At the start of last summer, Cameron Bancroft was Australia’s reserve Test batsman.
By the summer’s end, he was out of the West Australian team. By any measure, this was a significant fall from grace.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the West Australian. With three half centuries in 18 Test innings, and a reputation tarnished by the infamous ball-tampering scandal, Bancroft probably isn’t a favourite of many Australians.
His technique is flawed. He overbalances towards the off side, plants his front foot, and slices his forward defence. The opener is regularly caught behind the wicket, losing track of his off stump, and managed to broaden his problems last summer by continually picking out leg slip.
Clearly Bancroft has a lot to work on technically. At this point he should be nowhere near the Australian XI, although a combination of extended squads in an era of bio-secure bubbles, and his uncanny knack of scoring runs on the eve of a squad announcement, means we can’t entirely rule it out.
Despite his technical challenges, there’s something about Bancroft.
The opener was Australia’s leading run scorer on the infamous ball-tampering tour of South Africa, and had the second highest average behind Tim Paine, whose three not outs saw him average 43 for the tour.
Against a star-studded pace attack of Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, Bancroft’s return of 223 runs at 37.16 was marginally better than that of his opening partner, and considerably better than that of his captain. David Warner scored 217 runs at 36.16, while Steve Smith managed 142 runs at 23.66.
Against a world-class bowling trio, Australia’s least experienced batsman was the team’s best. This has become a pattern with Bancroft. Whether it’s strong opposition, trying conditions or a dire position in the game, he scores gritty runs in difficult situations.
Bancroft is a patient opener, who can bat for long periods. While the value of such a player can be understated in home conditions, some of Australia’s struggles overseas can be attributed to a lack of players of this ilk.
Upon his return from suspension, Bancroft signed for Durham, piling on 726 runs at 45.37 in the 2019 County Championship second division. He scored two centuries, and batted patiently, with a strike rate of just 45.37.
While it can be tempting to devalue second-division runs, Bancroft scored 77 against a Lancashire attack featuring Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions. He might be 38, but Onions still took 45 wickets at 19.57 that season.
The Durham captain also compiled 158 against Chris Jordan, English reserve Ollie Robinson and South African David Wiese. His second hundred was a score of 109 against a Leicestershire bowling attack featuring Pakistani seamer Mohammad Abbas. It’s easy to see why these games hold first-class status.
As wickets tumbled in Southampton, the West Australian made a match-winning 93 not out in the pre-Ashes intra-squad match. While so many openers struggle in English conditions, Bancroft performed strongly in the county game, and dominated Australia’s Test attack on a pitch offering plenty to bowlers.
In the end, he struggled through two Ashes Tests before being dropped for the third. Even then, he was Australia’s best opener for the series.
On average, Warner faced 18.4 balls per innings, Marcus Harris 20.17 and Bancroft 40.5. Success opening in England is a question of patience, and on this count it was the West Australian who came closest.
Cricket writer Jarrod Kimber recently wrote a piece about Shan Masood, who came to him for advice about batting in England. The advice he gave was to aim for 30 off 100 balls.
Overseas openers rarely reach 100 balls in England, in fact Masood was the first to do so batting first since 2016. At stumps on Day 1 in the first Test he had 46 off 158 balls. In the end he scored 156. Kimber’s theory certainly holds some weight.
Warner’s half century aside, Bancroft came the closest to 100 balls, facing 66 in the first innings at Lord’s. His four innings were hardly successful, but at least the West Australian had the right approach.
It’s hardly surprising that Bancroft was better equipped than Warner and Harris.
At first-class level, he faces 87.7 balls per dismissal. Of current Australians with 20 first-class innings to their name, only Steve Smith and Will Pucovski face more. Warner faces 67.38, and Harris 66.67. Despite his technical deficiencies, there’s a reason why selectors have opted for him in the past.
Even amid his struggles last summer, Bancroft dug in. Extraordinarily he scored 25 off 155 balls against South Australia. In the tour match against Pakistan he scored 49 off 155 balls at number six, coming in at 4-40.
It can be hard to know what to make of Bancroft. He’s played seven seasons of Sheffield Shield so far – in four he’s averaged 47 or higher, and in three he’s averaged 29 or lower. His technique is at best questionable, but few in the country can bat for as long. For every argument in favour of his selection, there’s an equally compelling one for his omission.
At his best, his determination and patience place him among the country’s best openers. At his worst, he’s a technical wreck and dismissal waiting to happen. The thing is that both of these attributes coexist – when he’s out of form he still digs in, and when he’s in form he still falls across the crease. Success is not a question of which version of Bancroft shows up, but rather which element of his game outweighs the other – both will invariably be present.
With the Sheffield Shield season beginning this weekend, Bancroft has a chance to make up for last year’s lost season. There will be many talking points from the early phase of the competition, not least due to the extended international squads in COVID times. Bancroft’s inclusion in such a squad appears unlikely, but his progress in the Shield will be fascinating.
Three years ago he was an exciting talent on the brink of an Ashes debut. A ball-tampering suspension, two failed Ashes Tests, and a career-worst domestic season later, will Bancroft finally bounce back?