Australia have to score runs in Boxing Day Test to avoid talk turning to David Warner and Steve Smith
There has been no regret over the absences of David Warner and Steve Smith so far this series. (Reuters: Rogan Ward)
At the start of this foreboding season it seemed the most significant measure of Australia’s performance would be how long it took a nation to turn its success-starved eyes to Steve Smith and David Warner.
Even before a ball had been bowled the Australian Cricketers’ Association’s opportunistic call for their 12 months bans to be lifted and some campaigning by friendly media to “free” Australia’s best batsmen suggested the suspended pair would never be far from our thoughts — or the back pages.
Yet after an honourable defeat in Adelaide and a morale-boosting victory in Perth, the expected pangs of regret about the absence of Smith and Warner have not been felt.
It would be not quite right to say that, in the immortal words of John Waite, Australia ain’t missing Smith, Warner and even the less-accomplished Cameron Bancroft at all.
There is a good argument Australia would be 2-0 up had Warner and Smith been at the crease in Adelaide rather than their stand-ins Aaron Finch and Peter Handscomb.
Aaron Finch has recorded scores of 0, 11, 50 and 25 at the top of the order this series. (AP: James Elsby)
But in the pleasing results Tim Paine’s men have achieved against top-ranked India and, as significantly, the way they have played under forensic media attention, this feels like a summer of rejuvenation rather than one spent stewing in a cricketing purgatory.
Indeed, rather than the public craving Smith’s presence the fallen skipper has instead attracted their attention by an ill-considered telco advertisement that exploits and somehow cheapens his sincere remorse and a not particularly enlightening press conference.
On then to Melbourne and, against all pre-season expectations, the most keenly anticipated Boxing Day Test for some time — partly the consequence of the tense battles and tied scoreline, partly due to the (appropriately) prickly relationship between the skippers Paine and Virat Kohli which has added the herbs and spices to an evenly matched struggle.
Where the uncertainty around the Australian team was the storyline in Adelaide and Perth, in Melbourne the star — or perhaps anti-hero — will be a pitch that was so benign last year that England opener Alastair Cook might still be there with bat in hand when he receives his knighthood.
The telling question for Australia is whether the almost-certainly friendly batting conditions will disguise the apparent weaknesses in the top order or, given the need to build big innings and substantial partnerships, expose them.
Alastair Cook scored 244 not out last year on a placid pitch at the MCG. (AP: Andy Brownbill)
Can Australia’s openers ‘go big’?
Australia’s totals of 235 and 291 in Adelaide were sub-par, while 326 and 243 in Perth were sufficient only because of India’s similarly frail top-order batting and a talented Australian attack graced by the now routine brilliance of Nathan Lyon, whose nickname GOAT is no longer uttered ironically.
You can also add the handy runs contributed by the Australian tail in contrast with their hapless Indian counterparts — Australia’s numbers eight to 11 have scored 225 runs to India’s 51 in the two Tests.
But in most series you can only get by on the failings of your opposition, the pre-eminence of your bowling and the plucky efforts of your lower-order batsmen for so long.
At some stage in this series Australia is going to have to mount a substantial total to gain ascendency, or match the opposition, and the MCG seems like the venue where decent starts and even meritorious half-centuries will not be enough.
Nathan Lyon has proved the difference so far this series, both with the ball and as part of Australia’s wagging tail. (AP: Trevor Collens)
In that regard, so far the Australian batsmen have failed to convert six half-centuries (two by Travis Head, one each from Shaun Marsh, Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja) into more substantial totals.
While these minor landmarks and that particularly productive tail have at least provided some vital partnerships, the nagging question before Boxing Day is whether Australia’s current line-up is capable of “going big”.
At the same time, even allowing for the struggles of India’s openers — partnerships of 3, 63, 6 and 0 — in the absence of injured teen phenom Prithvi Shaw, centuries by Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara gave the impression there are more runs in this India team than we have seen so far.
In a potentially high-scoring Test, Kohli poses as an even greater threat. While the feisty captain’s imperious skill was again on show as he held India’s first innings together with an excellent 123 in Perth, the way he responds to Paine’s gentle needling and a hostile reception from the packed MCG crowd could be decisive.
Despite the victory in Perth the failure of Peter Handscomb to seize his opportunity has against underlined the lack of depth in Australian batting — exacerbated, obviously, by the absence of those who can’t be selected.
Mitchell Marsh is a likely inclusion is a result of Handscomb’s failings as much as his own recent performance and also the relieving overs that might spare the frontline quicks from overexertion during back-to-back Tests.
Then there is now customary selectorial hope Mitch Marsh’s potential will be fulfilled, as it will need to be if Australia is to push much closer to 500 than it has so far.
If not it should be advantage India and, for the first time, the forgotten batsmen of the Australian summer will suddenly appear front of mind.