Infotainment Factory: How desperate Australia settled for 27th-best

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Sunday, 30 December 2018

How desperate Australia settled for 27th-best


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The player who was called up for the Test decider against India was, of course, the player who none of Australian cricket’s brightest minds were calling for.

That man is Marnus Labuschagne, who got two Test matches in the UAE earlier this year for a modest return of 81 runs at 20.25, plus a handy seven wickets at 22.42 with his part-time leg-spin.

He was a bolter for the squad that toured to play Pakistan. It’s possible that he was even more of a left-field choice for the SCG squad, given what he’s done since for Queensland.

Laubuschagne sits 27th on the Sheffield Shield run-scorers list for this season. Twenty-seventh. He has made 254 runs at 28.22 in five matches, with a pair of half-centuries. With the ball, he has taken five wickets at 59.60, placing him 36th on the wicket-takers charts.

While it’s a simplistic way to look at it, on bare numbers of form we have selected our 27th-best batsman and 36th-best bowler to help stop Virat Kohli’s Indian side becoming the first to win a Test series on Australia soil. The 27th-best batsman in a series where Australia’s batting has been woefully brittle, the 36th-best bowler to face Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara on an SCG pitch that is far from the raging turner of years past.

As former Test opener Ed Cowan put it, the selection was “dumbfounding”.

“It’s a selection that actually dumbfounds me a little bit,” Cowan told ABC Grandstand.

“Someone who didn’t really earn their position for the UAE — was a bit of a bolter, didn’t really do much apart from roll out a few leg-breaks, hasn’t had a great domestic season, no hundreds, five games, five wickets, 250 runs.

“We’re not talking about someone who is knocking that front door down to say, ‘Pick me’ — and there are batsmen who are. I think they think the SCG might turn more than what it is has in recent years. I’m scratching my head.”

Cowan said it was clear that Australia needed genuine batting reinforcement.

“It blows me away when a team gets bowled out for a 160 and 260 on a very good batting wicket. They’ve had one hundred in the entire calendar year and they’re picking a batting all-rounder, a bit and pieces player that Marnus is going to provide,” he said.

“Just pick a specialist batsman. Let a batsman do the job, let the bowlers do the job. The SCG hasn’t been turning square, a new groundsman’s been there.

“Yes it will turn, but it will turn a bit like the MCG — out of the footmarks, it’s not going to off the straight. They haven’t seen the wicket, so I guess they’re covering themselves a little bit but the SCG is not the traditional dust bowl that it used to be. Go back to picking your best 11 players.”

Yet the problem, which has become painfully obvious, is that Australia does not know who its best 11 players are in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. And they are not paying attention to the Sheffield Shield, which has gone from the world’s benchmark first-class competition to a breeding ground for half-baked rookies that gets shoved out of the way for an extended Big Bash League.

The top five run-scorers in the Shield season so far:

Matthew Wade (Tasmania) — six matches, 571 runs at 63.44, one century. Wide World of Sports has already outlined the compelling case for Wade to play Test cricket as a specialist batsman, which he wants to do, and he has supporters such as Mike Hussey and Shane Warne. Has two Test centuries to his credit, amid a decade of batting excellence in first-class cricket.

Former Australian limited-overs player David Hussey told ABC Grandstand: "He’s the only one really screaming out for that chance to play for Australia in Test match cricket."

Marcus Harris (Victoria) — five matches, 501 runs at 71.57, one century. Already a Test opener and hoping to cement his spot in Sydney after showing flashes of class.

Tom Cooper (South Australia) — six matches, 501 runs at 45.54, two centuries. A strong season but the Netherlands limited-overs representative isn’t in the discussion.

Nick Larkin (NSW) — six matches, 494 runs at 49.40, two centuries. The Ireland List-A representative is yet to get any serious buzz as a Test option but is doing the right things to make it happen.

Joe Burns (Queensland) — six matches, 472 runs at 47.20, no centuries. Hasn’t bashed the door down, but has made three centuries from 14 Tests and is still only 29.

Recent selector and Australian great Mark Waugh is an advocate for Burns to play in Sydney, as an opener replacing Aaron Finch. Hussey would open with Matt Renshaw, who made 184 against Pakistan in the 2017 New Year’s Test but has had a dismal Shield season (199 runs at 19.90, no centuries), while dropping Finch to No.6.

Wade has sympathisers, as does Glenn Maxwell; but like Burns and Renshaw, they aren’t in the squad and won’t be picked. Waugh suggested that Peter Handscomb might get a quick recall in place of Mitchell Marsh in the middle-order. Should Labuschagne play, it will likely be at Marsh’s expense; one year after the maligned West Australian all-rounder smacked England around the SCG for 181, seemingly breaking the shackles of Test underperformance for good.

Hussey said that playing all-rounders such as Marsh in the middle-order was a fraught move with such fragile top-order batting.

“It’s a difficult role for Mitch to play, because he’s picked in the team to help out with the ball as well, but primarily he’s in the top six batters, so he has to score runs and he’s had plenty of opportunities,” Hussey told FOX Cricket, with Marsh’s Test record at 31 games, 1,219 runs at 25.39 – the worst batting Australia has ever had at No.6 across that many Tests.

“I just get the feeling he’s caught in between of how he wants to play. He’s naturally an aggressive player and he wants to dominate the bowling, and probably that’s where he plays his best cricket. But the situations that he’s been coming in at, it’s, ‘I can’t afford to take that risk’, and have that freedom to go and play with that sort of natural aggression that he’s got. It’s an awkward situation for him.”

Marsh and Finch look the only serious candidates for the axe in Sydney. While the snub of Wade and Burns seems unfortunate, the rest of the discussion around potential selection alternatives smacks of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Warne went ultra left-field on the final day at the MCG, calling for T20 slugger D’Arcy Short to debut as a batsman and wrist-spinner. Having worked with Short in the IPL, Warne declared that Short’s left-arm tweaking was vastly underrated and said he could be “the new David Warner”.

The claim barely stands scrutiny, and Short has not been picked for Sydney. At age 28, Short has made 448 first-class runs at 23.57, with no centuries. Warner made his Test debut at 25 with 960 first-class runs to his credit at 60.00, including three centuries (one a double).

Yet in Labuschagne, the Australian selectors effectively made a like-for-like pick for Short; an underperformed batsman (Labuschagne’s career first-class numbers are 2,521 runs at 33.17, four centuries from 43 matches), and a part-time bowler. At least he’s only 24 and may become more genuine Test material.

The bottom line is that Australia’s batting is mediocre, veteran players like Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh need to deliver bigger scores, and the Aussie bowling attack must haul the team over the line to deny India history at the SCG.

After India comes a two-Test series against a modest Sri Lankan team, before an Ashes tour. Though Warner and Smith will again be available for selection, heaven help this Australian batting line-up on the swinging, seaming pitches of England.

The player who was called up for the Test decider against India was, of course, the player who none of Australian cricket’s brightest minds were calling for.

That man is Marnus Labuschagne, who got two Test matches in the UAE earlier this year for a modest return of 81 runs at 20.25, plus a handy seven wickets at 22.42 with his part-time leg-spin.

He was a bolter for the squad that toured to play Pakistan. It’s possible that he was even more of a left-field choice for the SCG squad, given what he’s done since for Queensland.

Laubuschagne sits 27th on the Sheffield Shield run-scorers list for this season. Twenty-seventh. He has made 254 runs at 28.22 in five matches, with a pair of half-centuries. With the ball, he has taken five wickets at 59.60, placing him 36th on the wicket-takers charts.

While it’s a simplistic way to look at it, on bare numbers of form we have selected our 27th-best batsman and 36th-best bowler to help stop Virat Kohli’s Indian side becoming the first to win a Test series on Australia soil. The 27th-best batsman in a series where Australia’s batting has been woefully brittle, the 36th-best bowler to face Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara on an SCG pitch that is far from the raging turner of years past.

As former Test opener Ed Cowan put it, the selection was “dumbfounding”.

“It’s a selection that actually dumbfounds me a little bit,” Cowan told ABC Grandstand.

“Someone who didn’t really earn their position for the UAE — was a bit of a bolter, didn’t really do much apart from roll out a few leg-breaks, hasn’t had a great domestic season, no hundreds, five games, five wickets, 250 runs.

“We’re not talking about someone who is knocking that front door down to say, ‘Pick me’ — and there are batsmen who are. I think they think the SCG might turn more than what it is has in recent years. I’m scratching my head.”

Cowan said it was clear that Australia needed genuine batting reinforcement.

“It blows me away when a team gets bowled out for a 160 and 260 on a very good batting wicket. They’ve had one hundred in the entire calendar year and they’re picking a batting all-rounder, a bit and pieces player that Marnus is going to provide,” he said.

“Just pick a specialist batsman. Let a batsman do the job, let the bowlers do the job. The SCG hasn’t been turning square, a new groundsman’s been there.

“Yes it will turn, but it will turn a bit like the MCG — out of the footmarks, it’s not going to off the straight. They haven’t seen the wicket, so I guess they’re covering themselves a little bit but the SCG is not the traditional dust bowl that it used to be. Go back to picking your best 11 players.”

Yet the problem, which has become painfully obvious, is that Australia does not know who its best 11 players are in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. And they are not paying attention to the Sheffield Shield, which has gone from the world’s benchmark first-class competition to a breeding ground for half-baked rookies that gets shoved out of the way for an extended Big Bash League.

The top five run-scorers in the Shield season so far:

Matthew Wade (Tasmania) — six matches, 571 runs at 63.44, one century. Wide World of Sports has already outlined the compelling case for Wade to play Test cricket as a specialist batsman, which he wants to do, and he has supporters such as Mike Hussey and Shane Warne. Has two Test centuries to his credit, amid a decade of batting excellence in first-class cricket.

Former Australian limited-overs player David Hussey told ABC Grandstand: "He’s the only one really screaming out for that chance to play for Australia in Test match cricket."

Marcus Harris (Victoria) — five matches, 501 runs at 71.57, one century. Already a Test opener and hoping to cement his spot in Sydney after showing flashes of class.

Tom Cooper (South Australia) — six matches, 501 runs at 45.54, two centuries. A strong season but the Netherlands limited-overs representative isn’t in the discussion.

Nick Larkin (NSW) — six matches, 494 runs at 49.40, two centuries. The Ireland List-A representative is yet to get any serious buzz as a Test option but is doing the right things to make it happen.

Joe Burns (Queensland) — six matches, 472 runs at 47.20, no centuries. Hasn’t bashed the door down, but has made three centuries from 14 Tests and is still only 29.

Recent selector and Australian great Mark Waugh is an advocate for Burns to play in Sydney, as an opener replacing Aaron Finch. Hussey would open with Matt Renshaw, who made 184 against Pakistan in the 2017 New Year’s Test but has had a dismal Shield season (199 runs at 19.90, no centuries), while dropping Finch to No.6.

Wade has sympathisers, as does Glenn Maxwell; but like Burns and Renshaw, they aren’t in the squad and won’t be picked. Waugh suggested that Peter Handscomb might get a quick recall in place of Mitchell Marsh in the middle-order. Should Labuschagne play, it will likely be at Marsh’s expense; one year after the maligned West Australian all-rounder smacked England around the SCG for 181, seemingly breaking the shackles of Test underperformance for good.

Hussey said that playing all-rounders such as Marsh in the middle-order was a fraught move with such fragile top-order batting.

“It’s a difficult role for Mitch to play, because he’s picked in the team to help out with the ball as well, but primarily he’s in the top six batters, so he has to score runs and he’s had plenty of opportunities,” Hussey told FOX Cricket, with Marsh’s Test record at 31 games, 1,219 runs at 25.39 – the worst batting Australia has ever had at No.6 across that many Tests.

“I just get the feeling he’s caught in between of how he wants to play. He’s naturally an aggressive player and he wants to dominate the bowling, and probably that’s where he plays his best cricket. But the situations that he’s been coming in at, it’s, ‘I can’t afford to take that risk’, and have that freedom to go and play with that sort of natural aggression that he’s got. It’s an awkward situation for him.”

Marsh and Finch look the only serious candidates for the axe in Sydney. While the snub of Wade and Burns seems unfortunate, the rest of the discussion around potential selection alternatives smacks of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Warne went ultra left-field on the final day at the MCG, calling for T20 slugger D’Arcy Short to debut as a batsman and wrist-spinner. Having worked with Short in the IPL, Warne declared that Short’s left-arm tweaking was vastly underrated and said he could be “the new David Warner”.

The claim barely stands scrutiny, and Short has not been picked for Sydney. At age 28, Short has made 448 first-class runs at 23.57, with no centuries. Warner made his Test debut at 25 with 960 first-class runs to his credit at 60.00, including three centuries (one a double).

Yet in Labuschagne, the Australian selectors effectively made a like-for-like pick for Short; an underperformed batsman (Labuschagne’s career first-class numbers are 2,521 runs at 33.17, four centuries from 43 matches), and a part-time bowler. At least he’s only 24 and may become more genuine Test material.

The bottom line is that Australia’s batting is mediocre, veteran players like Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh need to deliver bigger scores, and the Aussie bowling attack must haul the team over the line to deny India history at the SCG.

After India comes a two-Test series against a modest Sri Lankan team, before an Ashes tour. Though Warner and Smith will again be available for selection, heaven help this Australian batting line-up on the swinging, seaming pitches of England.

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