Australia must consider specialist finishers Dan Christian and Moises Henriques for this year’s T20 World Cup after the side’s continued middle order struggles in the T20 series loss to New Zealand.
The Aussie middle-order has been flaccid years now and is the only weak point in their full-strength line-up, which has a dominant top four, two excellent spinners and a host of quality pace options.
The five-match series in New Zealand was a gilded chance for Mitch Marsh and Marcus Stoinis to take ownership of the middle order. Instead, Marsh had a shocking series and Stoinis played one brilliant knock but overall was, once again, hugely inconsistent.
Of greatest concern was the fact neither man looked comfortable against spin. Slow bowling will likely dominate this year’s T20 World Cup in India.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Australia’s first choice top four of Aaron Finch, David Warner, Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell. That quartet all are fine players of spin, and have huge experience playing white ball cricket in Asia.
At five and six, however, Australia continue to get bogged down, particularly against slow bowling, which means they need to give middle order opportunities to other players.
I think Australia missed a trick in New Zealand by not handing such a role to Josh Philippe, who dominates spin in the BBL. Philippe might not have succeeded in the middle order, either, but it would have done no harm.
Instead Australia learned nothing new about their middle options from that series.
With the World Cup just seven months away, Australia may have as few as six more T20Is before that tournament. Australia are scheduled to tour the Caribbean in June for three ODIs and three T20s (surely a six-match T20 series would be better this year?), followed by an October T20 tour of Bangladesh to warm up for the World Cup.
So Australia don’t need to look long-term with their selections, rather just pick the best possible Iineup to finally win this tournament.
Which means age shouldn’t be held against 37-year-old Christian and 34-year-old Henriques. Both all-rounders shape as attractive options for the World Cup.
Christian in recent years has turned himself into a rare style of player – a consistently destructive late innings hitter.
He’s had a monstrous 12 months with the bat across three highly-competitive T20 franchise leagues – the BBL, England’s Vitality Blast, and the Pakistan Super League.
In 32 matches across those leagues in that time, Christian averaged 35 at a scorching strike rate of 170. Again and again, he came to the crease in the late overs and cut loose. Pace or spin, it didn’t matter much, Christian went bang.
This hasn’t come naturally for Christian, he’s honed this difficult late-innings role by playing a massive amount of T20 cricket. In the past three years alone, he has played a whopping 120 matches in this format.
Christian has never been a better T20 player than he is right now.
Teams around the world struggle to locate batsmen like him, ones who don’t need time to get set, who have the composure, power and shot range to go ballistic from ball one with the field set deep.
Australia have one such player in Glenn Maxwell. But they are justifiably reticent to move Maxwell out of the top four, where he has been a wrecking ball in T20Is, averaging 40 at a strike rate of 165 in the past five years.
If all else fails, Australia could consider pushing Maxwell down to five for the World Cup. In such a scenario they could open with their wicketkeeper, leave Steve Smith at three, and push one of Warner or Finch down to four.
But that should be their last option. First Australia should see if someone else can command the middle order so they can keep their gun top four intact.
There is, of course, limited time to do that. Which, again, is why Christian and Henriques are appealing, due to their vast experience in T20 cricket and, specifically, in India.
Henriques has played seven seasons of IPL for four different teams. He knows Indian conditions extremely well and, even when not getting a game in the IPL, spent day after day facing Asian spinners in the nets. It shows in his batting. Henriques is assured and fluent against spin.
He rotates the strike nicely against slow bowlers, and also has a range of boundary options. Henreiques sweeps strongly, uses his feet well and is particularly adept at getting deep in his crease to cut and pull.
Compare that to Stoinis, for example, who struggles to get off strike against spin and then, when searching for a boundary, has just one main option – the lofted drive down the ground. That shot may work against slower, loopier BBL spinners.
But it’s a seriously difficult stroke to execute against spinners who bowl quick and flat, and cramp you for room. And that’s how many canny international spinners operate, especially when they come up against someone like Stoinis.
The all-rounder’s best position in T20 is clearly in the top three. When he has time to get himself set he can be explosive against all styles of bowling.
There’s no room, however, for Stoinis to open for Australia, and he has never looked comfortable in the middle order when he needs to go for broke from ball one.
The same can’t be said of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Henriques. Both of these veterans should be on Australia’s T20 tour of the Caribbean in June to give them a chance to finally fix Australia’s middle order woes.