TEAM SELECTION-One of the most used phrases by all stakeholders related to any cricket match between two even-steven teams, more so when a glittering silverware like The Border-Gavaskar Trophy, arguably (who would argue other than Michael Vaughan) the biggest Test rivalry in modern cricket, is at stake. Be it the sports analysts, journalists, columnists, youtubers, captains, coaches or any random cricket pundit in the globe, everybody seems to have their own opinion about the Best XI teams should put up on a given day. Now, The quintessential question is, ‘What is a best XI?’ , XI consisting of best players according to their general ability, or one that is formed with players having current form and most importantly depending on conditions on offer.
The obsession for ‘horses for courses’ approach was perhaps at its extreme peak when Aussies decided to bench Travis Head at Nagpur in the series opener. With all the cacophonies created by their home media on ‘so called doctored pitch’ ably supported by few of their ex-cricketers who themselves represented great Aussie squads in their glorious past, Kangaroo Team Management discovered such ghastly demons in the pitch before the match, that to nullify the much hyped rough outside the left-hander’s off stump, they left out one of their most consistent Test batter during last one year or so. It was a rather astonishing decision considering Head is the No. 4 Batsman in ICC Rankings although his record in Asia doesn’t speak much of itself. When you drop one of your premier batters in the curtain raiser of such a high-profile, pressure-cooker series, it feels like starting a marathon after amputating one of your limbs.
It doesn’t guarantee that by inclusion of Head, the result would be much more different, but it has perhaps highlighted the fact that over-dependence on a single-minded approach or overthinking of the conditions can bring your downfall on many occassions. The Aussies have always been hardworking professionals who give much importance to their planning and preparations. From using ice packed vests to counter the hot Indian summer in 1998 to practicing on Sub-continent like pitches in Sydney and playing ‘Ashwin-like’ (There aren’t any in reality though!!!) bowler in nets, they have always tried to be super-prepared before any recent India tours. Although they have conquered the final frontier only once in last 25 years or so, Australian skippers have almost always stepped into the grounds with quality players behind them, and many of them genuine match-winners. Except 2013, they have started Indian Test Tours decently on every occasion in the current century. Then, why did they look like such hapless, unbalanced and clueless side in the first Test? To find the answers, we must admit the fact at the outset that, beating India in India is the most difficult thing to achieve in modern Test Cricket, but we should also cast a glance at the history to understand why Australia is suddenly looking like so, er, ‘Un-aussie’ like.
Australian Cricket Teams have always been represented by truly great Allrounders like Warwick Armstrong, Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Steve Waugh, Shane Watson among many others. They used to provide the balance needed to build a Great Test Team like many other of their counterparts representing other nations. Though most Australian sides in the past had seven or eight quality bowlers and batsmen in their ranks, those Allrounders gave numerous crucial performances establishing Aussie dominance in the 1920s or 1940s or 1950s or 2000s.
If someone sneaks into the scorecards of Border Gavaskar Trophy encounters held in India from yesteryears, he or she can find a distinct pattern showing decent All round performances by one or more cricketers from down under coinciding with Aussie wins or giving tough fight.
Be it Darren Lehmann (52 runs and 1 wicket) in Bengaluru 1998, or Shane Warne (32 runs and 4 wickets) in Bengaluru 2004 or Mitchell Johnson (47 runs and 5 wickets) in Mohali 2010 or Mitchell Starc (91 runs and 2 wickets) in Pune 2017, Aussies have always been able to land counterpunches on India at their favoured home conditions whenever such allround performances were produced. It should now be clarified to the leaders that allround performances shouldn’t always mean a player has to perform with both bat and ball in the same match, rather, a performance should be classified in that category when a player excels only with his non- primary skill also ( a batter with a good bowling performance or vice-versa). On that scale, Micheal Clarke’s spell of 6 for 9 at a Wankhede dust bowl was also an all-round masterpiece. Although they famously lost the Kolkata epic in 2001, Steve Waugh’s 110 run innings duly supported by Gillespie’s 46, helped them dominate the first half of the encounter also. Even during the 4-0 drubbing in 2013, Henriques, Siddle, Starc and Maxwell shone brightly in patches with their non-primary skills. Only glaring exception has perhaps been the case of Shane Watson who despite being the most successful Aussie Allrounder on Indian soil with 540 runs and 12 wickets, wasn’t able to earn a single win for Australia with those performances (they say that exceptions prove the rule!!!)
Another common factor in Aussie triumphs on Indian soil recently has been remarkable shows by their faster men (Adam Dale and Kasprowicz in 1998, Gillespie and McGrath in 2004, Starc in 2017 etc.).
Having learnt our history lessons, we should now examine the strength of the current Aussie side on tour. It looks like there are only two genuine Allrounders, Ashton Agar and Cameron Green. The Aussie selectors and team management feels that Agar’s red ball game is not quite where they want it to be at present. Hence the situation forces them to put all their eggs in the basket named ‘Cameron Green’. The emerging star of Australian cricket has given some serious performances in last couple of years like against India in Sydney or against England in Sydney and Hobert. More encouraging for Australians is the fact that he also has two very good innings against Pakistan and Srilanka last year on Sub-continent pitches. His 5 wickets and 51 runs against the Proteas at Melbourne in last boxing day test was another statement show without doubt. But the middle-finger injury he picked up during the same match has forced him to be sidelined in the series so far. His non-availability has severely affected the balance of their team by losing a decent pace option. Scarcity of lower order runs compared to the ones amassed by their Indian counterparts, which was considered by many the most important difference (among many others) between the two sides in the first test, is possibly the most direct effect of such disbalance.
The situation has become so desperate for Australia with both their star pacers (Starc and Hazlewood) injured, they have fielded an XI comprising of three (!!!) spinners (with only Pat Cummins as the lone fast bowler) in the 2nd Test being held in the smog of Delhi (as I write, the start of second day of the second test is 7 hours away). They have flown in Matt Kuhnemann straight from Australia to bolster their chances. It’s always good to pick up good practices and habits from your successful opponents, but you have to rely on your own strength and proven quality more often than not to become successful yourself. Australia doesn’t have the quality spinners like Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar in their ranks but deficiency of quality pacers and Allrounders, unlike their previous great countrymen, have forced them to shift from their traditional strength (genuine pacers and Allrounders) and seriously jeopardized their quest for the ultimate Indian glory.
We have perhaps been able to establish the fact that relying on your quality players’ ability should determine your best XI on most days (that answers our very first question of the article!!!). I have also tried to succeed in our second most important quest (the reason of such ‘un-aussiness’) in the previous Paragraphs. For now, it seems that Aussies will continue to struggle for the remainder of the series with their feigned tryst with spin and insufficient ‘Greenery’ in the Allrounders’ field. But, to end the long and perhaps boring affair of this article on a lighter note for the die-hard Aussie fans, ‘Guess the result of the last test when Australia fielded three spinners’?
” THEY WON AGAINST BANGLADESH!!!’
If that kind of things happen in the ongoing BGT also, it will be fitting for such a great series to live up to its expectations; and don’t know about you great souls but Yours Truly is certainly looking for that.