The way Australia’s veteran four-man bowling attack tired badly in both of their last two Test series losses to India has exposed an over-reliance on the quartet.
It showcased a need to give experience to other bowlers.
Since the 2017-18 summer, Australia have offered scant opportunities to bowlers outside the Big Four – Pat Cummins (143 Test wickets in that time), Nathan Lyon (130 wickets), Mitchell Starc (107) and Josh Hazlewood (94).
Australian have leaned so heavily on those four bowlers in that three-year period that their next highest wicket taker is batting all-rounder Mitch Marsh (13 wickets).
India, by comparison, have spread this workload, with six bowlers taking 50-plus Test wickets over that time – quicks Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav, and spin pair Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin.
England, too, have built a battery of bowlers with a decent level of Test experience ahead of this year’s Ashes.
Number of bowlers to have taken 20-plus wickets since November 2017:
England – 11 bowlers
South Africa – 8 bowlers
Sri Lanka – 8 bowlers
India – 6 bowlers
New Zealand – 6 bowlers
Australia – 4 bowlers
That table, which looks at the top six Test teams, underscores Australia’s reliance on the Big Four.
After Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood and Lyon, Australia’s next most prolific specialist bowler has been James Pattinson, with just 11 wickets.
The Victorian quick, who has 81 wickets at 26 in his Test career, is a terrific back-up to the Big Four. The problem is Pattinson turns 31 years old in a few months and remains injury prone, having suffered a rib complaint a few weeks ago.
Had he been fit and firing, Australia may well have picked Pattinson for the series decider against India, replacing Starc, who was clearly battling for rhythm and pace in the third Test, when he took 1-137.
Instead Starc played the fourth Test and had one of the worst matches of his accomplished career, taking 2-163. Not only did Starc badly lack penetration in the decider, but he consistently released any pressure built by his bowling colleagues, conceding a whopping 4.17 runs per over.
By the final innings of the series, as India chased an improbable victory, the tourists were targeting Starc ruthlessly, often treating him with disdain.
It is easy, in hindsight, to say Starc should’ve been axed for the fourth Test. But Australia’s problem was that their only alternatives were two quicks yet to play a Test – Michael Neser and Sean Abbott.
I can understand why, in such a massive Test, the selectors opted not to field a debutant, and instead stuck with Starc, a veteran with 255 Test wickets and a previously-excellent record at the Gabba.
Australia may well have dropped Starc for Neser or Abbott had one of that pair already proven they could adapt to Test cricket. The downside of relying on the Big Four – who have driven Australia to so many Test victories – is the Aussies now have minimal bowling depth.
In theory they have good depth, but not in practice. We do not yet know whether the likes of Neser, Abbott or Jhye Richardson can flourish in Tests.
While I certainly believe Neser and Richardson can – I’m not sold on Abbott – that is all theoretical until they’re given a decent number of Tests to prove themselves.
Over the last three years Australia should have given Test opportunities to a wider range of quicks. They played 31 Tests in that time, yet Neser never got a look in, and Richardson played just two Tests.
Australia’s selectors must now look beyond the Big Four. Soon they won’t have a choice, anyway – age will force them to.
Starc turns 31 years old next week. Express fast bowlers rarely play Tests into their mid-30s. Brett Lee retired when he was just 13 months older than Starc is now, while Shoaib Akhtar also played his last Test at 32 years old.
Starc isn’t the type of bowler who could reduce his speed by 6-7kmh and remain equally effective. He lacks the accuracy to be potent while operating in the mid-130s. Starc’s pace is his weapon.
Starc could potentially remain a fine Test bowler for another three years – I can’t predict how his body will hold up. It’s also entirely possible he could be finished as a Test cricketer in 12 months from now.
That’s another reason Australia need to start getting Tests into other fast bowlers. This will not only aid their transition once Starc does retire, it will also give them greater flexibility at the selection table when scenarios arise similar to the final Test against India.
Neser, it should be pointed out, is only two months younger than Starc, so he’s not a long-term option either.
Richardson is, by a long way, the best young red ball bowler in Australia. He wasn’t in Australia’s Test squad this summer, having not played a first-class match in 14 months now due shoulder surgery.
But his commanding form this BBL season (21 wickets at 11) shows he’s recovering well and should soon be ready for a red ball comeback. Richardson could well be the future of the Aussie Test attack. He just needs opportunities to prove whether that is the case.
Australia’s Big Four remain the foundation of the Test team. Starc and Lyon haven’t suddenly become poor Test bowlers on the back of one bad series.
But the Big Four can no longer have a monopoly on selection, Australia must widen their bowling options to make them a more potent and, crucially, a more flexible Test team.