The series-defining input of Rishabh Pant and Ben Stokes in recent Tests against Australia have underlined how badly the Aussies lack a dynamic middle-order batsman capable of changing the tempo of an innings.
Australia’s most painful Test losses of the past two years both were driven by counterattacking knocks from aggressive middle-order players – Pant at Brisbane last month and Stokes at Headingley in 2019.
All of Australia’s chief foes in Tests boast a batsman between five and seven in their order with the ability to explode when they choose.
India and England have Pant and Stokes, respectively, New Zealand have forceful all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme (Test batting strike rate of 82) and South Africa have dashing wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock (strike rate 71).
Australia’s best middle-order combo is Travis Head (strike rate 49), Cameron Green (strike rate 40) and Tim Paine (strike rate 45). Between them, that middle-order trio on average score at just 2.7 runs per over. Of course, there are often circumstances where such a sedate scoring rate is acceptable, or even appealing.
But there are also many times when a Test batting line-up needs to up the ante, whether looking to counterpunch from a position of relative weakness or to push the game forward from a position of strength.
This is where Australia’s main rivals have a clear edge due to their possession of at least one damaging strokemaker.
Balance is crucial to any cricketing XI, and one of the key ways that is achieved is through variety. Australia’s Test attack has been successful in recent years due to the fact it covers so many bases – pace, height, accuracy, swing, a left-arm angle and a quality spinner are all rolled into one unit.
Batting line-ups, too, can benefit greatly from points of difference. A one-paced top seven is much easier for opponents to plan against. Contrasts are invaluable. For example, Test cricket observers often talk about the value of a left-right opening combination or the pairing of a precise seamer with an express strike bowler.
It’s less commonly remarked how effective it can be to partner a defensive batsman with an aggressive one. Yet right now, perhaps the most difficult combination to bowl to in Test cricket may well be India’s stonewalling Cheteshwar Pujara and shotmaking Rishabh Pant. The chasm between their batting approaches puts great strain on opposition bowlers to constantly readjust and skippers to regularly alter their strategies.
Pujara’s solidity emboldens Pant. Safe in the knowledge his partner has one end locked down, Pant can indulge his mercurial, instinctive talents.
With Pujara in tow, Pant destroyed Australia in the decisive fourth innings of the final two Tests this summer. Last week, in the first Test in Chennai against England, Pujara was again by Pant’s side as he threatened to bat India back into that match. Coming in with India stumbling at 4-73, Pant went after the England attack, thrashing an outrageous 91 from 88 balls.
It was an innings that changed the tempo and mood of the Test. England went from being in a position of crushing dominance to looking rattled as Pant thumped five sixes. Granted, England went on to win the Test comfortably due to their massive first innings total, but Pant’s blitzkrieg was the only juncture in that match when the visitors appeared truly vulnerable.
Earlier in that Test, England’s advantage had been rammed home by a daring Stokes innings of 82 from 119 balls, including three big sixes.
Which brings us back to Australia’s weakness. In the past five years, there have been eight Aussies who’ve played a minimum of five Tests while batting in the middle order. Here are the middle order Test strike rates of those players in the past five years:
Matthew Wade: strike rate 52
Mitch Marsh: strike rate 50
Travis Head: strike rate 49
Peter Handscomb: strike rate 47
Tim Paine: strike rate 46
Shaun Marsh: strike rate 41
Adam Voges: strike rate 39
Peter Nevill: strike rate 28
Even after their all-conquering era finished around 2008, Australia for a good while after always had at least one middle-order batsman in their side who could take on the opposition when required. The likes of Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey, Shane Watson and Brad Haddin all had that extra gear.
Now there’s no such player, and there hasn’t been in the Aussie line-up for a long time. The only Australian middle-order batsman who has shaped to potentially fill that gap has been Glenn Maxwell. I won’t delve deeply into his shocking mistreatment by the selectors, as I and many other writers have covered it ad nauseam.
Maxwell recently conceded he’s all but given up on pushing for a Test comeback. Australia do need to start considering the one-pace nature of their Test batting line-up. It was particularly noticeable while attacking opener David Warner was absent in the series against India as the Aussies scored at a snail pace, keeping the tourists in the contest.
Of course, you don’t simply pluck a Pant, Stokes, de Kock or de Grandhomme from nowhere. But Australia may well need to reconsider the variety and balance of their batting line-up over the next year or two. It could be time for them to give an opportunity to another swashbuckling keeper-batsman once Paine retires. WA’s Josh Inglis is an enticing option.
Not only is he arguably the best gloveman in the country after Paine, but he’s also a dynamic batsman with every shot in the manual, plus a few others as well. Inglis has bullied attacks in the domestic one-day and BBL competitions and is developing into a dangerous red-ball batsman. The 25-year-old this summer has hammered 354 runs at 118 in the Sheffield Shield with a blistering strike rate of 86.
Inglis may just be the man to add a point of difference, a change of tempo, to the Aussie Test batting line-up in the near future.