Alex Carey, Marcus Stoinis, Matt Wade, Mitch Marsh, Ben McDermott and Ashton Turner – these prolific BBL batsmen have had good opportunities in Australia’s middle order in T20Is and all have failed.
This soft underbelly of Australia’s batting line-up again looms as a problem in their five-match T20I series in New Zealand, which starts in three weeks.
Over the past five years, Australia’s current top four have been commanding – David Warner (batting average 38 at a strike rate of 141), Aaron Finch (34 at 153), Steve Smith (34 at 131) and Glenn Maxwell (43 at 162).
But beyond that quartet it’s been a mess. These are the T20I records, when batting between four and seven in the line-up, of the main middle-order batsmen used by Australia in recent years:
Matt Wade – average 12, strike rate 94 (from 24 matches)
Alex Carey – average 12, strike rate 117 (from 26 matches)
Ben McDermott – average 14, strike rate 93 (from 12 matches)
Ashton Turner – average 14, strike rate 100 (from 11 matches)
Mitch Marsh – average 23, strike rate 114 (from 15 matches)
Marcus Stoinis – average 25, strike rate 132 (from 20 matches)
With the T20 World Cup just nine months away, those figures are grim. They are particularly concerning given Australia have long favoured a five-bowler policy in T20Is, with bowling all-rounder Ashton Agar batting at number seven. That approach places extra responsibility on the middle order.
The consistent excellence of Australia’s five-man T20I attack, coupled with the dominance of their top four, has driven them to significant success over the past three years.
In that time, Australia have a very good record of 21 wins and 13 losses. They spent a generous amount of time at number one in the T20I rankings before recently relinquishing that spot to England, due to losing four of their last six matches.
The most recent of those defeats isn’t particularly relevant as Australia were drastically under-strength. Only three Aussies who played in that match against India are clearly in their best XI – Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell and Adam Zampa.
In the other three of those losses, however, Australia fielded strong sides and each time the same issue was exposed – an over-reliance on their top order.
The first of those defeats came in the T20I against England in Southampton last September. Chasing 163 on a good batting pitch, Australia needed just 36 from 30 balls when their number five Stoinis came to the crease. That should be an elementary chase for any competent middle order.
Instead Stoinis, number six Carey and number seven Agar got bogged down, combining to make 28 from 28 balls as Australia fell three runs short. England couldn’t believe their luck.
For the next match against England, which they also lost, Australia were forced to re-jig their batting. In doing so they dismantled what had worked so well – the top four of Warner, Finch, Smith and Maxwell – to try to address the middle-order problem.
Carey was shoehorned into first drop – having consistently failed lower in the order – and Maxwell was buried way down at six, in spite of his incredible record in the top four.
As a result, Australia’s order looked off-kilter. They made an ordinary total of 7-157, which England chased down easily to clinch the series 2-1.
In their next T20I, against India in Canberra last month, Australia’s middle order again killed them. Pursuing a below-par score of 161, Australia were cruising at 1-72 after 9.2 overs. In good batting conditions, with nine wickets in hand, they needed just 90 from 64 balls to win.
Again Australia’s top order had laid a great platform, and again they wasted it. Batting at five, Moises Henriques (30 from 20 balls) showed why he should be a serious contender for a middle-order spot in the World Cup.
Batting at six, and doing the wicketkeeping duties, Matt Wade (seven from nine balls) underlined again why he can’t prosper outside of the top order.
Versus the new ball, with the field up, starting his innings against pace, Wade is an excellent T20 batsman. Versus an older ball, with the field back, starting his innings against spin, Wade is out of his element.
The same goes for fellow wicketkeeper Carey, who has a terrific record as an opener in the BBL but has showed no signs he can adapt to a role lower down in T20Is.
Carey’s keeping spot was pinched by Wade in the last T20I against England in September. But Australia need their gloveman to bat in the middle order, and both of these cricketers have proven they’re not up to that task.
Australia should use the five-match series against New Zealand to try to address this problem. Josh Philippe should be handed the gloves and trialed in the middle order. Although he opens in the BBL, Philippe has a style of batting that could translate to five or six.
Firstly, he is very confident and capable against spin. He sweeps strongly, uses his feet well, and judges the length of the spinners quickly. Secondly, against all styles of bowlers, he is a modern, 360-degree player with the ability to manufacture boundaries from good balls.
Philippe and Perth Scorchers gloveman Josh Inglis are Australia’s two best keeping options for the T20 World Cup. If Wade plays instead, then he has to bat in the top order, disrupting Australia’s settled first-choice top four, which has had sustained success.
The final middle-order batting spot looks like being a shootout between Henriques, Marsh and Stoinis. This trio each offers an extra bowling option, enormous experience, and raw hitting power.
With Henriques not involved in the NZ series, due to being picked on the Test tour of SA, Australia should use Stoinis, Philippe and Marsh at four, five and six.
Five matches in the middle order, against quality opposition, would give that trio a great chance to prove they can fix Australia’s biggest problem for the World Cup.
Looking ahead to that tournament, the viability of Australia’s favoured five-man bowling attack rests heavily on building a decent middle order.