For the 2016 visit of Sri Lanka and then Pakistan to England, a points based system was, quite loosely, introduced across formats to try to boost excitement. Regrettably, no one can remember who actually got the most points and, though it works well in the women’s Ashes, this sort of UEFA Nations League within a bilateral cricket contest just rather fizzled out. There was some suggestion it might be used for the men’s contest last winter but was apparently quietly ditched, merely on the grounds everyone thought it was nonsensical and superfluous. It remains to be seen if UEFA’s new brainchild falls by a similarly unadorned wayside, though football is perhaps a little better than cricket at contriving genuine context out of apparent tincups.
If the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA) wish to resurrect this dead parrot, however, they may as well go all in and just dole out points for all sorts of things - not just trivialities such as winning matches - for the 2019 Ashes tour: Best DIY-based teasing, for instance; least offensive greeting in a nightclub to an opposition batsmen; most dapper selectors. In this last regard, England may feel they hold the whip hand. For as well as producing a rather maverick team that played jaunty if not entirely consistent cricket, their own player picking pair of Ed Smith and James Taylor have spent the summer riffing against each other’s sartorial look to great effect.
Smith, the chief selector, is often kitted out like a home counties Joachim Low, all black clingy polo necks and an air of insouciance. When he does wear a suit - or at least a jacket - he looks like the second half of a English summer wedding - formal, but slightly louche. He often wears dark, round sunglasses, granting him the inscrutable air of a self-assured university lecturer who likes to remain slightly aloof from his students at a graduation ceremony. He actually is a university lecturer, as it happens. Taylor for his part shows an element of nominative determinism, wearing pulsating navy suits with a cut as sharp as his own once was. Although a lovely man, in photos this summer he often seemed to look slightly austere with an air of menace, an ECB Joe Pesci with the body of someone's Test career in his boot.
It has been quite the turnaround in fortunes for Smith, who kept his BBC Test Match Special commentary job even after leaving ESPN Cricinfo following a humbling plagiarism row. Well it would have been humbling for someone a little less bulletproof than Smith, but regardless the ex-Middlesex man remained a sturdy presence on air, being particularly adept at reining in the worst bombastic excesses of Geoffrey Boycott through a mix of combative knowledge and gentle teasing.
He was a little unusual for a journalist, in that when speaking instinctively on the radio he often seemed to make far more sense than in his brow-furrowed pieces in print. And so it was this last week when he was invited back to the programme to be interviewed about his first summer at the selection helm, which resulted in a thrilling series win against India and a draw versus Pakistan. He sounded full of candour and spoke a large dollop of sense, explaining how he had no doubts over his left-field - he loves baseball, natch - recalls of Jos Buttler and, to a lesser extent, Adil Rashid. He is, in this age where Peter Moores’ infamous adage of needing to “look at the data” has become an axiom, probably the inevitable selector for England. His worship of both statistics and the nature of chance being perfect bedfellows for a time where the approach of both cricketers and cricket writers has been changed by the emergence of companies such as Cricviz, who are now a mainstay of Sky's coverage in the UK.
Concepts such as an “enhanced average” for a batsman might still seem a little avant garde and untested, but there is no doubt that enhanced statistical scrutiny gives media and fans another weapon with which to shoot the forever prone selectors. For Smith, you sense this is actually more of a laid down gauntlet than a burden, and he was clearly enjoying his defence of Keaton Jennings’ ostensibly paltry summer when talking to Jonathan Agnew, reeling off stats for all openers throughout the summer to mitigate these returns. Jennings remains a great point of contention and something of an enigma. Between deliveries he glides around languidly like David Gower. When facing deliveries he has all the movement, but little of the grace, of Michelangelo's David, his strategy of playing India's seamer’s with soft legs rather than soft hands proving spectacularly unsuccessful. Yet the point is, when Smith made the case to retain him for the winter tours of Sri Lanka and the West Indies and backed it up with a simple, but solid, bit of statistics, he sounded perfectly reasonable.
Over in Australia, they are taking a somewhat different approach to statistics i.e. plucking them out of rainbows and mixing them with elite gut instinct. Glenn Maxwell, though at times infuriating to even his staunchest fan, has again been dropped from the Australian Test squad, this time for their two-match series in the UAE against Pakistan. Head coach and selector, Justin Langer, stressed the importance of hundreds for batsmen in his squad - though got his stats wrong when doing so - and stated that Maxwell simply had to make more of them.
This request is particularly difficult for Maxwell, who is famously carefree when in the 90s - particularly in limited over forms - invariably putting the team's score ahead of his personal milestone. He also should presumably score a certain amount of hundreds but not too many in case it betrays an ambition to move up the order, the horrific crime for which the Australian “leadership group”, two of which are currently banned from international cricket, fined him when he suggested he might leapfrog Matthew Wade in his state side a couple of years back .
Langer, despite his grizzly steel playing career, does share some of the England selector's propensity for light whimsy. When appointed as coach he addressed that Sandpaper gate scandal which tore Australian cricket to pieces, by musing on the banter he has with his daughter when playing the card game UNO, suggesting this was where the infamous line between joshing and unsavoury jeering should be drawn with regards to opponents. Langer has an enhanced role in selection policy in comparison to his predecessor Darren Lehmann, featuring on a slimmed down panel after the board chose not to replace Mark Waugh, who left last year. Given Junior’s knowledge of two-legged cricketers during his Big Bash commentary stints occasionally seemed rather less than his knowledge of four-legged steeplechasers, the cynical might suggest the selection panel has not been fatally wounded. Neither is Langer, of course, but the decision to drop Maxwell on such apparently peculiar grounds was an inauspicious start to his time in charge. Smith and Taylor have grabbed the early points in the 2019 Selectorial Ashes.