Bangladesh tour could derail Australia’s Ashes plans

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

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    Australia may have competed strongly in the Test series in India three months ago but they will be vulnerable in the upcoming two-Test series in Bangladesh without key bowlers Mitchell Starc and Steve O’Keefe.

    It was a similar away series last winter, against a low-ranked Asian opponent in Sri Lanka, which sent Australia’s Test team into a downward spiral and led to them being embarrassed at home by South Africa.

    There is a very real risk that a calamitous performance in Bangladesh could badly destabilise Australia and leave them fragile heading into the Ashes.

    On Friday, Australia announced their 13-man squad for the series in Bangladesh in August and September. Missing from it were injured quick Starc and spinner O’Keefe, who must surely have been dropped due to recent off-field disciplinary problems.

    National selector Trevor Hohns indicated O’Keefe had been dropped because of poor form. But it would beggar belief if that is the real reason, considering that in March O’Keefe single-handedly engineered Australia’s first Test win in Asia for six years.

    O’Keefe took 19 wickets at 23 in that series in India and has a fantastic Test record of 33 wickets at 27. Yet he’s being dropped for a 23-year-old spinner in Agar with a poor first-class bowling average of 40. The selectors are either incompetent or are being untruthful.

    Dumping an experienced spinner who has had success in Asia is especially risky when Australia are going to be without Starc, their best paceman on dry pitches. With 33 wickets at an average of 26 from his eight Tests in Asia, the left arm spearhead will leave a yawning gap in the Australian line-up.

    The absence of he and O’Keefe will greatly weaken the Australian attack. This series has the potential to badly hinder Australia’s Ashes preparations.

    Consider the similarities between last year’s tour of Sri Lanka and the series in Bangladesh. Right now, Australia have good momentum due to a 5-2 win-loss record since being rebuilt following their two crushing losses to the Proteas.

    It was the same story when they headed to Sri Lanka – the line-up had been overhauled after their 2015 defeat in England and the new-look team was on a roll, fresh from dominating the Kiwis home-and-away and destroying the Windies.

    At that stage, leading into the Sri Lankan series, the Australian team appeared set in stone, with a host of inexperienced players having cemented their places. Joe Burns looked like a long-term opener, averaging a tick under 50 from ten matches.

    Middle order batsman Adam Voges was in Bradman territory, averaging 95 from his 15 Tests.

    Wicketkeeper Peter Nevill was keeping well and showing signs of improvement with the blade. And first drop Usman Khawaja was in imperious touch, having piled up 713 runs at 102 since being recalled to the Australian team.

    Less than a year later none of those four players are incumbents in the Australian team. It was the Sri Lankan series which cost them their spots, either directly or indirectly. Burns and Khawaja struggled so badly they didn’t even survive to the third Test of that series, dropped after floundering at Pallekele and Galle.

    Joe Burns Australia cricket

    (AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN)

    Voges and Nevill managed to play the whole series but averaged just 19 and eight with the bat respectively. While they managed to keep their spots in the line-up it was clear heading into last summer that their positions were shaky.

    The Sri Lankan series left the Australian team in a state of turmoil and the Proteas ruthlessly exploited this fragility. The same fate could meet Australia if they are listless in Bangladesh.

    The likes of Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell and Pat Cummins have turned in some quality performances in recent Tests. Each of them looks capable of becoming a long-term member of the side.

    But the Sri Lankan series showed us how quickly things could change. A disastrous series in Bangladesh could leave Australia heading in to the Ashes needing to reconsider the positions of a host of players.

    Such instability would significantly improve England’s chances in the Ashes. As it stands, Australia are justifiably hot favourites to regain The Urn. In Australian conditions the home side have a quality top five and a far better and more ferocious bowling attack than England.

    I may be sounding overly-pessimistic given the impressive way Australia pushed India to the final day of the recent four-Test series before losing 2-1. That effort suggested Australia have made major improvements in their handling of Asian conditions.

    There have, however, been so many false dawns in Australian Test cricket over recent years that I can’t confidently back Australia to win in Bangladesh. Away from home Australia remain worryingly reliant on captain Steve Smith. Their attack has been consistently effective on the road but that now has been weakened greatly.

    And, bar Smith, they do not have a single batsman who is proven in Tests outside Australia.

    The likes of Handscomb, Renshaw and Maxwell are still Test rookies.

    Australia’s next best batsmen, after Smith, in Warner and Khawaja both have awful records in Asia. Warner averages just 30 from his 13 Tests in India, Sri Lanka and the UAE, while Khawaja has averaged 19 from his four Tests in Sri Lanka.

    Were Smith to have an off series in Sri Lanka, and surely such a form blip must occur at some point, Australia’s batting easily could fall apart on parched Bangladesh pitches against canny tweakers.

    Bangladesh are just as strong at home as the very inexperienced Sri Lankan team which destroyed Australia. In their most recent home series Bangladesh drew 1-1 with England.

    Bangladesh went achingly close to winning that series 2-0 – in the first Test they were 5-227 needing just 59 runs to triumph before collapsing to lose by 22 runs.

    Their spinners dominated the England batsmen, with star left armer Shakib-al-Hasan and off spin prodigy Mehedi Hasan Miraz combining for 31 wickets at an average of 17. The Bangladesh wickets favoured spin so heavily that the hosts, quite incredibly, only got one single wicket via pace bowling across the two Tests.

    Australia will surely face similar dustbowls if their tour goes ahead. That could play into their hands, as it did at Pune against India. Or it could cause their batting to unravel. Once again, a huge weight would rest on the shoulders of Smith.

    The tour of Bangladesh shapes as a potential minefield. A wrong step and Australia’s Ashes hopes could be wounded.

    Australia’s squad for Tour of Bangladesh
    Steve Smith (c)
    David Warner (vc)
    Ashton Agar
    Hilton Cartwright
    Patrick Cummins
    Peter Handscomb
    Josh Hazlewood
    Usman Khawaja
    Nathan Lyon
    Glenn Maxwell
    James Pattinson
    Matthew Renshaw
    Matthew Wade

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco