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The forgotten question: Does Swepson start in Sydney?

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Roar Rookie
6th January, 2021
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With Australia’s top six all but finalised for the third Test against India at the SCG, Australia still have one unanswered question about their XI: do they pick two spinners?

He’s in undoubtedly the best form of his career to date, but besides the traditionally spin-friendly SCG wicket, Mitchell Swepson has been almost forgotten by the media in their quest for an XI.

However, what would two spinners bring to the Australian side?

The history
Since Justin Langer was appointed coach, Australia have played 20 Test matches. Of those 20 Tests, they’ve played two specialist spin bowlers just twice; Jon Holland playing both Tests against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018, Langer’s first series in charge.

In both these Tests, spin proved the key for Australia despite a series loss, picking up 21 of 35 wickets Australia took.

However, it’s important to note that second specialist spinner Jon Holland took just four of these, with Nathan Lyon and batting-allrounder Marnus Labuschagne sharing the other 17.

Despite Holland’s minimal impact in terms of wickets, he remained crucial in chance creation, and allowed an added pressure for Lyon and Labuschagne to strike.

If we examine the past ten Sydney Test matches, Australia have played two specialist spinners in just two: Stephen O’Keefe played against the West Indies in 2015/16 and against Pakistan in 2016-17 alongside Nathan Lyon.

In the past two Sydney Tests, Marnus Labuschagne has been tasked with filling in the extra overs on the spin-friendly deck, bowling a combined 25 overs across the two Test matches.

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Mitchell Swepson bowls

Mitchell Swepson (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

The other interesting thing to note is that Australia lost the Boxing Day Test, something that seldom occurs, supposedly encouraging a changed team.

Australia have lost the Boxing Day Test on just ten occasions. In four of the Sydney Tests following a Boxing Day Test, Australia have selected only one specialist spinner in their XI.

Australia have never lost the Sydney Test after a Boxing Day loss when they’ve picked two specialist spinners, which occurred on another four occasions. (The 1996/97 Sydney Test against the West Indies was played before the Boxing Day Test).

How did they perform?
The first instance in which Australia picked two spinners in Sydney following a Boxing Day loss was in 1952, the Third Test against South Africa, with leg spinner the late Doug Ring playing alongside leg spinning allrounder the late great Richie Benaud.

Despite not bowling in the first innings, Benaud picked up 2/21 in the second innings. Ring went wicketless in the second innings, however took 1/23 in the first, with Australia smashing South Africa by an innings and 38 runs.

The second occurrence was in 1987, the Fifth Ashes Test in a series Australia had already lost. Due to England’s dominant batting performance throughout the summer, media pundits were shocked when Australia bowled their opposition out of the match, with spin proving key.

Debutant off-spinning allrounder Peter Taylor, who’s selection in the XI came as so much of a surprise given his limited First-class experience that the media assumed a mistake was made and Mark Taylor would play, picked up man of the match honours, taking 6/78 in the first innings, and 2/76 in the second.

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His spinning partner, allrounder Peter Sleep, took 0/47 and 5/72 respectively, with Australia winning by 55 runs.

Current Chairman of a Selectors Trevor Hohns made his Test debut in the 1989 Sydney Test against the West Indies, partnering Peter Taylor.

However, this Test is most famous for housing Allan Border’s career best bowling figures of 7/46 with his left-arm orthodox spin. 19 of the 20 West Indian wickets to be taken in the match were dismissed with spin in an outstanding showcase of spin bowling, with all ten wickets in the first innings falling to spin.

Australia took a whopping seven wicket victory from the match, but it wasn’t enough to claim the series.

In 1999, Shane Warne returned to the XI after a shoulder operation for the fifth and final Ashes Test, playing alongside Stuart MacGill who took the best figures of his Test career.

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Nathan Lyon

Nathan Lyon of Australia celebrates (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

MacGill ripped through England’s order, taking 5/57 in the first innings and 7/50 in the second to claim man of the match honours in an outstanding display. His spinning partner Warne only took two wickets in his injury return, but it was enough to grant Australia a 98 run victory, and a 3-1 series triumph.

So what does this mean for Swepson?
The selection of Swepson in tomorrow’s clash could very well decide the fate of the series, with the Queenslander in the best form of his career to date, emboldened by a return to his roots of tossing the ball up, relying on flight and turn rather than falling into the trope of bowling with excess pace.

Swepson has picked up 23 wickets from his three matches inside the Adelaide bubble at an average of 21.17, including three five-wicket hauls.

There is no better time to throw Swepson into the Test arena, however his inclusion would likely mean Mitchell Starc misses out. It would definitely be a bold move, but if history is anything to go by, it should pay off.