Mitch Marsh has averaged 21 with the bat and 54 with the ball in Test cricket this year. Most cricket pundits and fans agree he should not be in the Australian team, but who, exactly, should replace him?
Roarers are split into two camps: those who believe Australia should play six specialist batsmen, and those who think a decent fifth bowling option is crucial to protect the frontline bowlers during a packed summer schedule.
This season, Australia are playing ten Tests in the space of five months against three strong opponents – South Africa, Pakistan and India. They desperately need their gun new ball pair of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood to play all of those Tests.
Starc, in particular, is invaluable because of the menace and variety he provides the Australians. Were he to break down from being overloaded, Australia’s attack would look one-paced and benign. That is why Australia are so intent on having a fifth bowling option – to not only protect the health of Starc and Hazlewood, but to allow them to stay fresher, and hence more dangerous, within each session, each day, each Test, each series and each season.
For those Roarers who advocate playing six specialist batsmen, I would point out that every single Test team now plays an all-rounder in their top seven in most matches to give them five bowling options.
England have Ben Stokes. New Zealand have Jimmy Neesham. South Africa have JP Duminy. India have Ravi Ashwin. Sri Lanka have Dhananjaya de Silva, while Bangladesh have Shakib al Hasan. Pakistan have Mohammad Nawaz, the West Indies have Roston Chase and Zimbabwe play Sean Williams.
Australia have… Mitch Marsh.
The problem, as I see it, is that Marsh at this stage is a bits-and-pieces player, as is Moises Henriques who Australia used in Sri Lanka. Marsh and Henriques have batted in the top six for Australia. Yet, based on batting alone, both of them would struggle to get a gig in the top six for their domestic teams.
If they’re not good enough to play as batsmen alone in their full-strength state teams, how can they bat in the top six for the Test side? Australia either need to pick the six best batsmen in the country, and forget about a fifth bowling option, or they need to pick a genuine top six batsman who also happens to bowl regularly for his state.
Marcus Stoinis, Hilton Cartwright and Glenn Maxwell are the three cricketers who best fit this second description. Unlike Marsh and Henriques, each of those players would make their Sheffield Shield teams playing purely as batsmen. Their bowling is just a bonus.
Stoinis has made about 1700 runs at 44 in first-class cricket over the past two years. They are the numbers of a genuine top six batsman, not a bits-and-pieces player, particularly when you consider he has made most of those runs batting in the top three.
Cartwright, meanwhile, has made 682 runs at 62 in first-class cricket over the past year, including two centuries, earning a promotion to number four in the order for Western Australia. And the much-maligned Maxwell has made 1041 runs at 50 in his last 15 Shield matches for Victoria.
Granted, none of that trio are as effective with the ball as Mitch Marsh. But Australia’s problem lies with its batting, not its bowling, so they could afford to pick a weaker fifth bowler to try to bolster their fragile batting.
Marsh may one day become a fine Test cricketer. He is, after all, still young at 25 years old. But right now, he is not even close to being an adequate Test number six. It’s time for him to be sent back to the Shield, although the selectors disagree, with Mark Waugh publicly guaranteeing Marsh a place in the XI for the second Test.
In any case, Marsh is teetering on the edge. Here are the main contenders to replace him, as well as a couple of smokeys.
1. Joe Burns (27 years old) – 872 Test runs at an average of 42
Burns is unlucky not to be opening in the Test team after a wonderful season last summer. He started his Test career at six and could return there if Australia decide to focus on specialist batsmen.
2. Marcus Stoinis (27 years old) – 2193 runs at 38, plus 27 wickets at 47 in first-class cricket
Stoinis has blossomed as a batsman over the past two years, offering Victoria a steady presence at first drop. He missed out with the bat in his one Shield innings so far this summer but underlined his improving skills with the ball yesterday, taking 2-31 as Victoria beat Queensland.
3. Kurtis Patterson (23 years old) – 2098 runs at 43 in first-class cricket
The NSW stroke maker has had a stunning 12 months of first-class cricket, making 1210 runs at 60 in that period. He is a well-rounded batsman who thrives against pace bowling but is also comfortable against spin.
4. Peter Handscomb (25 years old) – 3639 runs at 39 in first-class cricket
The wicketkeeper-turned-specialist batsman has flourished since he started concentrating on his batting three years ago. Handscomb has cracked 1936 runs at 47 in the past two years in first-class cricket, including seven centuries. He has stepped up when given opportunities for Australia A over the past 18 months, making 357 runs at 45 from five matches (two played in India and three in Australia)
5. Moises Henriques (29 years old) – 2824 runs at 31, plus 98 wickets at 31 in first-class cricket
Henriques forced his way into the Test team on the tour of Sri Lanka but has made just 15 runs at an average of 2.5 in his past six Test innings. Handy with the bat, handy with the ball, but not close to being a specialist in either skill.
6. Travis Head (22 years old) – 2772 runs at 33, plus 18 wickets at 59 in first-class cricket
The Australian selectors clearly rate Head very highly. He broke into the ODI squad this year despite owning only a modest record in domestic 50-over cricket. Head is the reigning Sheffield Shield player of the year and has started this season decently, with scores of 66 and 43, plus four wickets at 26 with his modest but improving off spin.
7. Hilton Cartwright (24 years old) – 717 runs at 48, plus 11 wickets at 33 in first-class cricket
A compact and patient batsman, Cartwright has become one of the most important players in the West Australian line-up. He adds value with his accurate medium pace.
8. Callum Ferguson (31 years old) – 6720 runs at 40 in first-class cricket
Ferguson has been perhaps the most consistent batsman in the Shield over the past three years, making 2000 runs at 54 in that time, including seven centuries. Ferguson’s best opportunity of earning a Test debut may come if veteran Adam Voges continues to struggle. Were the selectors to drop Voges this summer, they might want to keep some experience in the middle order and replace him with an old head like Ferguson rather than the comparatively inexperienced Patterson, Handscomb or Head.