While Australia have struggled this past month in the absence of their best quicks, it may have helped them build crucial pace depth, with Pat Cummins now questioning whether the ‘Big Three’ can play in all formats.
The Aussies clearly cannot afford to play star quicks Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins in all of Tests, ODIs and T20s.
Those three bowlers missed both of Australia’s tours in the past month due to injury, with the Aussies losing all six of their matches in England, and then winning three of five T20 matches in the tri-series in Zimbabwe.
Right now, that trio’s focus should be on becoming the world’s best Test pace attack, with white ball cricket a lesser priority.
The best-case scenario is that, if they are managed well, the trio could play Tests, plus one of the two shorter formats. That would mean that Australia could field two at any one time in an ODI series, and one of them in a T20 series.
An ODI pace attack of Hazlewood, Cummins and Billy Stanlake would still be potent, as would a T20 combination of Starc, Stanlake and Andrew Tye.
The exception to this careful workload management could come during a major global tournament, like next year’s World Cup or the World T20 the year after. On a risk-reward basis, it would be worth playing all three quicks in the World Cup, and Starc and Cummins in the World T20.
In between these tournaments, however, Australia will need to be mindful of offering the three as much rest as possible.
We have seen in the past month how vulnerable Australia are in ODIs without any of that trio on the field. Now imagine if their concurrent injuries had come about at the time of a major Test series, like next year’s Ashes in England. That would be a disaster.
An insightful article on Monday by ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig showed Cummins and Hazlewood have bowled the second and third most overs, across all formats, of any quicks in world cricket since the start of 2017.
Only South African superstar Kagiso Rabada, with a mammoth 803.5 overs, has had a heavier workload than Cummins (670.3 overs), and Hazlewood (650.4 overs).
Cummins suggested in the article that it may be too difficult for any of the Australian quicks to play all three formats:
“I’d love to play every single game for Australia, but realistically I think you get up for the Test matches and then make sure you’re 100 per cent for the ODIs and then taking one series at a time,” Cummins said.
“You’re making sure you’re 100 per cent right to go but knowing if you’re not, it’s not worth it. There’s so much other cricket and so many other guys that are banging down the door, you can’t play unless you’re 100 per cent right to go.”
In the absence of the Big Three, Australia fielded a very green pace unit across the past month. Not only were they without Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins but also quicks with international success behind them like James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile.
This left the pace unit far too inexperienced and the rawness was brutally exposed at various stages.
The flipside is that, putting poor results aside, young pacemen with obvious potential – like 23-year-old Stanlake and 21-year-old Jhye Richardson – got valuable games.
Both showed glimpses of rare talent in England and Zimbabwe, but lack the consistency and confidence in one’s skills that comes with experience.
By the time of the World T20, both Stanlake and Richardson may well be world-class short-form bowlers. If they are, then the tough times they’ve been through in the past month will surely have helped lay the foundation for that success.
To handle the rigours of modern-day, three-format cricket, Australia need to build a battery of at least seven to eight pace bowlers capable of stepping into international cricket at a moment’s notice. Faulkner should be brought back into the fold as soon as possible in white-ball cricket, offering not just great international experience but also left-arm variety and depth in batting.
His solid ODI bowling record (96 wickets at 30) and excellent international T20 record (36 wickets at 19) can’t be ignored at a time when Australia badly need experienced limited-overs quicks to complement rookies like Stanlake and Richardson.
A seven-man pace group of Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, Faulkner, Stanlake, Tye and Richardson, if juggled skilfully, should hold Australia in good stead across all three formats.
There’s plenty more pace talent outside of that group, too. Victorian quick Chris Tremain is arguably the best bowler yet to play a Test for Australia and Jackson Bird is a reliable Test option.
Meanwhile, if their bodies can hold up, the likes of Coulter-Nile, James Pattinson, Jason Behrendorff and Joel Paris all have huge ability.
Above all, however, Australia must make the best possible use of their single biggest asset – the Big Three. That means protecting them.