I must admit that before a ball had been bowled in this Ashes series I had only a vague idea of Scott Boland was.
I knew that he was a Victorian bowler and had seen the occasional clip of him taking wickets. I also recall that he played some short-form cricket for Australia back in 2016 without setting the world alight and that he currently plays in the BBL with some success.
He didn’t look anything remarkable, to be honest, and I’m guessing that my limited knowledge of Boland was shared by all but the most astute cricket fan, Victorians and the Australian selection panel.
Anyway, why would Australian fans be interested? We had a very settled bowling attack and surely the best front-line pace attack in world cricket. The big three in fact: Patrick Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, who would get the job done against the poorly performing English team.
They were fast bowlers who were going to carry us to victory with occasional support from the perennial net bowler in 31-year-old Michael Neser and the up-and-coming Jhye Richardson, who at just 25 years of age looked to be the next cab off the fast bowling rank.
Things certainly went according to the script in the first Test in Brisbane, as the big three took 13 wickets between them for not many, while all-rounder Cameron Green broke his bowling duck and chipped in with three wickets of his own.
Australia 1, England 0.
A side-strain injury to Josh Hazlewood, and an unfortunate restaurant table booking by Pat Cummins saw them both miss the second Test, but there was no need for concern. Starc dominated with six wickets, Green took another couple and bench bowlers Neser and Richardson took seven wickets between them.
Australia 2, England 0.
The third Test saw the return of Cummins, while Josh Hazlewood remained on the injured list. Surely Jhye Richardson would back up and take Hazlewood’s place in Melbourne after his six-wicket haul in the second Test. But not so, as apparently both Richardson and Neser suffered “twinges” in Adelaide.
Instead the nearly 33-year-old hometown hero and so-called ‘MCG specialist’ Scott Boland was selected to play his first Test.
New South Wales fans were aghast that yet another interstate bowler was getting a run, and some cynics even suspected that this was a hometown pick by the selectors in order to boost the crowd numbers at the MCG.
Boland got his chance with the ball, bowling first change in the English first innings, and he took the seventh wicket to fall, tail-ender Mark Wood. He bowled a consistent line and length and finished with first-innings figures of 1-48 off 13 overs. Not a bad start, really, but many thought hardly it hardly justified leaving Richardson out.
He also took a couple of catches and scored six runs batting at 11. Nothing remarkable so far.
Fast-forward to the English second dig and the world suddenly changed for Scott Boland. He broke through in his first over to send both Haseeb Hameed and Jack Leach back to the pavilion and then proceeded to tear through the English batting to finish with the incredible figure of 6-7 off four overs. Everyone was now sitting up and taking notice, and the MCG crowd suddenly had a new hometown hero to worship.
Australia 3, England 0.
Obviously, and with the series won, no sane selector was going to drop Boland for the fourth Test in Sydney, and the ongoing twinges of Hazlewood, Neser and Richardson kept them on the unavailable list. But could the highly rated MCG specialist and ‘horses-for-courses’ pick do the job in Sydney?
Too right he could, and he took the Australian bowling honours in each innings, finishing with figures of 4-36 and 3-30 at an overall economy rate of just 1.73 runs per over, six of his seven wickets coming from the English top order.
England hung on to draw the match with the assistance of some rain delays, while those who hadn’t taken notice of Boland after Melbourne were now seriously engaged, and the SCG crowd had their first Victorian hero to worship since Merv Hughes.
Australia 3, England 0.
With one Test to play and a 4-0 target in sight, the selectors stuck with their bowling attack. Scott Boland was given a third Test while Josh Hazlewood remained out with that pesky side strain. I wonder if that was the case or whether Hoff, the enforcer and one-third of the big three, was actually overlooked for Boland in the circumstances.
Regardless, Boland didn’t disappoint, took 1-33 in England’s first innings and should have had three wickets but for some very poor slips catching. He then acquitted himself well with the bat in Australia’s second innings when thrust into the nightwatchman role and took 3-18 off 12 overs when England batted again, including the wicket of his newly acquired bunny in Joe Root, who he dismissed for the fourth time in six innings.
Australia 4, England 0.
What a remarkable Test series debut by Boland, who finally had his chance in the Australian side after slogging it out for Victoria in the Sheffield Shield for the last decade. He took 18 wickets at 9.55 to finish well ahead in the Australian bowling averages and just behind Mitchell Starc (19 in ten innings) and Pat Cummins (21 in eight innings) in the wickets aggregate after bowling in only six innings.
I haven’t enjoyed an Ashes debut series by a Victorian-born fast bowler as much since Rodney Hogg terrorised the English batsmen way back in 1978-79.
But the question is: where to from here for Scott Boland? How far can he take it? Where does he fit into Australia’s selection plans? How many more Tests will he play? Have the big three now become the big four?
Boland will be 33 by the time Australia play their next Test series in March and April, but he won’t be the only bowler on the wrong side of 30, as both Starc and Neser will be 32, while Josh Hazlewood will be 31.
It’s quite likely all of the pace bowlers used by Australia in this year’s Ashes series will also head to England for the 2023 away series, and if so, Boland may just be the one to once again trouble the English batsmen on their slower seaming wickets with his relentless line and length and consistent pace. Joe Root, for one, won’t be keen to see him.
Boland will be 34 by the end of next year’s Ashes series in England, and of Australia’s top performing fast bowlers of recent years only Glenn McGrath, who retired just shy of his 37th birthday, and Ryan Harris, who retired at age 35, played Tests beyond 34 years of age.
I for one can’t wait to see how Boland performs if he gets further Test opportunities and to see how far he can take it. Who knows – he might even have the MCG Boxing Day Test crowd on their feet when England next make it down under for an Ashes battle.