Where to from here?
After suffering a humiliating innings defeat to India in Nagpur this week, pressure is on Australia to turn things around before the second Test gets underway in Delhi on Friday. India needs just one victory from the remaining three Tests to retain the coveted Border-Gavaskar Trophy for a fourth consecutive series.
Three of Australia’s first-choice players were nursing injuries on the sidelines for the series opener, while the team’s best batter from the recent home summer watched from the sidelines after a selection gamble backfired drastically at Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium.
But the solution is not immediately apparent. Josh Hazlewood and Cameron Green are still in doubt for the Delhi Test, and unearthing the side’s most effective bowling combination is proving difficult.
Australia will in particular be sweating on Green’s fitness – the young West Australian balances out the starting XI by offering a third seam option, but the team’s primary concern remains batting, with nobody raising the bat for a half-century in Nagpur.
“You always miss an all-rounder, but let’s be honest, he’s not Harry Potter or Superman,” former England captain Michael Vaughan told foxsports.com.au.
“The Aussies have been absolutely hammered. Cameron Green’s a very good, young all-rounder, but he wouldn’t have made a difference.”
To make matters worse for the Aussies, India has not lost a Test match at Arun Jaitley Stadium, previously known as Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, since 1987. Australia has played seven Tests at the venue, their lone victory being back in 1959 when Richie Benaud was skipper.
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Firstly, the elephant in the room. Travis Head was axed for the series opener in Nagpur despite a record-breaking home Test summer, with national selectors favouring domestic stalwarts Peter Handscomb and Matthew Renshaw, who both toured India in 2017.
Handscomb and Renshaw are coming off successful campaigns in the Sheffield Shield, but dropping a player who has averaged 87.50 in Australian whites over the past six months based on a horses-for-courses inkling was brave.
Needless to say, the gamble didn’t pay off. Renshaw registered scores of 0 and 2, spending most of day two on the sidelines with a knee complaint. Handscomb showed promise in the first innings with a sturdy 31, and will almost certainly retain his place in the starting XI if Green is unavailable for selection.
Head’s inclusion would not have prevented a heavy defeat in Nagpur, but his absence was sorely felt over the three days. His Test record in Asia is bleak, averaging 21.30 with the bat after seven Tests, but over the past 18 months, he has repeatedly found a way to score quick runs in tricky conditions, most notably in Hobart and Brisbane last year.
The South Australian’s bowling also would have been handy in Nagpur – the off-spinner has averaged 13.00 with the ball since last year’s Test tour of Sri Lanka.
“How Travis Head’s not one of the first picks is beyond me,” Vaughan said.
“What does that say to a player? What does that do for not just him but the rest of the team? What do they think? Does that mean when David Warner comes to England, he doesn’t get picked? That precedence has now been set by the selectors.
“It just think it’s ridiculous. It was only a few years ago we were saying Usman Khawaja couldn’t play spin.
“You don’t get better against certain weaknesses in your game unless you play against them. That’s what I can’t understand. Travis is a young player still. He’s got many, many more years to play Test match cricket. This is a learning tour for Travis.
“The way that he’s been playing and the way that he’s improved, I would back Travis Head to do well in India anyway. I know he’s a left-hander and I know he’s up against one of the best in Ashwin. I know he’s had a few problems against spin in the past, but you’ve got to give these guys a chance.
“It’s just baffling to think that your best player over the past year doesn’t get an opportunity. You’ve got to give him a start.
“The problem they have with making the call on Travis Head, they’ll look completely stupid when they pick him for the next Test. When you make such a stupid, silly selection, you have to come back and make the change for the next game. Then it puts Travis under huge pressure.
“You have to bring Travis back in.”
Head doesn’t necessarily have to return to the Australia Test side as a middle-order batter – as reported by News Corp, selectors might consider reinventing the 29-year-old as a swashbuckling opener.
David Warner’s recent form has been cause for concern, with the veteran opener reaching fifty just once in his 15 most recent Test knocks. The left-hander, like several of his teammates, struggled against India’s classy bowling attack in Nagpur, bowled by a Mohammed Shami peach in the first innings for 1 before Ravichandran Ashwin trapped him on the pads for 10 a couple of days later.
Warner was lucky Virat Kohli put down an absolute sitter at first slip on Saturday afternoon, otherwise he would have departed for 1 in the second innings as well.
Dropping Warner, who averages 22.16 in India, for the Delhi Test seems unlikely, but George Bailey and his selection panel have already shown that they’re willing to experiment with the team line-up.
However, Australian Test captain Pat Cummins insisted not “much is going to change the next couple of games”, backing the team’s top-order to bounce back in Delhi.
“We were confident it was our best XI this week,” Cummins assured reporters during Saturday’s post-match press conference.
“We know the quality Trav is, he’s a huge part of this team but we were confident in the 11 guys out there. He’s been really good around the group. He’s been out the back working really hard on his game like he always does.”
SPIN TO WIN?
Todd Murphy’s seven-wicket haul was the lone highlight for Australia in Nagpur, with the Australian debutant proving his worth in the series opener.
National selectors should be applauded for scrapping a 35-year tradition and picking the country’s second-best tweaker, despite also being an off-spinner like Nathan Lyon.
“Todd Murphy was excellent,” Vaughan said.
“He looks like a real prospect, and one that will certainly step into Nathan Lyon’s shoes whenever Nathan decides it’s time to call it.”
Murphy and Lyon look poised to once again share the spin duties in Delhi, but that means Australia would be without a tweaker who turns the ball away from the right-handed batter.
Leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson and left-arm orthodox bowler Ashton Agar, both with prior Test experience, are patiently waiting in the wings, but News Corp reports that selectors are considering rushing uncapped spinner Matt Kuhnemann to India as an emergency addition to the tour.
Arun Jaitley Stadium has recently favoured the tweakers – spin bowlers have averaged 29.80 in Delhi since the start of 2013, while seamers have averaged 36.53 during that period. Of the two Tests Australia has played at the Delhi venue this century, 27 of the 30 Aussie wickets were taken by spin bowlers.
Australia could be tempted to play three strikes spinners at the expense of Scott Boland, but that would only be possible if Green were available and fit to bowl.
“For that to be a reality, you would probably need Cam Green up and bowling,” Cummins told foxsports.com.au last week.
“But we’ll wait and see with the conditions. Nothing’s off the table.”
STARC STRAIGHT BACK IN?
Mitchell Starc, who recently recovered from a finger injury sustained during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa, will link up with the Australian squad in Delhi after being ruled out of the first Test.
“Starcy lands today or tomorrow into Delhi,” Cummins confirmed on Saturday.
“I think Joshy might not be quite ready for Delhi. He‘s getting up and running now, he’s pretty close, but I don’t think he’ll be quite ready for Delhi.
“Greeny’s a bit of a wait and see. Still hoping (he could return), he’s had a couple of good hits out here. He’s bowling’s pretty good, the next couple of days we’ll assess it.”
Starc, if fit to play in Delhi, would likely replace Boland in the starting XI; the Victorian went wicketless in Nagpur and dropped a regulation outfield catch on Saturday morning. However, Boland was one of Australia’s most menacing bowlers in the series opener, repeatedly peppering a good length and conceding just 10 runs from his first 11 overs of the match.
Starc currently has a pitiful Test record in India, taking seven wickets at 50.14 in four matches, but the left-armer creates footmarks outside the right-handed batter’s off stump for Lyon and Murphy to exploit.
Whatever changes are made to starting XI, whether there are any at all, Cummins has promised that Australia won’t abandon the plans they put in place ahead of the tour.
“You can’t get much worse from that performance,” Vaughan said.
“It’s almost as if they need to brush this week away and start again in the next Test because everything seemed to go wrong.
“It’s just about getting individuals, particularly with the bat in hand, to try and get big runs and find a method of playing against those two spin twins, and it’s not going to be easy.
“But there’s not many teams that get blown away in the subcontinent and bounce back.”
The second Test between India and Australia gets underway at Delhi’s Arun Jaitley Stadium on Friday, with the first ball scheduled for 3pm AEDT.
– with Jacob Polychronis
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