Cricket Australia and the Indian Cricket Board (BCCI) seemed to take forever before announcing the international schedule for the Australian summer.
In the usual mix of one-day internationals, Tests and T20 matches, the Boards decided to schedule two three-day games in the fortnight leading up to the first Test.
For many, these games were seen as something of a “ho-hum” yawnathon. A chance for a few players to stake unlikely claims for Test spots, perhaps, but generally, these matches were seen as batting practice for the Indians against some stock standard Sheffield Shield bowlers.
But the events of the past ten days have placed huge importance on these games. Not so much on the actual results, but more about how players in each game fare, as the first Test of the summer at Adelaide Oval looms in a week’s time.
Mid-afternoon on the 29th of November, George Bailey must have been thinking what a cushy number he’d found as a selector. He’d have just watched Australia post a huge ODI total against the Indians, but more importantly seen David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith all make good scores.
His only likely dilemmas as a Test selector were who would partner Warner at the top of the innings – an in-form Will Puckovski or incumbent Joe Burns? – and whether to play Cameron Green or Matthew Wade.
Now, he and the other selectors are now scrambling to find two openers that are remotely Test quality.
Warner’s out for the first Test and Burns is finding new ways to get out cheaply. Will Puckovski not only wore another bouncer, but he was also concussed, apparently for the eighth or ninth time in his career. He also underachieved in his first hitout against an Indian attack and looked ugly, trying to play/evade the delivery that collected him in the second innings.
As it stands, the choices to open the batting are in the ordinary to poor range. If Puckovski’s not fit, Australia may have to open with a player patently out of form (Burns) and a guy who averages 24.1 in Tests in Marcus Harris.
There are plenty of other choices that selectors could make. Wade to open and Green comes in at 6, Labuschagne opens with Harris, Smith bats 3 with Green into the middle order, a recall for Cameron Bancroft or maybe even a left-field selection for his Western Australia opening partner, Sam Whiteman. All of these come with huge risks and would certainly upset what is a pretty settled lineup.
The other selection issue that hasn’t been mentioned is the form of Mitchell Starc.
Justin Langer made the comment that good form in any format is still good form. At the time he was talking about batsmen and white-ball cricket, but does the opposite hold true as well?
Starc has quietly eased his way into the summer with some okay efforts in the Sheffield Shield. Nine wickets at 28.44 on some very flat tracks is a fair return, but then he fell away badly in the ODI series, with a T20 return of 2 for 34 off 4 overs, only partially redeeming him.
The selectors must be asking questions about his form, especially when our top order batting looks iffy at best. The team can ill afford an out-of-form bowler who can leak plenty of runs when he’s not at his best.
India came to Australia last time around with a fairly settled side which comfortably won the Test series. This time, a combination of questionable form, injury and parental leave have made the task for Indian selectors significantly harder.
There are only a few players certain of selection for the series: Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah.
Obviously, Virat Kohli will play in the first Test, but then who replaces him?
Rohit Sharma’s been ruled out of the first two Tests, but will be undergoing a fitness test in the coming days and may play in the last two games. That leaves the other opening spot vacant, with neither Prithvi Shaw nor Shubman Gill doing a lot in the first three-day game to make their claim.
Other middle-order batting spots are not necessarily fixed, given some indifferent batting in Australia last visit and in the last Test series against the Black Caps. The wicketkeeping role is also not settled, with Wriddhiman Saha chosen for the first tour game, but not doing a lot with the bat and dropping at least one chance.
Ishant Sharma is out of the series, which hurts the fast bowling stocks, though Umesh Yadav bowled very usefully against Australia A. The other choices have lots of potential, but who would be best suited to Adelaide?
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Then there’s the battle for the spinners role, with Yadav and Ashwin playing at Drummoyne, but neither finishing with stellar figures on a pitch that didn’t suit them.
Ravindra Jadeja would be hard to oust given his last two innings with the bat, so it would be no surprise to see him playing in Sydney on the 11th, along with one of the other spinners, to see who plays in the first Test.
The next tour match in Sydney will assume huge importance, not only because it’s under lights, but because there are so many selection question marks, particularly for India.
I believe the touring side will play a near full-strength Test team, while Australia will be want to give Burns, Harris and hopefully Puckovski time at the crease.
Throw in a pink ball, under lights, possibly a pitch with a bit of life, and this match could be one of the highlights of the summer.