I’ve decided that in the lead up to India, which is still a full two months and a bit away, I would devote some posts to the forthcoming tour in a mini blog series entitled “Homework-gate Confidential”. This test series holds such enormous importance for Australia, not least because of the tumultuous time they had in 2013 and the unhappy returns in the sub-continent during 2016. They’ve beaten Pakistan, to the surprise and excitement of few, and a whitewash is well and truly on the cards. Whether it eventuates is totally dependent on what the wicket is like and where the players heads are at. Is the first test in Pune and the positions up for grabs already beginning to distract them from the task at hand?
Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe have been added to the squad for the Sydney test in anticipation of a turning track, but this looks like a move designed to asses their spin options for the sub-continent given the series is already sewn-up. This is where the first “Homework-gate Confidential” ties in nicely to pose the all-encompassing question – who should we take to India in February? This edition will be based on our spin bowlers as who is currently our most skilled and competent is still up in the air. They hold the keys to victory on the spinning tracks in India and how they perform is as important, if not more, than the number of runs the batting unit score. If Kohli is let off the chain to score game winning hundreds in the first innings as he was allowed to against England, Australia can kiss goodbye to their chances of an odds-defying series victory.
England didn’t possess the spin bowling stocks to outclass Ashwin and Jadeja and neither do Australia. But to give themselves a fighting chance of walking away from the four-test series with their reputations intact, the selectors must first choose the right men for the job and conditions. It will be like setting loose a wolf among the cattle if they fail to get this combination right.
England went on tour with five spin bowlers and, such was the chopping and changing of bowlers on a game-by-game basis, only two managed to eclipse the efforts of their fast bowlers which didn’t put them within touching distance of Ashwin (28 wickets) and Jadeja (26 wickets). Rashid was the one glaring exception and was outstanding in a series where the next best spin bowler took just two wickets a game. Australia should take notice and consider the effectiveness and impact a leg-spin bowler – of which their are none currently in the Australian squad – can have with their ability to rip and spin the ball more than the finger spinners they have persisted with for the past six years.
The last specialist leg-spin bowler to be selected in a test match for Australia was the current captain who is now scoring runs for fun at number four. The selectors have not traveled down the wrist-spinning route since due to the effectiveness of Nathan Lyon, and are unlikely to reach into their bag of young leg spin aces at any stage during the series. But the brilliance of Rashid shows that India’s batsmen have a weakness that is waiting to be exploited by a world class wrist-spinner. And this cannot be replicated by the left arm finger spin of Ashton Agar or Steve O’Keefe. Australia’s selectors must take a leap of faith.
Nathan Lyon endured a lean wicket taking patch during 2016 but he will, barring injury, be the first picked and much rides on his ability to match it with India’s all-conquering spin twins and bowl Australia to victory on the final two days where the wickets will be at their most volatile. Two weeks ago his position was under threat but a spell in Melbourne under immense pressure has repayed the selectors faith. He underachieved in Sri Lanka snagging just sixteen wickets at 31.93 when Australia needed him most and hasn’t been the wicket taking weapon that we’ve come to expect lately. There’s no doubt that he is Australia’s most accomplished off-spin bowler and it’s high time he puts his name up in lights with a career defining tour.
There is no greater stage for a spin bowler. India may break the resilience Lyon has shown to keep his spot amidst growing uncertainty around his position. But by the same token, it may be the scene of his resurrection and put him back on the map as someone to be weary of at home as well as abroad.
The test career of Glenn Maxwell, which unraveled in just three short test matches in the sub-continent, should be given a chance to blossom once again. Moeen Ali was a vital cog in the English wheel during their recent tour and it is this role that Maxwell should seek to undertake. Putting a full-time batsman or a seam up all-rounder at number six on a tour to India would be a monumental mistake. The more spin bowlers Australia have at their disposal, the greater chance they have of bowling India out for a total that is attainable with their current crop of inexperienced middle order batsmen. Kohli, Pujara and Vijay know their own games better than the back of their hands and in Jadeja and Jayant they have a lower order capable of taking the game away from Australia in one innings.
England, with Jake Ball and Chris Woakes alongside stalwarts Anderson and Broad, were unable to blunt the effectiveness of India’s batsmen and were the human equivalent of a bowling machine when the ball lost its shine and the batsman were set. Throwing soon to be test newcomer Cartwright into the deep end under these circumstances and asking him to bowl a side out on the final day when the wickets aren’t conducive to swing or seam movement is destined to yield unfavorable results.
Maxwell is more than capable of batting in the number six position with his sub-continent wrists and abundant knowledge of local conditions having toured once before and through his yearly participation in the IPL. But it is his spin bowling that will prove to be his most valuable asset if he is given an unlikely call-up to the scene of his career stunting crimes with bat and ball four years ago.
Australia have a conundrum but the answers to their queries are hiding in plain sight. A great deal rides on how the selectors use the players they have at their disposal.
The next installments of “Homework-gate Confidential” will be posted periodically in the lead up to the tour. Not all will be as long as this and some posts will be there purely for your comments.
Happy New Year!