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Opinion

Australia are two middle order batsmen away from balance

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27th November, 2019
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This is an incredible headline to write only months after an Ashes series that could well have fallen in a heap if not for a once-in-a-generation batting freak in the form of his life.

And it’s equally funny to think that one dominant display at home could completely change the feelings toward a batting line-up, but Australia’s performance in Brisbane last weekend again proved that the concept of form is as fluid as ever.

Regardless, the top six did pretty much all you could ask of them in the first Test of a domestic summer, and it’s hard to dispute Ronan O’Connell’s thoughts earlier in the week. The team has already done more than enough to hold their spots and play out the remaining four Tests of the season, starting with the day-night Test starting in Adelaide tomorrow.

The bowling unit has been Australia’s strength for some time now, and despite the (mostly parochial) discussion around James Pattinson’s chances of playing in Brisbane, I’m not sure they were realistic.

And now Mitchell Starc has reminded everyone of his qualities while Pattinson served a suspension for a moment of hot-headed madness, I can’t see how the Victorian quick’s chances have improved in any way.

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Injuries look to be the only avenue for change, and I don’t really see that as a bad thing. It should be tough to get into the Australian cricket team.

The batting has a sudden air of set-ness about it, and it’s long overdue.

Australia have used 15 different batsmen plus keeper Tim Paine in the top order across the 23 Tests since the start of the Ashes summer of 2017/18, the summer before the lengthy bans handed down to David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft.

Of those 23 Tests, only Paine played every one of them. Warner, Smith, and Bancroft obviously didn’t. But of the remaining 12 players, only Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh played more than half of those 23 Tests.

Those 16 players walked out to bat 278 times collectively, but only 21 of those 278 innings produced a century. Smith has six of them, Warner has three.

Steve Smith.

(Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

This also explains why seven of them didn’t play more than nine Tests, as players were picked and discarded at will.

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In that time, Australian used nine different opening partnerships. Warner had three different opening partners. Marcus Harris had four. Aaron Finch had three. Burns has had three different partners in four Tests.

It’s no wonder the top order has battled when combinations have been so erratic. Warner and Bancroft batted together 18 times, and no other pair played more than three Tests together. None have ever been given anything remotely close to time to bed down a combination.

Warner and Joe Burns’ 222-run opening stand in Brisbane – their first time batting together in three years – was the highest since Warner and Bancroft put on an unbeaten 173 to win the first Test within this sample period, the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in November 2017. It’s just the fifth opening stand of 100 or more in 43 innings.

This is why it was so great to hear Warner and Burns speak after their stand last week. Warner is the player Burns has opened most with in his 17-Test career, and the pair have five century stands together in 20 innings.

Comparisons were made straight away to the relationship between Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, and I genuinely can’t recall an opening pair speak in such unity and with such obvious affinity or even affection since that duo. And despite ten single-figure partnerships in those 20 innings together, Ricky Ponting wants them locked in as a pairing until the next Ashes series on Australian soil in the summer of 2021/22.

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It’s equally cool how Marnus Labuschagne has become Australia’s new cult hero, despite his selection being widely questioned and even mocked this time last summer. But credit where’s it due. He’s worked his backside off, honing a technique that now displays few flaws.

In fact, there’s even a bit of right-handed Mike Hussey about his back swing and the way his hands come through on his offside shots in front of the wicket. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Smith is Smith. Like his namesake and similarly freakish legendary former Wallabies open-side flanker George, the best way to rationalise anything Steven Peter Devereux does on the field is to simply label it as Smith.

This just leaves Matthew Wade and Travis Head.

Travis Head

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

I’ve long rated Head as a batsman but have been left disappointed, to the point I thought he was the luckiest batsman in Australia to get recalled for Brisbane. And I’ve never really rated Wade’s batting but I’m becoming a fan.

But they loom as the only real missing pieces of the puzzle, and could provide the final elements in a balanced side that Australian fans have been dreaming of for the last few troubling years.

Consistency is going to be their goal. Wade needs to maintain his current output if he wants to remain a genuine batting option now that he’s ditched the wicketkeeping gloves, while Head still needs to find a level of consistency that involves regular runs.

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A Test average of 41 looks very good these days, especially for Australian batsmen of this era, but just the one century, six fifties and 12 dismissals between 12 and 36 in the last year alone tells a story of frustrating missed opportunity.

But if they can get there, then I completely echo Ronan’s thoughts.

There is a very good Australian side building after a couple of year of turmoil, and the kind of balance a captain and selection panel craves isn’t too far away.