup, selectors opted for the dual spin of Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar as a formula for success.
With what were expected to be spin-friendly wickets in the UAE, continuing with that strategy appeared to be a no-brainer.
Further, Agar was perhaps Australia's most consistent performer in the previous 12 months and having risen to No.3 in the ICC's T20 bowling rankings and missed just one of the previous 15 T20Is, the West Australian was almost a lock to play.
"I played the two warm-up games, everything was cool and going well,” Agar recently told cricket.com.au.
“Then 'JL' (Langer) just pulled me aside and said, 'We're going with the quicks and that means you're not playing'. I was like, ‘what the hell?’.”
Despite the cruel turn of fate for Agar (which he took magnanimously), it proved a masterstroke by Bailey and Langer.
By backing in the likes of Josh Hazlewood, who finished as the tournament's fourth-highest wicket-taker, and a severely underdone Pat Cummins, who had not played for five months, Australia had a point of difference in the Gulf and they stormed to their first ever world T20 title.
3. Backing David Warner’s T20 prowess
It might seem a stretch to claim that picking one of the world's best ever T20 batters constitutes a ‘big call’.
But David Warner's form before Australia's World Cup opener against South Africa was a considerable worry, at least externally.
He had made just three runs in his four innings in the UAE before the Proteas' clash; scores of two and zero for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL before being dropped, then scores of zero and one in Australia's two warm-up games.
But there was never a hint among selectors that Matthew Wade or even Josh Inglis might replace Warner at the top of the order, which had been suggested by many.
Credit, too, must be given to Finch, who strongly backed his partner on World Cup eve.
“He's one of the greatest players Australia's ever produced and I've got no doubts that come game one, he'll be up and firing, ready to go," Finch said.
Warner's innings of 14 against South Africa in Australia's World Cup opener was hardly fluent, but contained enough positive signs that he might be nearing top form.
An innings of 65 in the following game against Sri Lanka then confirmed he was back.
The left-hander then finished the campaign with three crucial knocks; 89 not out (off 56 balls) against the Windies to seal a semi-final position, 49 (30) against Pakistan in the semi-final and 53 (38) against New Zealand in the final to re-stamp his authority as one of the world's best and walk away with the player-of-the-tournament award.
4. Matthew Wade the finisher
Perhaps of all the selectors' calls in recent months, the move to pick (and stick) with Matthew Wade as a dedicated T20 finisher may well have been the gutsiest.
An accomplished opener in the game's shortest format, Wade was far from established in the lower order and had been unable to grab previous opportunities batting between No.5-7 for Australia.
Like many of his teammates, Wade also had a poor run in the West Indies and Bangladesh tour that preceded the World Cup, returning 129 runs in 10 innings at a strike rate of just 113.15.
But Langer and Bailey backed experience over the growing calls for Inglis’ selection, and they were quickly rewarded with a level-headed 15 not out off 10 balls batting with Marcus Stoinis in a thriller against South Africa.
Defeat in that opening clash, with the benefit of hindsight, would have spelled curtains for Australia's campaign.
What was to come from Wade, however, was likely well beyond even the selectors' expectations.
Needing 62 off the final five overs in the semi-final against Pakistan, Wade and Stoinis delivered.
After whittling away Pakistan's total to need 18 off the last nine balls, Wade ensured the match wouldn't even enter the final over as he smashed the tournament's most exciting bowler, Shaheen Shah Afridi, for three consecutive sixes.
Two ramps over fine leg and a huge strike over deep mid-wicket sent Australia into the final in incredible fashion and ensured Wade's crowning moment in green and gold.
5. Resisting change at the Gabba
If the noise for Inglis to usurp Wade at the T20 World Cup was loud, the clamour for Jhye Richardson to replace Mitchell Starc in the Gabba Test was deafening.
At the time, Richardson had taken 15 wickets in his two most recent Marsh Sheffield Shield games at an average of just 11.33 as he stood head and shoulders above the competition's quicks.
Starc's previous Test series against India was one of his most disappointing in recent years, tailing off as the series progressed to return just nine wickets in four Tests.
Further, while he performed well at the T20 World Cup, he conceded 60 runs from his four overs in the final against New Zealand.
But the selectors opted to stick with Starc for the opener, and the 31-year-old found his rhythm early.
At the earliest opportunity, in fact, bowling Rory Burns on the first delivery of the series that set the tone for a thumping home win.
Starc was the only quick to play all five Tests in the Ashes and finished as the second-highest wicket-taker (19), behind Pat Cummins (21), in what was arguably his greatest ever Test campaign.
The selectors resisted the urge for change on a batting front, too, and despite the rising calls for Usman Khawaja to return to the XI, they opted to remain with Travis Head.
While Head wasn't technically an 'incumbent' like Starc (he missed Australia's two previous Tests against India after being dropped following the 2020 Boxing Day Test), he was still a part of the Test set-up that selectors had eyed to bat at No.5 in the Ashes.
They didn't waver from that position, and Head paid them back in spades.
A stunning 152 off just 148 balls at the Gabba set the platform for a memorable campaign that was capped off by another century in Hobart, while Khawaja's eventual recall in Sydney also proved to be a masterstroke with the left-hander peeling off twin hundreds.
6. The Boland call, and fast bowler management
Bailey, Dodemaide and Langer's management of fast bowlers throughout the Ashes showed they had learned from the previous summer, when Australia persisted with the same three quicks (Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc) throughout, and arguably suffered for it.
This summer, they showed a far greater willingness to utilise Australia's enviable fast bowling depth, although the omissions of pace stars Hazlewood and Cummins early in the series were enforced.
While Richardson and Michael Neser proved themselves in Adelaide, the decision to blood Victorian seamer Scott Boland turned into the masterstroke of the Ashes.
Picked as an 'MCG specialist' to replace a sore Richardson for the Boxing Day Test, Boland became undroppable following his incredible figures of 6-7 in the second innings in Melbourne, which earned him the Johnny Mullagh Medal on debut.
He backed it up with match figures of 7-66 at the SCG and the selectors simply couldn’t justify picking a fit-again Richardson, despite the fact the West Australian had taken five wickets in his most recent Test innings.
In blooding Boland, the selectors not only played a pivotal role in Australia claiming a 4-0 Ashes win, but they unveiled a player who could well prove to be an invaluable squad member ahead of nine Tests in Asia this year.
While the rotation of fast bowlers throughout the series was mostly through necessity –Hazlewood’s injury in Brisbane, Cummins’ Covid scare in Adelaide and Richardson’s soreness after Adelaide – Bailey had already indicated pre-Ashes he wanted to employ a "squad mentality".
And it has paid off, with six readymade quicks (Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc, Boland, Richardson and Neser) ready to play in what will be a demanding 2022.
Men's T20 World Cup 2022
Group A: Sri Lanka, Namibia, two qualifiers
Group B: West Indies, Scotland, two qualifiers
Super 12 stage
Group 1: Australia, Afghanistan, England, New Zealand, A1, B2
Group 2: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, South Africa, B1, A2
Australia's T20 World Cup 2022 fixtures
Oct 22: v New Zealand, SCG, 6pm AEDT
Oct 25: v A1, Optus Stadium, 10pm AEDT
Oct 28: v England, MCG, 7pm AEDT
Oct 31: v B2, Gabba, 7pm AEDT
Nov 4: v Afghanistan, Adelaide Oval, 7pm AEDT
Nov 9: SCG, 7pm AEDT
Nov 10: Adelaide Oval, 7pm AEDT
Nov 13: MCG, 7pm AEDT