At some point prior to the Australian cricket summer starting, a pretty contented Justin Langer and Tim Paine would have sat down and done some forward planning, as good managers do.
I’d imagine their plan would have been pretty simple and most likely contained four key objectives:
•Win the series at home against India
•Win the Test series in South Africa
•Win the Test Championship Final at Lords in June
•Win the Ashes in Australia
Much of their contentment would have stemmed from the results this Australian side produced the previous summer, trouncing Pakistan and putting a very strong New Zealand team to the sword.
Along the way, David Warner produced some career-best form, in Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith the team had two of the top three batsmen in Test cricket and a four-pronged attack, backed up by James Pattinson, which was the envy of other cricketing nations.
Sure, there were a few small niggles, like the form of Joe Burns and Matthew Wade, but Travis Head had just scored a great hundred and Tim Paine was showing some strong on-field leadership after some difficult times in England. In all, this was a team that, barring injury, was tipped to be close to invincible.
Fast forward to the present day and it’s safe to say things are very different. The series loss to India exposed significant issues in a number of areas with the personnel in the current XI. The series loss also exposed a severe lack of Test-ready players good enough to step up if form issues or injury affected one of the incumbents.
There are also question marks around team tactics for batting, bowling and field placements. In short, Australia now seems to have a number of major issues it must address over the coming months.
Langer and Paine need to hit the reset button on the priorities for the team and forget about short-term goals like making the Test Championship final or even winning the series in South Africa.
If either of these two things happens, fair enough and Australia should certainly not be playing to lose games, which would do nothing to fix any of the current problems.
The new priorities should be:
•Use the South African tour to develop new tactics for all three facets of the game
•Provide opportunities for more players to play Test cricket, with a view to enlarging the talent pool prior to the Ashes
•Win the Ashes
Starting with the bowlers, I’d take Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon plus Mitchell Swepson, Michael Neser, James Pattinson and, if fit, Jhye Richardson to South Africa.
Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood could either have a break, play some Shield cricket or perhaps tour New Zealand with the T20 side.
Leaving out Paine’s two main strike bowlers will force the captain and Langer to re-think their approach to bowling, which has become stale. There’s nothing wrong with high-pressure line and length bowling, but if those tactics aren’t working, what will?
Ditto with field placements. Paine is not an intuitive captain, so forcing him to think out of the box by using different bowling combinations might lead to greater on-field success
Many have called for Neser to be given a baggy green and Pattinson’s only “crime” is being born at the same time as so many other quality quicks, meaning he’s not played as much as he probably deserved. Mitchell Swepson has done well in the Shield this summer and needs to show whether he can step up a level, while Lyon and Starc could do with some confidence building.
Jhye Richardson’s been killing it in the BBL and has booked himself on the plane to the T20 World Cup, so what’s the point of him touring New Zealand and letting them face one of our main bowlers in India, later this year?
I’d also like to see selectors mix and match bowlers for the three Tests in South Africa, just to see which combinations work and which don’t. We have good depth in our fast bowling but aren’t using it, so the South Africa tour is a great opportunity to give a few guys a go.
In terms of the touring batsmen, I’d let Dave Warner and Matthew Wade play in New Zealand and take Sam Whiteman, Will Puckovski, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Josh Inglis, Cameron Green and Travis Head to South Africa.
Both Whiteman and Inglis have had fine Shield seasons to date and the South African tour would be a great chance to see whether they’re capable of going to the next level with their batting.
At present, Travis Head represents part of the likely future Test top six, but obviously needs to sort out some concentration issues. He’s far more likely to do that when facing top-quality bowlers in South Africa than he is playing Shield cricket on docile pitches in Australia.
Once the South African tour is over, there’s no more Test cricket scheduled for Australia until the Ashes.
That situation is not likely to change given the ongoing restrictions thanks to COVID-19, as well as the T20 World Cup, due to be played in October-November this year. England, on the other hand, will be playing India next month, as well as more Tests against the same country in August-September.
Australia needs a large pool of confident, capable players to take them on. We also need a captain capable of using innovative tactics when things get tough, otherwise we could easily be facing back-to-back home series losses.