Easy wins against Sri Lanka don’t mark the renaissance of Australia’s Test team
At the very least, batsmen like Usman Khawaja have made their case for the selectors. (AP: Rick Rycroft)
Some time today, Australia will most likely claim the home series against Sri Lanka 2-0 after comprehensive victories in Brisbane and Canberra.
Meanwhile, beside a hotel pool in Antigua, a badly beaten England is contemplating the drudgery of a dead rubber third Test having been completely outplayed by the West Indies in the first two.
In an Ashes year, the contrasting fortunes of the two combatants invites what a philosopher who has turned his thoughts to cricket — “I block therefore I open!” — might call a logically fallacious comparison.
How tempting to think Australia has suddenly overcome the chastening experience of its home series defeat by India, rediscovered the ability to “bat long” and regenerated an attack that was ground into the Melbourne and Sydney turf by the dead bat of Cheteshwar Pujara.
Simultaneously comes the impulse to imagine England’s batting has been benighted since Sir Alastair Cook was knighted and Australia’s erstwhile tormentors Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad will be trimming the rose bushes or playing bingo when the first Ashes Test begins at Edgbaston on August 1.
England faces a dead-rubber third Test against the West Indies after losing the first two. (AP: Ricardo Mazalan)
Now the cold shower: Relatively easy runs — if Test cricket offers such a thing — against a Sri Lankan team beset by political infighting, surrounded by whiffs of scandal and weakened by injury quite obviously do not mark the renaissance of Australia’s Test team.
Yet nor should the marginal gains made in the past two Tests, and across the summer, be completely dismissed despite the vast disparity in strength between India (gold medal weightlifter) and Sri Lanka (nine stone weakling).
The absence of Stephen Smith, David Warner and, to a lesser degree, Cameron Bancroft quite obviously diminished Australia’s batting, but also created opportunities for their replacements.
It is disappointing that these chances were only seized with both hands against Sri Lanka’s work-experience attack after a succession of candidates failed their audition against India’s much more incisive bowling.
Runs against Sri Lanka may be cheap, but they’re not worthless
But, at the very least, even if you believe Test centuries against Sri Lanka are Argentinian pesos and those against India more like US dollars, Usman Khawaja, Joe Burns, Travis Head and Kurt Patterson have made it hard for the selectors to drop them.
Assuming the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of Smith and Warner, we now have the six batsmen with the most compelling case to comprise the top six in a notional next Test — notional because there is such a vast gap between the Australian summer and the first Test of the Ashes series due to the World Cup that much could change.
There are the remnants of the Sheffield Shield season (remember that?), the World Cup (some ODI form will be applicable to Tests in this case because it will provide some clue to technique in English conditions), County games for those with contracts and an increased England touring schedule to analyse.
This could determine if Marcus Harris can retain his place, and others such as Peter Handscomb and Matt Renshaw — well suited to English conditions despite a poor summer — can regain theirs.
While Australia’s batting line-up remains volatile, the attack has been, for some, too settled (Shane Warne’s criticism of Mitchell Starc now approaches the border separating legitimate criticism and morbid obsession).
Yet despite being sentenced to hard labour against India in Melbourne and Sydney by inept Australian batting that meant they had little respite on flat wickets, the attack has emerged in reasonable shape.
Pat Cummins had a break-out summer, Josh Hazlewood’s injury allowed the impressive debut of Jhye Richardson who will bring valuable cargo to England — the ability to swing the ball at genuine pace, not just hit the seam.
Sri Lanka’s Kusal Perera felt the full venom of Jhye Richardson, who has impressed in his early showings for Australia. (AAP: David Gray)
Importantly, Starc rediscovered his venom — if not perfect control — in Canberra. A five-wicket haul — yes, yes, against the modest Sri Lankan batting — will give him confidence any technical adjustments are paying dividends.
Another certainty from a summer that started with more questions than answers: Tim Paine will lead the team to England as the legitimate leader, not a substitute captain.
Paine hasn’t scored enough runs to convince some he has a stranglehold on the captaincy of a team where selection is (at least theoretically) based on performance, not leadership capability.
But that Paine declared Australia’s first innings in Canberra when he was 45 not out showed he was sufficiently self-assured to put the team ahead of his personal ambitions, a measure of true leadership.
Cook’s retirement exposes English top order
And if this somewhat rose-tinted interpretation of Australia’s fortunes is not convincing, can we rely on England’s apparent decline in the West Indies to provide a flicker of hope the Ashes can be retained?
Cook’s retirement has clearly left England’s top order thin and, surely, even on the pitches that are their personal playgrounds Anderson and Broad cannot carry the attack forever. Can they?
But counterintuitively, it might be the World Cup that gives the best hint of England’s potential vulnerability.
England’s strong ODI team bristling with punishing all-rounders will be quite different from the Test line-up, yet the home team carries the enormous burden of favouritism.
Does England march on to the Ashes as world champions or limp to Edgbaston desperately hoping to restore some pride by regaining the little urn?
Yes, the World Cup and the Ashes are another logically fallacious comparison. But we now have much time to think.