Australia’s number six conundrum continues

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By , Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert

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    It was unlikely Mitch Marsh was going to play the third Test. It is now a certainty.

    Team management has sent him back to Australia for treatment on an injured shoulder, an injury that he carried into the series.

    His four innings produced scores of 4, 31, 0 and 13 – albeit he received a near unplayable zooter in the first innings at Bangalore.

    He heads home having bowled just five of the 242 overs Australia has sent down so far.

    Much of that was predicated on the brevity of three of India’s innings which lasted 40, 36 and 71 overs.

    Had Marsh been dropped, as expected, his replacement would have come from Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell, and Ashton Agar.

    Now that he has left the tour party, and with the third Test at Ranchi still a week away, the selectors have opted to fly in a replacement in Marcus Stoinis.

    Given the desire of a like-for-like selection, the other all-rounders considered would likely have been Moises Henriques, Travis Head, Hilton Cartwright and James Faulkner.

    Prior to the first Test and throughout the series there has been a groundswell of support for Khawaja.

    Coming off another solid home summer, he was dropped and replaced by Shaun Marsh, who has been serviceable.

    He top-scored in the first innings at Bangalore and was out for nine in the second after bizarrely opting not to use DRS.

    While the younger Marsh was struggling through the second Test the popular consensus was Khawaja should be brought in at number six for the next Test.

    Personally, I think that is a risky proposition.

    The pitch at Bangalore took everyone by surprise.

    Former Indian skipper Ravi Shastri lambasted the surface at Pune, declaring before a ball had been bowled that is was a fifth-day pitch. Shane Warne and Michael Clarke were also scathing.

    There was no such criticism at Bangalore.

    Across the board, Shastri, Clarke, Brett Lee, Matthew Hayden and Sunil Gavaskar all declared the pitch would be good for batting through the first three days before starting to produce natural deterioration.

    That was not the case with Nathan Lyon spinning it fiercely on day one and by the end of the second day several batsmen had been undone by balls that skidded low.

    After the humiliation at Pune, where the hosts outsmarted themselves, Bangalore was supposed to be a pitch akin to the low, slow turners that were produced for the recent England series.

    We can expect the pitches of that ilk at Ranchi and Dharmsala – both yet to have hosted a Test match – to be facsimiles of the England series.

    That is what India will be wanting.

    And, that being the case, playing a specialist batsman at number six may be fraught with danger.

    The India-England series produced attritional cricket.

    Three times, England batted first and posted large totals – 537, 400 and 477 – yet drew the 500-plus Test and lost the other two.

    India batted once in the fourth and fifth Tests of that series and won both by an innings.

    At Mumbai, it was dismissed for 631 and at Chennai declared at 7-759 after England scored 400 and 477 respectively.

    In those two matches, India’s first innings lasted 182 and 190 overs.

    There was a three-day break between those two Tests. There will be a four-day break between the third and fourth matches in this series.

    If India produces two pitches like it had for the four-nil win over England, Australia could find itself in the field for a very long period.

    The hosts have all the momentum having looked cooked after day one at Bangalore.

    K L Rahul (90 and 51), Cheteshwar Pujara (92) and Ajinkya Rahane (52) all looked good at Chinnaswamy Stadium.

    India finds itself at one-all, yet its talisman Virat Kohli has scored just 40 runs in four innings.

    India's captain Virat Kohli

    There is a strong likelihood that Australia will not be able to keep him on the leash for the entire series.

    The tourists cannot afford the risk of taking just four bowlers into the last two encounters as India is very likely to get the surfaces it desires.

    Both matches could go deep with innings absorbing well over 120 overs.

    Steve Smith will need more than just four specialists at his disposal.

    Of those in India, Ashton Agar and Glenn Maxwell, are better options than Khawaja as they do provide all-round abilities.

    Maxwell would be a risky proposition simply given his attacking approach. It is something Australia’s top-order has eschewed thus far.

    With Maxwell at six and Mitchell Starc at eight it would not be an ideal blend.

    Agar has developed into a capable batsman with a first-class average of 26.4 with two centuries and a Test 98 to his credit.

    That leaves the direct swap for Marsh in the tour party slotting straight into the side at Ranchi.

    Stoinis set the world on fire against New Zealand in the recent Chappell-Hadlee series with a blistering 146 not out at Auckland.

    Sadly, his first-class form this summer has been extremely mediocre – seven Sheffield Shield matches for 172 runs at 15.6. He has also taken eight wickets at 39.5.

    His selection appears a bold one on the back of such a lean domestic summer.

    Cartwright was blooded for the final Test of the summer, against Pakistan at the SCG, where he contributed 37 in Australia’s only innings and returned figures of 0-15 from four overs.

    In Shield ranks this summer, he has been consistent with the bat with 520 runs at 37.1, while his bowling has netted six wickets at 63.8.

    His presence in the SCG Test seemed to be a precursor to selection in the current series but it was Marsh who got the nod ahead of him.

    He would have certainly been high up in the selectors’ thinking.

    Head has 444 Shield runs at 40.4 and ten wickets at 43.1 this summer.

    The Redbacks skipper also continued to impress at ODI level, notching a maiden century at Adelaide against Pakistan.

    However, had he joined the squad he would be very akin to Maxwell, an aggressive batsman and off-spinner.

    Australia did not need both Head and Maxwell in the tour party.

    Faulkner has had a steady summer for Tasmania with 269 runs at 33.6 and ten wickets at 37.0.

    His one Test, against England at The Oval in August 2013, produced innings of 23 and 22, while he returned match figures of 6-98.

    Since that time, he appears to have been pigeon-holed as a white ball specialist.

    His pace variations with the ball and hard-lower order hitting, although that has been on the wane, has won numerous limited-overs matches for his country.

    He has significant experience on Indian pitches as a fixture on the IPL circuit.

    So too, does Henriques.

    He has had a stand-out summer with the willow, striking a career-best 265 and amassing 659 Shield runs at 65.9. He scored another half-century yesterday against South Australia.

    In recent seasons the SCG pitch has started to return to the more spin-friendly surface of yesteryear with Henriques handing the turning ball well.

    As Blues skipper, he has only called on himself to bowl 36 overs this season during which he has taken 3-186.

    Henriques burst onto the Test stage on the ill-fated 2013 tour of India, scoring 68 and 81 not out on debut at Chennai.

    Things went south after that. He was suspended as part of ‘Homeworkgate’ and failed to reach double figures in his other four innings on the tour.

    He toured Sr Lanka last year and was called up for the third Test where he scored a pair of fours, being run out in the second innings.

    Given his form this summer with the bat and the fact that he is a more patient, watchful batsman at first-class level than the other all-rounders in the frame, he would have been my choice as the replacement for Marsh.

    He is broad of shoulder, and bowls very much a stump to stump line, which would suit the lower slower pitches that Australia will likely face in the last two Tests.

    The selectors have instead plumped for Stoinis.

    It is now a race in four for the spot at number six – Khawaja, Agar, Maxwell and Stoinis.

    Given the tack taken with Marsh, Stoinis may well now have the inside running.

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.

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