Had paceman Nathan Coulter-Nile not batted so brilliantly against the West Indies on Thursday he very likely would have been dropped for the crunch match against India this Sunday.
That’s an odd statement to make about a specialist bowler. Yet even he himself told media yesterday he’s facing the axe after going wicketless across Australia’s first two World Cup matches.
Coulter-Nile’s worrying form with the ball extends to Australia’s final warm-up game against England, when he was clattered by the home batsmen, conceding 61 runs from six overs. That means that across his last three ODIs, the 31-year-old has combined figures of 1-167 at an awful economy rate of 6.96 runs per over.
Even against Afghanistan, who have an extremely weak batting line-up, Coulter-Nile did not look threatening. He no longer boasts the hurrying 140-145kmh pace that was such an asset to him earlier in his international career. Instead he is having to trade on guile and deception, and I’m yet to be convinced that this version of him is good enough to be consistently effective, particularly against strong batting line-ups.
Of late he has been a rocks or diamonds kind of bowler. One game he finds a nice rhythm and a hint of swing and heads home with tidy figures. The next match he seems to be in the slot every other delivery and gets punished. Given the potency of their star opening bowlers Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, Australia’s quandary now is whether to back the West Australian’s natural wicket taking ability or pick a more reliable and economical bowler.
The alternatives are left arm swing bowler Jason Behrendorff, right arm seamer Kane Richardson and off spinner Nathan Lyon. Richardson, to me, offers nothing that Coulter-Nile does not. Behrendorff, meanwhile, is essentially a specialist new ball bowler and Australia should be reticent to break up their in-form opening pair.
Lyon has immense value when Australia play the most aggressive batting line-ups like England and the West Indies. Those teams tend to bat in an aggressive T20 style, which brings spinners into play. But it is crucial in this tournament that Australia assemble their attack based on the batting style of their opponent.
Australia don’t need to field two spinners against India, who play slow bowlers perhaps better than any other ODI team.
South Africa took that punt against India on Wednesday and their two spinners, Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi, combined to take 0-112 at nearly six runs per over. By comparison, South Africa’s three quicks were far more effective. Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo together took 4-115 and conceded a miserly four runs per over.
That, to me, narrows the field down to just two men – Coulter-Nile and Behrendorff – to fill the fourth bowler slot against India. The latter is a fine 50-over bowler but is clearly at his best when given the new ball and is untested at this level as a first change bowler. There are several other factors that work in favour of the incumbent.
The first is that he has much more experience than his fellow Sandgroper against the Indian batsmen, having played a lot of IPL and also faced them in eight ODIs. The second is that his skill with the blade offers Australia crucial batting depth.
While it would be folly to expect Coulter-Nile to suddenly become an all-rounder on the back of his phenomenal 92, that innings may give him the confidence to make the most of his batting talent in this tournament.
He has far more ability with the bat than his career numbers indicate across all formats. A tail of Coulter-Nile, Cummins and Starc has a nice balance between the poise and solid technique of Cummins and the hitting power of the other two. Some Roarers will be livid at the idea that a bowler’s batting ability could be a significant factor in selection.
But the reality is that against the commanding batting line-ups of India and England, the two favourites to win this World Cup, Australia could badly need such batting depth. That’s not to suggest Coulter-Nile should be carried through the tournament if he continues to labour with the ball.
Rather, I think it is worth giving him another game or two to see if he can regain some bowling form. Because if Coulter-Nile can build some momentum with the ball then his batting ability will give Australia vital balance to their line-up.