It was hardly going to be a state secret, but Justin Langer revealed Australia’s hand for the first Test against Pakistan at the Gabba two days before it starts, all but confirming that Michael Neser and Cameron Bancroft would sit out.
There remains a chance for things to go wrong, but in reality, the decision was made pretty simple once James Pattinson was ruled out after his code of conduct breach. Neser is a fine bowler, and with two day-night Tests this season his chance could still come, but the in-form Mitchell Starc slots back in alongside Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood – the trio that retained the Ashes at Old Trafford.
However, the bowling was never really going to be the issue. The tough choices were made a few days ago when the squad was named in the wake of Australia A’s collapse to 9 for 57 in Perth.
“I was disappointed for the guys that no-one banged the door down,” Langer said. “But I did say leading up to that game that it wouldn’t just be picked on that game, it’d be a whole range of things. I just came to realise that we’re going to have to show Pakistan great respect.”
Australia may have regained the services of Steven Smith and David Warner – both now set to play their first home Tests for 21 months – but as with last season when they were absent, there remains significant uncertainty around the batting. Joe Burns and Travis Head are those who have been given the first chance to bring stability as Langer balances the twin ambitions of immediate success and longer-term planning.
Burns’ last Test brought him 180 against Sri Lanka in Canberra and Head has only been absent for one game when he made way for Mitchell Marsh at The Oval, so there is plenty of logic around their returns. But it would not take long for questions to be asked if substantial returns aren’t forthcoming.
“We’re No. 5 in the world in Test cricket at the moment, and there’s a reason for that. One of them is that we don’t score 300-plus in the first innings enough,” Langer said. “Our batters are very aware of that. We understand there’s a spotlight on our batting at the moment and the boys have got to embrace that. They understand that and that’s part of the responsibility and privilege of being selected in the top six in the Australian Test team. We’re not going to shy away from that.”
Burns’ comeback recreates an opening partnership with Warner that has enjoyed success at Test level – four century stands and an average of 44.31 – with Langer hoping their contrasting styles and personalities can form a long-term alliance.
“He’s got a very good first-innings record as well, and I know Davey likes batting with him,” Langer said. “And I obviously have some understanding of how important it is for the openers to get on really well, and work well together and understand each other. I’ve said one of the things we need to do is get our top three cemented and get that as strong as possible because it’s a pivotal part of winning games of cricket. So I’m hopeful the odd couple will get out there and, like we’ve seen in the past, form a really good opening partnership.”
Meanwhile, Head remains Australia leading run-scorer since Newlands albeit Smith has done his best to overtake him in just four matches. A maiden Test hundred against Sri Lanka in Canberra capped a successful home summer amid a struggling batting line-up before a combination of a failure to build on starts and team balance cost him his place.
For a little while at the beginning of the season, it appeared Head may struggle to make the case for an immediate return, but a century against a strong New South Wales attack was enough.
“Runs didn’t come early, I probably missed out at Junction Oval and missed out here [against Queensland] but at no time did I doubt what I was doing, was making sure I backed what I’d been over the last 18 months and trying to get better,” Head said. “Fortunately, I was able to spend some time in the middle in Adelaide and finish not out in Perth.
“[It’s about] trying to continue the work I did last summer. I felt like I started the Ashes really well, but wasn’t able to post a score. I knew what was working and probably went away from that in Manchester which probably led to me missing out, but it was good learnings to work out the reasons why. I’ve looked at that over the last month, feeling I’m moving really well again. I continue to get better at the technical aspect, it’s still a work in progress.”
Though he won’t play, barring a late injury (or concussion substitution), Bancroft’s selection in the squad was the most contentious call given his first-class average of 17.67 for the season – and that was boosted by his 49 against Pakistan. Usman Khawaja‘s first-class season has been an equal struggle (average 17) but he averages 52.97 in Australia and has scored six of his eight Test hundreds on home soil.
“He knows what he has to do,” Langer said. “In this instance, we probably don’t need a 33-year-old like Uzzie [being around the squad] not playing the Test match. That’s what it comes down to. I’ve got great admiration for Uzzie, I think he’s a fantastic player, and I’m sure when he finds a bit of touch he’ll be pushing really hard to get back into the team.”
Will the Australia top six that starts the Test season at the Gabba on Thursday be the same one that finishes it in Sydney in six weeks?
Brian Lara to West Indies batsmen: ‘Protect your stumps, be smart’
Protect your stumps. Play beside the line of the ball. Two nuggets of wisdom to succeed in England, from former greats Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, to Jason Holder’s West Indies, before the first Test against England in Southampton. The visitors won the previous leg of the Wisden Trophy at home in 2019, but they have struggled in England, having failed to win a Test series in the country since 1988. They have managed only six Test wins during this period.
Batting remains West Indies’ weakness. Holder and head coach Phil Simmons have underlined that as a big concern. In the rain-affected second intra-squad warm-up match in Manchester, none of the top-order batsmen even got a decent start. After the first-innings collapse in that match, Holder was embarrassed to admit some of his batsmen needed to “look in the mirror“.
In the absence of Darren Bravo and Shimron Hetmyer, West Indies will look at the pair of Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope to lead the batting department. They were the standout performers for West Indies on their 2017 tour, as the visitors clinched a rare Test win in the country at Headingly on the back of their heroics.
However, both batsmen have struggled since. In terms of average, since their tour of England in 2017, Holder has been West Indies’ best batsman.
Lack of application and focus, and absence of partnerships, have been outlined as the major issues with the batting by Simmons. Lara, meanwhile, said that batting remained the “key” to West Indies’ fortunes.
“The key to any team taking the field, especially if they are taking the field after batting, is the amount of runs they have to play with,” Lara told Tendulkar in a chat on the 100MB app. “This present West Indies team need the luxury of having runs on the board. They need their batsmen to come up trumps and give them that sort of comfort. So the effectiveness of a Kemar Roach or Shannon Gabriel will only come into play if they don’t have to go on the defensive because of the lack of runs. That has been our problem for many, many years.”
According to Lara, quickly understanding the conditions, playing late, and dominating bowlers selectively were some of the cues West Indies batsmen needed to understand.
When pressed by Tendulkar, who asked: “In short, your message to West Indian team is try and stay beside the line, don’t get behind the line too much?”, Lara agreed.
“In England it is protect your stumps. And get acclimatised quickly, get the pace and bounce of the pitch, know what the bowlers are doing. And then when you feel comfortable then you sort of grow. You don’t necessarily have to dominate every single bowler that is bowling to you – if you get to 70-80 and there’s somebody that is giving you trouble, back off. That’s key.”
When Tendulkar joked that West Indies ought to take Lara “seriously”, the former West Indies captain cited the example of Tendulkar’s masterful 241 in 2004 in Sydney where he abstained from playing the cover drive, a shot that had got him into trouble throughout the series.
To cut out what hurts you, Lara said, was the “key” to batting.
“You know that Sachin, as well. In terms of that great innings that you played in Sydney: it was not about a particular bowler getting you out, but it was a particular shot getting you out. And you stopped yourself from playing it and you were able to score in other areas. So it is similar sort of approach – be it your technique and may be having a problem with a particular shot or a particular bowler.
A good example would be Australia. Playing against Australia, I will be 70-80 or may a 140 and [Glenn] McGrath comes back for a spell. And I know he is going to bowl 36 balls or six overs, seven overs, I don’t need to sort of take any great risks. Give your other guy at the other end, give him the opportunity to score.”
Summing up the chat, Tendulkar said: “You just have to be smart.”
Lara nodded, “Yes, that’s all”.
Hilton Moreeng reappointed as South Africa women’s head coach
Hilton Moreeng has been reappointed as the head coach of the South African women’s team on a three-year deal. His new contract includes both the 2021 ODI World Cup and 2022 T20 World Cup, due to be held in New Zealand and South Africa respectively, and will take Moreeng’s tenure in the role to 11 years, since he was first appointed in 2012.
More to follow…
Virat Kohli and…? Sourav Ganguly picks five current Indian Test players to play under him
Sourav Ganguly has worn many hats over the years, the latest being that of the president of the BCCI, but it’s Sourav Ganguly the India captain that people still remember with the most fondness. Chatting with Ganguly a couple of days before his 48th birthday, on the board’s official website, Mayank Agarwal got him to reminisce about his playing days, and also act as India’s Test captain, if only for a while. Excerpts from the interaction.
Five players from the current lot he would have wanted in his Test team
It’s a very tough question, Mayank, because I feel every generation the players are different, players face challenges differently in different generations, pitches, quality of opposition, even the change of the cricket ball – Kookaburra during my era and your era has completely been changed, maybe because of the leather, because the lacquer on the ball has changed. But on a humorous note, on a lighter note – and I hope nobody feels this generation is better than the other or that generation is weaker than the other because we unnecessarily get into such debates and for me, that has no meaning. From your current team, I would have loved to have Virat Kohli in the side, Rohit Sharma in the side… I will not pick you at the moment because I had Virender Sehwag at the other end, you’re my third opener. I will go for [Jasprit] Bumrah because I had Zaheer [Khan] at the other end, who I thought was exceptional. I would also go for Mohammed Shami after Javagal Srinath retired, because I think Mohammed Shami is a fantastic bowler. So I’ve got Rohit, I’ve got Virat, I’ve got Bumrah, I’ve got Shami, so I’ve got four. I had Harbhajan [Singh] and Anil Kumble in my side, so [R] Ashwin would be my third spinner. I would be very tempted to have Ravindra Jadeja also.
He made Steve Waugh wait at the toss during the 2001 series – fact or fiction?
It was an accident actually. In the first Test match, I left my blazer back in the dressing room. They were such a good side, and I was very nervous in that series because it was my first big series as captain and up against a fantastic cricket team. In the last 25-30 years, I haven’t seen a cricket team as good as Australia in that generation. So initially it was [just that] I forgot my blazer in that first Test, but then I realised that he [Waugh] reacted to it. He reacted, and then he was not taking it very seriously, and it was working on them, working on the team, the way they play, the way they go about their… they were a bit grumpy with all that. And it worked for us, we won the series 2-1. But having said that, Steve Waugh is a dear friend, he has always been a friend, and I have tremendous respect for him as a cricketer, and it was all in good humour.
“The best players in the shorter format have the ability to hit boundaries at will. You look over a period of time, in the history of one-day cricket, the best players can find the fence under pressure consistently. And MS Dhoni was one of them, and that’s why he was special”
Did Sachin Tendulkar force him to take strike when they opened together in ODIs?
Always, always he did. He had an answer to that. I used to tell him, “Yaar, sometimes you also face the first ball, I am always facing the first ball.” He said he had two answers to it. One, he believed when his form was good it should continue, that he should remain at the non-striker’s end, and then when his form wasn’t good, he said, “I should remain at the non-striker’s end because it takes the pressure off me.” So he had an answer for both, good form and bad form. Until and unless you walked past him and stood at the non-striker’s end, and he was already on TV and he would be forced to be at the striker’s end. And that has happened one or two times, I have just walked past him and stood at the non-striker’s end.
On pushing for MS Dhoni‘s inclusion in the side during his captaincy days
Yes, that’s true, but that’s my job, isn’t it? That’s every captain’s job, to pick the best and make the best team possible. You go by your instincts, you go by faith on that player, that he will deliver for you, and I am happy that Indian cricket got a Mahendra Singh Dhoni, because he is unbelievable. One of the great players in world cricket, I would say, not just finisher. I think everyone talks about how he finishes lower down the order, [but] he batted at No. 3 when I was captain and he got 140  against Pakistan in Vizag, I think. The old stadium. It was fantastic. So I always believed that he should bat up the order because he is so destructive. The best players in the shorter format have the ability to hit boundaries at will. You look over a period of time, in the history of one-day cricket, the best players can find the fence under pressure consistently. And MS Dhoni was one of them, and that’s why he was special.
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