NOBODY has summed up the perennial “potential versus performance” selection debate better than Mark Waugh after scoring a century in his debut Test innings.
As teammates and staff congratulated him in the dressing room, Waugh declared in typically candid fashion: “They should have picked me years ago.”
Maybe they should have.
Waugh was 24 at the time, averaging 50 in first-class cricket, and had already scored his share of runs in one-day internationals.
Maybe he had to wait too long for his Baggy Green cap … or perhaps selectors timed it perfectly, given his immediate success.
Certainly Waugh found his feet at Test level far quicker than his twin sibling, Steve, who was thrown in at the deep end as a 20-year-old and struggled, taking 27 Tests to post his first ton.
But were the tough times Steve endured in his formative years what ultimately transformed him into the mentally tough player he became?
Did the harsh lessons he learned, under pressure at the highest level, help him become a better player than Mark, who many would argue was more naturally talented?
Such theories are of course subjective, but the potential/performance quandary has rarely been more topical as we ponder an Australian cricket team at its lowest ebb since the mid-1980s.
With Steve Smith and David Warner suspended, top-class replacements are few and far between.
The days when batsmen had to rack up 50-plus averages in Sheffield Shield, season after season, waiting for an opportunity are long gone.
As the first Test against India looms, the general consensus is Australia’s top six are at best mediocre, but nobody else is consistently dominating the interstate arena, demanding a call-up.
The glimmer of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel is the handful of outstanding teenagers who have emerged in the past two seasons.
During the week, 19-year-old Novocastrian Jason Sangha and Jack Edwards, 18, scored their maiden Shield centuries for NSW.
Sangha, incidentally, had already scored 133 against the touring English team last season, and then 38 for the Prime Minister’s XI against South Africa last week.
South Australian leggie Lachlan Pope (18) recently became the youngest player to claim seven wickets in a Shield innings.
Victorian No.3 Will Pucovski, 20, hammered 243 against Western Australia at the WACA, taking his career average after seven first-class games to 52.00.
Cameron Green, a 19-year-old swing bowler from WA, has taken 22 wickets in five Shield games at 13.7, including 5-24 and 2-56 against Tasmania almost two years ago, before he was even old enough to legally buy a beer. He bats a bit, too.
All appear destined to play for Australia. The question is when?
Former Test skipper Greg Chappell has a theory that talent is like fruit. If you don’t pick it at the right time, it withers on the vine.
Chappell’s ex-teammate Kerry O’Keeffe was thinking along similar lines this week when he suggested Sangha should be “fast-tracked” into the Test team.
“This is a player of the ages,” O’Keefe said. “He is the best, technically, we’ve had since [Ricky] Ponting.”
Others, such as former Test paceman Stuart Clark take a more circumspect view, arguing that Sangha was rushed into the NSW team before he had earned a spot through weight of runs.
It is perhaps worth noting that Prithvi Shaw, who captained India’s under-19s against Sangha’s Australians last summer, has already made his Test debut, scoring 134, 70 and 33 not out against West Indies in his three innings to date.
India’s willingness to pick players at a tender age is perhaps best evidenced by their little master, Sachin Tendulkar, who debuted at 16 and spent the next quarter of a century re-writing scoring records.
The flip side of the argument is Haseem Hameed, who debuted two years ago as an opener for England at 19 and averaged 43.8 in his first three Tests against India.
He then suffered a badly broken finger and lost form and confidence to the extent that in 17 four-day innings for Lancashire last season, he scored only 165 runs.
Likewise Kurtis Patterson and Nick Maddinson, who scored Shield centuries on debut for NSW aged 18 and 19, are now in their mid-20s but yet to fulfill expectations.
In the halcyon days of Australian cricket, the likes of Ponting, Damien Martyn, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke slotted into a formidable batting line-up at No.6 and were given an extended period to prove their worth.
In earlier times, the best up-and-comers were taken on overseas tours to serve an apprenticeship, even if they were not required in the Test matches. Now there is no such luxury.
After Australia’s dismal recent performances in all formats, there is massive pressure on the national side to turn results around, especially with a World Cup and Ashes series in England next year.
It’s a daunting scenario even for experienced players, let alone for youngsters still learning their craft.
Then again, as the careers of the Waugh brothers would suggest, sometimes the earlier a player is put to the Test, the better he becomes in the long run.