Australia seem to be considering a radical change of approach, playing three specialist spinners in their Test XI in India, dropping Josh Hazlewood and handing the new ball to Mitch Marsh.
Selector Mark Waugh flagged this bold choice while commentating on the Big Bash League on the weekend.
“You could play one quick and then play Mitchell Marsh as the opening bowler and slide someone (a spinner) in,” Waugh said.
Then Australia made the major move on Sunday of picking four frontline spinners in their 16-man squad – Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar.
This is significant given they’ve only picked two tweakers on each of their last three tours of Asia – Sri Lanka in 2016, Pakistan (2014) and India (2013).
On Sunday, interim Chairman of Selectors Trevor Hohns fanned the fire started by Waugh, saying Swepson and Agar had been selected in case “we need a third spinner, if the conditions suit that type of bowling”.
And, of course, conditions in India will certainly “suit that type of bowling”.
Then intrigue about Mitch Marsh’s possible role deepened when Hohns said his panel considered the West Australian to be a bowling all-rounder. This is a significant change of tack, given Marsh has been described by the selectors as a batting all-rounder during his 19 Tests.
The four frontline spinners picked in the Australian squad is twice as many as they’ve taken on any tour to any country in the past decade.
Specialist spinners selected in Australia’s Test squads on recent tours of Asia:
Sri Lanka (2016) – Lyon and O’Keefe (Jon Holland later replaced injured O’Keefe in the squad)
Pakistan in UAE (2014) – Lyon and O’Keefe
India (2013) – Lyon and Xavier Doherty
Sri Lanka (2011) – Lyon and Michael Beer
India (2010) – Nathan Hauritz
India (2008) – Jason Krejza
All this suggests we are likely, at some point during the series in India, to see Australia play three frontline spinners, with one of Hazlewood or Starc forced to watch on from the sidelines. The question now is how soon such a line-up will appear?
Are the selectors considering it as an experiment in the latter part of the tour once any chance of an Australian series win has disappeared? Or do they see this spin-heavy line-up as Australia’s best chance of victory on a turning track? If the latter is true then it all depends on the condition of the surface for the first Test at Pune next month.
Now, there is no doubt that Australia’s spinners will play a major role in India. But, as I wrote recently, it is Starc and Hazlewood, not the slow bowlers, who shape as Australia’s best attacking options in that series.
O’Keefe and Lyon both are solid Test spinners. Neither, though, is likely to cause significant problems for a dominant Indian batting line-up, littered with elite players of spin. Even Sri Lankan spinner Rangana Herath, who is a wizard in Asian conditions and comprehensively outbowled Lyon last year, averages nearly 50 with the ball from his three Tests in India.
Before Herath, the two greatest spinners of all time, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, averaged 43 and 45 respectively in Tests in India.
For more recent evidence of the success of visiting spinners, consider the Test tours by England and New Zealand. Across the eight Tests those two sides played in India last year, the visiting spinners averaged 50 with the ball, while the visiting pacemen averaged 46.
What that shows is that, despite the spin-friendly pitches, slow bowling is not particularly effective if your tweakers are not elite and the opposition batting line-up loves facing spin. England and New Zealand both loaded up on spinners in that series; the Poms used five tweakers – Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty, Liam Dawson and Zafar Ansari – while the Black Caps used four – Mark Craig, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi and Jeetan Patel.
Now Australia have followed suit and picked a squad overflowing with slow bowlers. If the Aussies do what Waugh suggested and pick three spinners, play only one specialist paceman, and open the bowling with Marsh, they would be straying as far as away as possible from their greatest bowling strength. The pitches in India will turn – often from as early as Day 1.
But Australia will be foolish if, while the series is still alive, they bank on spin and bench one of Hazlewood or Starc.