India cricket

Injuries and bad form open a can of Australian worms

Australia is struggling to find batsmen who can open against India’s formidable pace attack in Adelaide on 17 December. A combination of injuries, bad form, and a concussion in yesterday’s tour match have plagued the nation’s preeminent pool of opening batsmen. It raises four questions, but there is only one answer.

A final tour match under lights beginning on Friday 11 December will most likely determine that answer. Joe Burns and Marcus Harris will vye for the opening roles, while Cameron Green has another chance to blaze a trail to an Australian middle order debut.

The debate about Australia’s openers began at the start of the 2020-21 Sheffield Shield. David Warner was a certainty but incumbent partner Joe Burns couldn’t buy a run—scoring just 57 in three matches at an average of 11. Meanwhile Victoria’s Will Pucovski averaged 247 across two matches. His opening partner, Marcus Harris, scored 355 runs in four innings. Both Victorians entered the frame, but it was Puckovski who stimulated most excitement.

The choice of David Warner’s opening partner was to be settled in a “bat off” between Joe Burns and Will Pucovski earlier this week. They opened together for Australia A in the first of two tour matches against the Indians in Sydney. Yet nothing was resolved—Australia A were 2/5 within minutes. The plot thickened again when young-gun all-rounder Cameron Green scored an unbeaten 125 batting at five. Then Green took the wickets of both Indian opening batsmen!

The opening saga broadened further when Joe Burns was bowled for a duck and Will Pucovski was concussed (on 23 not out) during the 2nd innings. 24 hours later David Warner was ruled out of the Adelaide Test match with a groin injury suffered during the ODIs against India. All of this raises at least four questions:

Should selectors retain faith in the horribly out-of-form Joe Burns?

Should selectors go back to the future with a recall for Shaun Marsh or Usman Khawaja?

Should selectors promote Marcus Harris to bat alongside Burns (or Pucovski if he is fit)?

Should selectors reshuffle the order to accommodate Cameron Green?

A fifth bowler would normally be an attractive option at Adelaide—a toiler’s pitch. But the day-night fixture favours bowlers. Yet Green is an almost irresistible option with the bat. A century and wickets against India A and 363 runs at 72 in four Shield Matches this season, the kid is the real deal. How do you fit him in?

Australia is unlikely to drop Matt Wade or Travis Head. But it might promote Marnus Labuschagne to open with…somebody. Green could then find a place at five or six.

If selectors resist the temptation to inhale Green on this occasion, there’s still the opening dilemma to resolve.

Pucovski should have time to pass any concussion fitness requirements in the next 7 days. But Australia will not take any chances on a young man who has suffered eight (8) previous concussions. That leaves Joe Burns and Marcus Harris, or does it?

If both fail to convince in their final hit out this weekend, where does Australia turn?

Usman Khawaja, Matt Renshaw, and Shaun Marsh all averaged over 50 during the opening rounds of the Sheffield Shield this season.

Who makes your cut?

10 Tests without victory: Has England lost its spine?

England are only 1-0 down in the series against India, but it feels like they’ve just been beaten 5-0 again. The reaction to yesterday’s defeat at Lords and the projections radiating from England are all dire. A lack of quality, bad execution, ordinary tactics, poor fielding and troubled county and player development systems… I’ve read it all in recent days, but the dressing room problems that stalked England’s tour of Australia appear most relevant.

India bounced England’s batsmen out on a day five wicket, that on day 1, looked as green as the 18th at Royal Liverpool. Chasing 318 for victory with 4 sessions to play, England were in the box seat, but Ishant Sharma shredded them with 7 wickets – many of which were caught in the deep. England asked India to bat first on a green top and failed to capitalise, with their seamers consistently bowling too short on a pitch demanding a full, seam-nibbling length. India toiled hard with the bat throughout and set a competitive 4th innings chase. It was more than a touch ironic that short bowling undid England’s batsmen in the end. The difference between carefully executed, field appropriate short bowling and banging it in too often has never been plainer.

Twelve months ago England were ranked 2 in the world and were on the way to beating Australia 3-0. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1999. It’s not and England shouldn’t be this bad, but a packet of off-field problems are destroying them in the middle.

The big question for me is why somebody like Matt Prior is now quitting after two Tests?

“To treat injuries” is his reasoning, but Prior is the third (Trott and Swann) top 11 player to walk out on England mid-series is less than 9 months. They’re all legitimate reasons you say? Well ok, maybe so, but if England were preparing as well as they should be then Trott’s mental state would have been exposed and managed internally before he was obliterated after one Test in Australia and Prior’s “injuries” (and perhaps stomach for a fight) been adequately appraised before this absolutely vital home series against India. The bloke has quit when times are tough and injuries aside, I wouldn’t expect he’ll play for England ever again as some of England’s insiders are smarting.

The second issue is Alistair Cook. A great player with an incredible batting record that has seemingly been in steep decline ever since Andy Strauss stepped aside. Cook seems like a “lovely lad” as described by Strauss overnight, but is he a leader of men? I’m not convinced and the sight of bowlers changing fielders behind his back without consent and the general body language of certain players towards him looks bad, but I wouldn’t be demoting him during this series. This again, for me, comes back to preparation. If the head honchos at England cricket do not believe that he is the man to lead the  side then why go into this series with him at the helm? Why do these things keep needing to be dealt with mid-series?

Australia’s terrible, ill-fated tour of India in 2013 threw up several mid-series dressing room fiascos. When these incidents began to emerge on the subsequent tour of England and it was evident that they had not been managed, the head coach was sacked and a new leadership group redrawn before the first Test. Some decried the timing, but it has turned out for the better.

Cook absolutely needs runs to take some of the sting out of the criticism being fired his way. But, he could score hundreds and if England keep losing and their bowling and fielding plans lack shape and distinctive strategy, then his leadership will continue to be questioned.

The upshot is that England are only 1-0 down with three Tests to play. India are a very good side, but they’re not at the top yet and England is a difficult place to win (Australia hasn’t won in England for 12 years). Cook and the rest of the England unit must fight on and win this series at home, or be the subject of a rabid inquisition unseen in English cricket for at least a decade.