It’s just over a week now until the Test series between India and Australia begins, and you would be hard pressed to find a single person who honestly believes that Australia has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a single Test let alone the series. Nothing in the recent history of the cricket of either nation leads you to believe that anything can change that.In the 18 months since India played in Sri Lanka, they have played only one series away from home, a 2-0 victory in the West Indies. In that time they have played 17 Tests, winning 13 of them. They have been ruthless on home wickets prepared to exploit the relative strengths of their chosen players, and the disposal of New Zealand, England and Bangladesh has now led them to be at a peak for this coming series.
Australia on the other hand has more or less confirmed its flat track bully status at home, apart from being badly shown up by a more committed South African team in November, and also being completely obliterated in Sri Lanka by a team that has barely won a match since that series on overseas wickets. Concerns? Oh yes, yes indeed.
So how does Australia combat what is to come? How can they restrict the Indian batting line up to gettable totals, as well as finding 20 wickets in doing that? And how does our batting line up combat the threat that spin and reverse swing will throw at them on wearing wickets?
The selectors have almost shown their hand, in the selection of a number of players who they would consider to be all-rounders, of which precisely zero of them have shown they can be considered as such, which again raises a dangerous problem. In the Australian season, it appeared for a while that the ‘all-rounder’ position had finally been cast aside. Mitch Marsh simply was not scoring enough runs or taking enough wickets, and was moved aside in favour of a specialist batsman at number 6 in Nic Maddinson. Unfortunately for Maddinson he was unable to take his chance (a discussion that should be raised in a whole other argument about selection decisions), and with further concerns about the workload of Australia’s fast bowlers (yet another discussion point), the selectors fell back to their old viewpoint and decided to replace the specialist batsman with a different all-rounder in Hilton Cartwright. The folly of this was shown in Sydney, when the chosen all-rounder bowled a total of four overs for the match, and then wasn’t chosen for this tour. So how did he help the ‘overburdened’ bowling cartel? It seems strange that this discussion has not been further investigated.
In this touring squad, the selectors have resurrected Mitch Marsh and Glenn Maxwell, as well as budding all round candidate Ashton Agar, and given the selectors poor poker faces, it would appear one of them will be Australia’s number 6 come next Thursday. That is the first cause for concern, because it means that our selectors will once again risk weakening the middle order batting in an attempt to give the team another bowling option. The question is, does this help or hinder the team’s cause of winning on the sub-continent? Overall, Mitch Marsh was not terrible in Sri Lanka, but he made three starts with the bat without going on to a big score (not on his own there), and the overs he bowled and the very few wickets he took did not provide as much help to the bowling attack as may have been expected. No one expects a world beater every match with bat and ball. But if you bat at 6 surely you have to average 40 with the bat to be considered worthy of the position. Marsh isn’t doing that. Agar is still a work in practice, someone who may be worthy of that title in coming years. If he is chosen it is a gamble. Stranger yet, Coach Darren Lehmann said only a couple of months ago that you couldn’t pick someone in the Test team if they hadn’t score a century in two years – referring to Glenn Maxwell. And yet, he has now chosen him. X Factor? Z Factor I’d have said. Maxwell was not asked to bowl in the recent one day series in Australia, instead Travis Head was the go-to man. What does that say about his bowling, if the captain shows no confidence in it? Does that mean he is now a batsman, and a batsman alone? What on earth is going on here?
This article though is not to disparage those that have been selected and not selected, but to put together the best team we can with what is in India. No doubt the selectors will go with Mitch Marsh. It fits with their logic at the moment.
If it was me, I’d play brother Shaun Marsh at 6. Surely the top 5 must remain as to what finished the Australian summer – and that is even with the ridiculous notion that the selectors will dump young gun Matthew Renshaw for Marsh at the top of the order having just made a century in his last Test – and slotting Shaun Marsh in at 6 gives the batting some stability on paper. It means that only four frontline bowlers will be chosen, but it is what needs to be done. If Australia cannot score enough runs for the bowlers to bowl at, then it doesn’t matter how many bowlers you take in.
The bowlers pick themselves. Starc and Hazlewood will lead from the front, with Lyon and O’Keefe doing the donkey work. Starc bowled beautifully in the final two Tests in Sri Lanka, and something similar is what he will need in India. Hazlewood showed in Australia that he is improving his reverse swing, and that will be vital in India. And while no one would show complete confidence in our current spinners, they have the chance here to show that they are up to the task and can do this at the highest level in the toughest conditions. Mirroring their counterparts in Ashwin and Jadeja would be high on their agenda.
The series could well hang on Matthew Wade. Much has been said of his keeping and batting, in comparison to every other keeper in Australia. He cannot afford to miss any chance that comes his way, be it stumping or catch. Every missed chance will not only give the batsman a reprieve, it will add even more pressure to his own psyche. His batting will also be paramount. The selectors made it a priority that the keeper must score runs when they dropped Peter Nevill. If they are consistent, they must apply the same to Wade if he cannot manage to make a serious contribution with the bat in this series. If he has a clean series with the gloves and makes runs with the lower order, he will solidify his position in the Australian team. If he cannot, then he should be shown the same exit that Nevill was.
Australia are massive underdogs. Sometimes that can work in your favour. It would be a stunning turnaround if Australia managed to win the 1st Test, but you never know. If Warner and Smith can dominate, if Khawaja and Handscomb can find their feet, if Starc cracks the top order, and if Lyon and O’Keefe can spin webs, then maybe this isn’t the dead loss most of us believe it is. Whatever happens, it will be fascinating viewing.