Marcus Stoinis’ elevation to Australia’s Test squad this week came as legends Ian Healy and Shane Warne suggested he should play as a fifth bowler in the Ashes. But Australia won’t need such an all-rounder in England.
In the 2015 series, Australia’s non-specialist bowlers sent down only 65 overs, at an average of just seven overs per innings.
It was a similar story last English summer, when India’s non-specialist bowlers sent down only eight overs per innings on average across the five-Test series.
Such a light workload surely could be managed between the likes of – depending on team selections – Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head and Steve Smith, who has been bowling a lot of overs during his ban from international cricket.
By playing either Stoinis or Mitch Marsh in the Ashes – and they appear to be the only two all-rounders being considered by the selectors – Australia would be weakening their batting to strengthen their bowling.
This would amount to addressing the wrong issue.
Australia’s attack has done a solid-to-good job in every one of their four consecutive Ashes losses in the UK. It is their batting line-up which was let them down enormously, particularly in the last two of those series.
England will again boast a pace attack that’s very effective in home conditions, anchored by evergreen star James Anderson, with support from veteran seamer Stuart Broad and swing bowlers Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Ben Stokes.
The last time Australia played in these kind of seam-friendly conditions, in South Africa last year, their batting line-up again laboured badly. They played a fifth bowler (Marsh) throughout that four-Test series yet, once more, non-specialist bowlers had a tiny workload, sending down just six overs per innings.
The pitches in England are more bowler-friendly than those in Australia, where teams do often need to play a fifth bowler.
I can see the sense in fielding a fifth bowler on some of the dead tracks in places like Australia and the UAE, where frontline quicks can otherwise be bowled into the ground. But in England, having a strong fifth bowler is a luxury, not a necessity.
Australia have enough strike power in their frontline attack that, on the more helpful pitches, their fifth and sixth bowlers need only wheel down a few presentable overs, rather than have a significant impact.
There will undoubtedly be several particularly bowler-friendly decks served up in this Ashes and it is on those surfaces the tourists will need the strongest possible batting unit.
Which is why it would be unwise to drop a specialist batsman to make room for Stoinis, who has averaged just 24 with the bat over the past three Sheffield Shield seasons.
Marsh, meanwhile, has averaged 12 with the bat from his three Tests in England and is coming off a horror run in Tests, averaging 10 with the bat from his past dozen innings.
Neither of those Western Australia all-rounders is potent enough with the ball to make up for their significant shortcomings with the blade in the longest format.
Which is why it will be folly if Australia once again play an all-rounder in their top six in England.