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Weighing incumbency in a year without Test cricket

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Expert
18th November, 2020
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Justin Langer and Tim Paine’s public support for the under-fire Joe Burns poured cold water on the idea Will Pucovski might walk into the Australian Test team this summer.

While the Victorian may still play – a choice likely determined by a tour match bat-off for Australia A – the coach’s sentiment on backing incumbent players last week was clear.

“We should never underestimate the job the guys have done to get us to where we are – and that philosophy and attitude has been a really strong part of the success of Australian cricket for a long time,” Langer said.

“We went through a period when there were lots of ins and outs, and in my view we should back the guys in there. That can change, but it’s a pretty strong philosophy to stick to.”

Langer’s logic is seemingly sound.

Stability and continuity are indeed important factors in building successful sides.

Will Pucovski

Will Pucovski (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Last summer the only change made in a five-Test clean-sweep of Pakistan and New Zealand was a forced one when the injured Josh Hazlewood made way for James Pattinson in Melbourne.

The top six remained the same.

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However, the notion of incumbency carries less weight in a year of almost no red-ball cricket.

The last time Australian players pulled on the whites was in this year’s Sydney Test amidst the backdrop of bushfires on the east coast.

If that feels like a long time ago, it’s because it was.

By the time Australia walks out for the national anthem against India on 17 December it will be almost 12 months between matches, a break unheard of in the modern game.

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It’s a layoff that does not render incumbency redundant but does mean the degree to which it applies differs from a normal summer.

Had COVID-19 not arrived, Australia would have completed a midyear tour of Bangladesh that would give the selectors a greater body of work from which to make a call.

Without that tour they’ve been forced to look elsewhere, namely the Sheffield Shield, for answers.

And unlike Travis Head and Matthew Wade, who responded to the advances of another young gun in Cameron Green with strong Shield performances in the last month, Burns is yet to do so, scoring just 57 runs in five innings as Pucovski plundered 495 runs in three.

In Burns’s defence, he has been somewhat undervalued publicly amid the barnstorming success of Pucovski.

It was he and David Warner that averaged 78 for the first wicket in their eight innings together throughout last summer.

Joe Burns

I was saying Boo-urns. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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But a pass mark last summer should not be enough for fringe players to hold their spot if others are breaking down the door.

Burns failed to convert any of his starts into centuries last summer, something Langer himself was dropped for in 2001 – after scores of 19, 58, 28, 35 and 21 in India that year, the now coach was dropped for the first four Tests of the proceeding Ashes tour.

It’s clear that for the first time in years the selectors may have to make a harsh call on the make-up of the Test top six.

That is, dropping a player who does not deserve to be dropped.

Casting our minds back to recent axings in the Australian Test batting order, each were for logical and in some cases obvious reasons.

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The most recent was Marcus Harris, dropped for Burns at the start of last summer after a poor 2019 Ashes campaign.

During the Ashes itself Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja were dropped for similarly meagre returns, while Travis Head was swapped for the final Test to accommodate all-rounder Mitch Marsh.

Prior to that, Kurtis Patterson made way to accommodate the returning Warner and Steve Smith.

Each were relatively straightforward calls, but this summer could call for harsher decisions.

While tough on the player involved, such a situation is usually an indication of wider team strength.