While Australia’s batting has hogged the attention in this fascinating series against India, the bowlers haven’t exactly done the job required of them either.
It’s not as if there is a single offender and the way Tim Paine rotated his bowlers during the Sydney Test, particularly on the final afternoon as Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin stonewalled their way to a draw, leaves a lot to be desired.
However, Mitchell Starc’s form since Adelaide has been poor.
Unable to maintain any real consistency, Starc now has figures totalling 9-285 off 98 overs throughout the series, going at almost three runs per over.
What’s more worrying is that four of those wickets came way back in Adelaide – since then, he has taken 5-225.
When four of those wickets were in a single innings of the Boxing Day Test though, it’s clear the trend for Australia’s big left-arm quick is rocks and diamonds, with more of the former than the latter.
Things seemed to come to a head in Sydney though, where he bowled 41 overs for just a solitary wicket, going at three runs per over for the Test, even during India’s second innings where – particularly late – they had no intent to score and were playing for a draw.
Starc’s insisted on bowling short-pitched balls and not enough-wicket taking stuff, while Pat Cummins (who remarkably bowled just two of the last 28 overs) watched on.
While changes were made to the batting in the last Test, the bowlers haven’t worked as a cohesive unit and Starc’s problems, as well as the fact Ravichandran Ashwin is dominating Nathan Lyon in the spin-bowling department, is a big part of the reason why.
One of the more crucial aspects of Test cricket – which doesn’t always come to the fore in limited-overs cricket – is bowling in partnerships; the ability to bowl well from both ends and consistently put on the pressure.
In Tests, where there is so much time available, facing out maidens from one end while runs are ticking over from the other is never going to worry a batsman, especially those with the class of the Indian top and middle order. In limited-overs cricket, it can work for the bowlers, purely because batsmen feel they can never be bogged down in the pursuit of par scores which are growing all the time.
In the longer form of the game, there is no need to try and play crazy shots against someone bowling well, it is simply about working the singles and waiting for the bad balls – of which there were plenty from Starc in Sydney and other periods throughout the course of the series.
As mentioned, none of the Aussie bowlers have been perfect and the credentials of Tim Paine to continue captaining the side once this series is over have to be up in the air.
But Starc has been, without doubt, the key offender in letting India off the hook.
All that being said, it’s no good calling for a player to be dropped without a replacement. Luckily for the Aussies, there are two options in the squad.
The first is the seemingly always-injured James Pattinson. Ruled out of the Sydney Test with bruised ribs, it would be a surprise to see the selectors go back to him so quickly, given his troubled past.
However, with no more Test cricket scheduled until a somewhat unlikely tour to South Africa in March (watch this space, rumours are Western Australia will get some cricket after all this Autumn), it may just be worth the risk.
Bruised ribs aren’t insurmountable and Pattinson would help to replace what the team would lose without Starc: the ability to bowl genuinely quick and scare the opposition with the short ball. Pattinson has that in spades and while so do Cummins and Josh Hazlewood – to a lesser extent – Pattinson would be the most suitable like-for-like replacement.
There is always that level of risk in selecting Pattinson though, despite a pretty healthy Test record reading 81 wickets at 26.33 from his 21 Tests, while he also took three wickets last time he bowled in a tour game against the Indian team.
The other clear option is Michael Neser, who started the Sheffield Shield season brilliantly, picking up 14 wickets at 17.3 in Adelaide conditions which heavily favoured batsmen.
Not only that, but the Gabba is his home deck in the Sheffield Shield, only going wicketless once at the ground last season in eight innings on his way to taking 22 wickets at an average of 16.77.
It’s clear Neser loves bowling at the Brisbane venue and while Pattinson will be the tempting option due to his extra pace and bounce, Neser may well be the better bet. The latter’s selection would allow Cummins to be the sole enforcer, with Hazlewood and Neser there to build pressure, put the ball in the right areas, and get just enough movement to trouble the Indian top order with the new ball.
That ability to sustain long periods of pressure is something the Aussies have lacked throughout this series, and Neser, in such incredible form, on a ground he loves bowling at, should provide them the ability to do so.
It’s far from the end of Starc’s Test career – he will be back. You can’t keep a classy player like Starc who has so many Test wickets under his belt down.
But for now, he isn’t the right option as Australia look to wrestle back the Border-Gavaskar Trophy on a ground they have had so much success at over the years.