Despite Australia retaining the Ashes, there are a lot of articles going around at the moment about our supposed batting order woes.
These articles say “gee the Australian batting order is unsettled, hey? Only two spots locked down come first Test against Pakistan – Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith.”
But we’re reassured that there’s a four rounds of Sheffield Shield before the first Test to enable a “bat off”.
Haven’t we been here before? Having a bat off?
That’s right – it was at the beginning the Ashes earlier this year. That Australia A game was a “bat off”. The one that saw Cam Bancroft and Matt Wade get in the Test team.
There was a bat off at start of last summer, too, before the India series… the batting line up was unsettled then and a bat off saw Harris get in the side.
Oh, yeah – and on the Australia A tour in 2018, and in the UAE tour games. They were batting off for the top six. Pete Handscomb batted himself out of the side.
Oh, and at the beginning of the Ashes in 2018-19… there was a big bat off then.
Why are we still having bat offs?
Why is our top order so unstable?
Let’s go back to the summer of 2017-18. Australia had lost five matches on the trot, but had blooded some new players and bounced back to win against Pakistan. The top six in that third Test team was: Matt Renshaw, Dave Warner, Usman Khawaja, Smith, Handscomb and Hilton Cartwright.
That’s not a bad top six. Cartwright would turn out to be, well, Cartwright, but his form was decent at the time.
Cameron Bancroft (left) and Hilton Cartwright (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)
Come the India tour… Cartwright doesn’t even make the cut. Khawaja, who has had a superb summer, gets the boot because he’s considered “bad in Asia”.
Australia’s top six for the first Test is Renshaw, Warner, Shaun Marsh, Smith, Handscomb, Mitch Marsh (two changes). Smith and Steve O’Keefe lead Australia to an unexpected victory, but Australia’s dodgy batting sees them blow an excellent chance to win the second Test – they lose.
Glenn Maxwell replaces Mitch Marsh for the third Test and scores a century in a draw. Bad Australian batting see them blow a chance to win the fourth Test which India win.
Neither Marsh brother is on the tour to Bangladesh. Khawaja replaces Shaun in the top six for the first Test, where the Bangladeshis beat us. Cartwright comes in for Khawaja in the second Test, which we win. By then the top six is Renshaw, Warner, Smith, Handscomb, Maxwell and Cartwright.
Usman Khawaja trudges off after another cheap dismissal in the Ashes. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby / AFP / Getty Images)
At the start of the following summer. Darren Lehmann declares the number six spot (Maxwell) is open. Justin Langer lobbies noisily for Cam Bancroft and the Marshes. By the first Test, Renshaw and Maxwell are out, and Bancroft and Shaun Marsh are in (two changes – plus Tim Paine for Wade).
Two Tests later Mitch Marsh is in for Handscomb. Australia thump England in the series and Australia keep its top six for three Tests in a row against South Africa.
We’ve achieved stability. Yay!
Then sandpaper gate happens.
Bancroft, Smith and Warner get dropped (they are later banned). Handscomb returns to the side and Renshaw, Burns and Maxwell are flown over to join the squad; the first two are picked in the Test team. Australia’s top six for the fourth Test is Renshaw, Burns, Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Handscomb, Mitch Marsh (three changes, but exceptional circumstances).
Langer takes over as coach. There’s an Australia A tour to India and neither Maxwell or Burns are on it, and neither make the squad to the UAE to play Pakistan. Australia’s top six in two Tests against Pakistan are Khawaja, Aaron Finch (picked on the back of ODI form), the Marshes, Travis Head, and Marnus Labuschagne (three changes). Australia are lucky to escape with a draw in the first Test and lose the second.
The team returns to Australia. For the first two Tests against India, Marcus Harris is in for Labuschagne and Handscomb for Mitch Marsh (two changes). Australia narrowly lose the first game and win the second. In the third Mitch Marsh comes in for Handscomb and Australia loses. For the drawn fourth Test, Handscomb replaces Mitch Marsh while Labuschagne comes in for Finch (two changes).
“Everything the light touches…” (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
For two games against Sri Lanka, Shaun Marsh and Handscomb get the boot and Burns and Kurtis Patterson come in (two changes). Australia wins both Tests – the final six in the last Test is Harris, Burns, Khawaja, Head, Labuschagne, and Patterson. Patterson, Burns and Khawaja all score centuries in that game.
Patterson and Burns aren’t picked on the Ashes squad. Neither is Shaun Marsh or Handscomb. Labuschagne, Harris and Mitch Marsh make the squad… as does now-available Bancroft, Smith and Warner. Oh, and Matthew Wade is picked as a specialist batsman.
Australia’s first six for the first Test: Bancroft, Warner, Khawaja, Smith, Head and Wade (four changes). Only Khawaja and Head have survive from that top six against Sri Lanka. By the fifth Test both will be out of the team.
Bancroft lasts two Tests and is dropped; Harris replaces him and fails in three Tests. Khawaja fails in three Tests and is dropped for Labuschagne. Head gets dropped for the fifth Test for Mitch Marsh. Wade hangs on.
That is a lot of instability.
It’s become extremely for Australia to keep the same top six. Usually they’ll change one or two players – sometimes three. They’ve even gone up to four.
There’s always been justifications for these selections.
People being banned/coming back from bans.
Needing to protect the quicks with an all rounder.
But you know what I think?
The selectors have developed a taste for change. They’re addicted to it. And they can’t stop.
Here’s an idea – why don’t they give stability a try?
Give people three dud Tests before dumping them instead of two.
Show faith with the players who did well a previous test, even if it was a few months ago.
Don’t be so impatient to rush people back into the side, unless they are super champions. (Smith and Warner yes, but Bancroft?)
If someone new is in red hot form with the bat, then great – they can wait their turn.
I think for the first Test against Pakistan let’s just go with the top six that played the fifth Test against England: Warner, Harris, Labuschagne, Smith, Head and Wade.
(I’m going to ignore the Mitch Marsh section because it was too silly. And by the way Australia has lost the last four Tests Mitch Marsh played in the side.)
If these players struggle in the early Shield games and someone else bats the house down, well, that someone else can wait.
There’s no hurry.
And let’s try to limit changes to the top six to one batsman per Test.
Because this Master Chef technique of throwing in ingredients and stirring willy-nilly?
That’s not working.
It didn’t work in India or in the UAE and in England we only got away with 2-2 because of Smith. (If he’d been injured we could have lost 5-0).
Maybe it’s time we tried something really radical.