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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Opportunities Abound in Bangladesh Test Series

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In a few days, weather notwithstanding, Australia will take part in its first Test series against Bangladesh in over a decade, replacing the one that was boycotted by Australia two years ago over security concerns in the country. Despite this short delay, it is an arrogant oversight by Cricket Australia. Bangladesh became a full member of the ICC in June 2000, and in the 17 years that have passed since, only four Tests have been played between the two nations, a two Test tour in Australia in 2003 and a two Test tour in Bangladesh in 2006. This is the least amount of Tests played against Bangladesh of all Test playing nations. The question remains as to how the ICC and the member nations expect countries to improve their cricket if they are not exposed to Test cricket against the best nations. Perhaps labelling Australia as a ‘best’ nation may be pushing the boundaries. Let’s put it another way. Given the enormous trouble Australia has had over the past decade (if not longer) in playing in sub-continental conditions, wouldn’t touring and playing against Bangladesh have been a benefit in this area? Or are we just so scared that we might get beaten by the minnows that it is easier to just cry off and not play at all because ‘the schedule is too busy’ or ‘we need to play series that bring in money’. Whatever the excuse may be, it isn’t good enough.

Without Australia’s ‘help’, the Bangladesh cricket team has made great strides in recent times. Victories over England and Sri Lanka and a strong showing in New Zealand has meant that they are no easy beats, and indeed given Australia’s ordinary form on the sub-continent they would be confident of perhaps winning a Test or even the series. Led from the front by Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan the Bangladeshi’s have other prominent players in Tamim Iqbal, Mominul Haque, Mustafizur Rahman and Anamul Haque to name but a few. In their home conditions they will be a handful, and if Australia are unprepared they could face some difficult times ahead.

There is little doubt Australia will not be in the best of positions. The long running saga over the Memorandum of Understanding with Cricket Australia, which cost the Australia A team a tour of South Africa and valuable practice for some of the fringe players, will likely not be used as an excuse for poor performance but it can only have been a burden on the players. It was not the best way to prepare for a tour. With a week in Darwin to prepare, and now their only warm up game in Bangladesh having been abandoned due to the poor state of the ground, it means none of the squad has had any meaningful red ball cricket since the Indian tour. It is something that is likely to be a problem, especially for those players that struggled throughout that period. Given that only 14 players are touring, it means two bowlers and an all-rounder will miss selection for each Test. It leaves the cupboard bare if looking for back-up should an injury occur, or in the search of form.

Australia’s batting will be fragile and open for intrusion. If not for Steve Smith’s imperious form in India – and in most places in the past four years – Australia would likely have suffered a much stronger defeat on that tour. He is the team’s best players of spin and will again be looked to lead from the front. The opening combination of Dave Warner and Matt Renshaw is still developing, and will need to give the side a good start in the short series. Warner has still not been able to unlock the secret to scoring runs on slow turning wickets, and every plan he has utilised has fallen short on results. While he probably needs to curb his aggression to a degree, it is positive cricket that serves him best, and perhaps he needs to research this further. That doesn’t mean slashing at the first ball outside off stump or slogging it across the line to the boundary, rather being positive at balls in his stump line and being willing to leave better outside the line of his stumps. Positive, not all out aggression. It’s easy to analyse and put down in words, but much more difficult to take that mindset onto the pitch. Renshaw played wonderfully well in India, only really failing in the deciding 4th Test. His batting showed the patience that he has become renown for in his short career, but on more than one occasion he was then dismissed playing aggressive shots after having been so disciplined for so long. In three Indian innings he was dismissed playing big shots having faced over 170 deliveries in the innings. Is it that he had reached his limit and he felt that he needed to try and break free, or was it just a break of concentration. Either way it is something he will be looking to address. If you make 60 off 180 balls and you are doing your job, then 100 off 275 balls is still a win. Whatever comes of this series, the selectors must stick with him. He has earned that.

Usman Khawaja, having been ignored in India despite great numbers in 2016/17 at home because of his failures in Sri Lanka and the belief that Shaun Marsh would be the saviour on sub-continental pitches, is an almost certainty to return to the pivotal number three position, and will once again be under the hammer. The Bangladesh spinners will be probing, hoping to keep him quiet and break through early, while there will be some deal of pressure on Khawaja himself to prove himself in these conditions. It is not an ideal position for the team’s number three to be in, and his history against spin isn’t great. But he will never have a better chance to show he can succeed in these conditions and nail down his spot for the long term. Peter Handscomb’s Indian tour is the best example of statistics that do lie. He made a start in all but one innings in that series, and it was only his inability to go on with it that makes it look only average. Apart from the captain he handled the spinners better than all other batsmen and he looked at ease. No doubt he will be very keen to expand on that form in this series. It would be a surprise if he did not.

The fragility of the top order is only exacerbated by that of the nominal numbers six and seven in the team. Glenn Maxwell scored a wonderful century in the 3rd Test in India that showed that (for the most part) he can bat with patience and calm. Unfortunately that was not followed up in his other three innings, and the question marks as to his suitability to the Test team are still to be answered. If he can nail down the number six position, and get his bowling back on track so that he can at least push out half a dozen over to give the front liners a rest, then he will be a valuable asset in the Test ranks. If he cannot get his run scoring boots on, then he will continue to be spoken in the same breath as Shane Watson when it comes to all-round disappointments. So too is the story with incumbent wicket-keeper Matthew Wade, whose continued selection seems to be a mystery to all except those close to the team. His batting was not convincing in India, and his glovework even less so. Having discarded Peter Nevill after the debacle of Hobart last year in the chase for more runs from the number seven, Wade has failed to produce more than Nevill was doing, and he has botched many more chances than Nevill ever did in that position. While it would be nice to see him score runs in this series, it will be more beneficial and pleasing if he doesn’t miss a chance behind the wickets.

With Mitchell Starc still injured and the selectors desperate to have him 100% fit for the Ashes, the fast bowling stocks will again fall to Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, with Jackson Bird in back up if required. Hazlewood has been the leader in recent times, and Cummins’ return to Test cricket for the final two Tests in India was superb. There will be no hiding from those two, and Bird if he gets a chance won’t let the team down.

The spinners will be an interesting variety. It is disappointing that Steve O’Keefe has been left out in such ordinary circumstances. After his fabulous effort in the 1st Test in India, the Indian batsmen treated him with far more respect than they had in that Test, and as a result he was tidy but unable to break through as often. He then returned home, and again transgressed at an official function while obviously inebriated, and said the wrong thing in the wrong company. Quite a few times apparently. He was handed a suspension by the NSWCA. Yet when the touring squad was initially announce for this tour, the selectors suggested that O’Keefe had not been selected because of his performance and figures in the last three Tests of the Indian tour. No mention of his transgressions, but that he had been dropped for poor performance. Uuuhhhh, what?!? There is a serious problem when you bring that to light, because it allows you to compare the figures of players and then ask “why have you dropped one guy but not the other?”

The case in point.
  • After the 1st Test, in which O’Keefe took 6/35 and 6/35, he bowled in five innings taking 7 wickets at 53.14. Less effective. Nathan Lyon took 8/50 in the first innings of the 2nd Test (but 0/82 in the second innings as India pushed for victory). He also took 5/92 in the first innings of the 4th Test. If you take those two efforts out, as has been done with O’Keefe’s best two innings, Lyon took 6 wickets at 56.33. O’Keefe leads on those figures.
  • For the series, both O’Keefe and Lyon finished with 19 wickets, leading the Australian charge. O’Keefe averaged 23.26 (1st) and Lyon averaged 25.26 (2nd). O’Keefe leads on those figures.
  • O’Keefe (179.1) bowled more overs than Lyon (166.2) in the series.
  • O’Keefe (36) bowled almost twice as many maidens as Lyon (19) in the series.
  • And although neither contributed much to the batting, O’Keefe (168) faced almost three times as many deliveries in seven innings as Lyon (68) did in eight innings.
If the selectors had just come out honestly, and said that O’Keefe had been dropped as a disciplinary measure, then we all could have accepted that explanation and moved on, knowing that he would have to work extremely hard to ever get another chance again. In suggesting that it was a form issue with no other reasons behind his exclusion, all the selectors have done is open themselves up to ridicule and comparisons such as the above.

With Lyon still the number one seed in Australia’s spinning ranks, the other two contenders chosen for the tour will be fighting for the second spinners berth. Mitchell Swepson is the unknown, the X factor, the leg-spinner with all of the tricks of the trade, but with such little first class experience it would be a risk to take him in. As much as having a leg-spinner back in the Australian Test team would be a wonderful thing, one suspects that Ashton Agar will fulfil the prophecy of return to the Test team as a bowling all-rounder. While his bowling figures in first class cricket are still on the part-time scale, his past 12 months have been profitable with both bat and ball, and as a second spin option with potential to score runs down the order he could be the valuable asset the team needs, at least on this tour.

If the monsoon season can hold off for just another couple of weeks, this series has the potential to be an interesting and well-fought battle. The likelihood of rain does dampen (no pun intended) the possibility of a result, but the cricket has much to offer. Bangladesh has the opportunity to test themselves against an Australian team that is still finding its way back to the top, while the Australians chosen have the chance to ensure that they not only do well here, but have their names front and centre for the upcoming Ashes series back home. As a cricket tragic I don’t expect to see another Jason Gillespie double century moment, but I am looking forward to watching the series unfold.

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Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Hilton Cartwright, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.

Bangladesh squad: Mushfiqur Rahim (c), Tamim Iqbal, Soumya Sarkar, Imrul Kayes, Shakib Al Hasan, Mehidy Hasan Miraz, Sabbir Rahman, Nasir Hossain, Liton Das, Taskin Ahmed, Shafiul Islam, Mustafizur Rahman, Taijul Islam, Mominul Haque.
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