The comeback test victory in the Third test at Leeds has left England on a massive high, even though many of their team were well below par, with both openers failing badly, Jack Leach seeming to be playing as a specialist number 11, and Chris Woakes well below his usual standard, not to mention the abject failures of Jos Buttler, whose runout when backing up very nearly cost England a game they were winning. In spite of that, Ben Stokes single-handedly took England to a victory, but even that might not have happened had Nathan Lyon not fumbled an easy runout, or had umpire Joel Wilson not denied a plumb LBW, or, indeed, had Pat Cummins bowled to anywhere near his usual standard against number 11 Jack Leach.
While England have some obvious changes to make, Australia’s greatest hope is that they remain unchanged just because they won, allowing several below-par players to be carried, and the idea that Ben Stokes will fix everything again seems a bit hard to believe. The other problem for England is that Steve Smith, Australia’s hero from the first two tests, is coming back, and, for most people, Smith is a long way ahead of Stokes. England have momentum but Australia have Smith. If Australia had won that test by 1 run, as they should have done, with three chances going begging within 5 minutes, things would have been very different.
I flagged two probably changes for Australia. The first is the inclusion of Steve Smith, the second that Mitchell Starc has to play. Starc should have played every test match and the people claiming that he is too wayward or too whatever other excuse they are making simply aren’t paying attention. While Pat Cummins is ranked number 1 in the world, Starc is probably ahead of him in terms of attack leadership, and, even if Starc is 2nd instead of 1st, that is as far back as he goes. He shouldn’t be missing the team unless he is injured.
The bowling change isn’t a difficult one to make. James Pattinson, who was once Australia’s best bowler, has proven in the first and third tests that, while he is now up to the firm status of backup bowler, he is not yet a first choice bowler. It’s a good thing to have someone of his quality in reserve, in case one of the premier bowlers, of Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins, breaks down, gets ill, or something happens to them. Pattinson is probably above Siddle, but Siddle has a lot of heart and sometimes that heart lifts Siddle above those with greater skill.
The batting change is more difficult. While Marnus Labuschagne was the one who came in to replace Steve Smith, he is not the one who will leave. There are several choices for who that could be, the most likely being Matthew Wade, mainly because Wade and Labuschagne were fighting for one spot in the final XI for the first test, and Wade has performed significantly worse than Labuschagne. For team balance it makes sense, that Wade replaced Labuschagne, then Labuschagne replaced Smith and now Smith will replace Wade. If we were thinking of them as bowlers rotating, it is easy enough to imagine.
Other options might be better as far as form is concerned, but they complicate the team balance. Usman Khawaja has been flagged as one option, as someone with a slightly worse test batting average than Wade this series (thanks to Wade’s century), but the big problem then is that we don’t have a number 3, and we really like having Khawaja at 3 then Smith at 4. Pushing Labuschagne up to 3 – or 4 – weakens Labuschagne. It’s not a good option. Getting rid of an opener – either Harris or Warner – and pushing Khawaja in to open – might be good for Khawaja, who prefers to open, but it is not good for team balance, as we are essentially one batsman short.
The tour game features these players:
- Marcus Harris
- Usman Khawaja
- Cameron Bancroft
- Steve Smith
- Marnus Labuschagne
- Matthew Wade
- Alex Carey
- Mitchell Marsh
- Michael Neser
- Mitchell Starc
- Peter Siddle
Alex Carey is not in the squad, so it was curious to see him in this tour match, keeping wickets. This is reportedly due to Tim Paine objecting to Matthew Wade keeping wickets in the previous tour match, so Alex Carey is there in order to stoke Paine’s ego. It has a second aim too, showing that Wade’s spot is under significant threat.
As above, we know that Wade is competing with Khawaja, probably, for the final spot, though the fact that Khawaja was named captain suggests that his spot, at least, probably isn’t in danger.
Curiously, in spite of Bancroft being in the team, Khawaja is opening, a position he prefers. It is notable that Bancroft doesn’t always open. Bancroft’s natural position is as a wicket-keeper, albeit one who is nowhere near test level, and he has been known to bat in the traditional wicket-keeper position of 7, or higher, but not always as opener. Bancroft may prefer to bat at 3 or 4, not at 7, and that may end up as a better option for him. Potentially, if Bancroft does return to the test, it may be as a number 3, with Khawaja opening with Warner, and in this way we could have Harris dumped, while Wade keeps his spot.
Of course, that is a bit complicated.
On the bowling front, Neser and Siddle are being given a shot, even though Starc seems almost certain to line up. Mitchell Marsh is there again too, though it is difficult to imagine him fitting into the test team anywhere.
The only way for Mitchell Marsh to play is if Neser also plays, one as a batting all-rounder and the other as a bowling all-rounder. While this gives more bowling options and a longer batting line-up, what Australia are missing right now is power not durability, and power means Starc, not Neser, and certainly not Mitchell Marsh.
Neser took 3 wickets, incidentally, but so did Starc, and, in a tie, Starc wins. Siddle and Marsh each took a wicket, not that it is likely to matter, while Labuschagne, who is already certain to play, took 2.
We didn’t see much batting from Australia, but in 23 overs Harris still managed to get to his 50, while Khawaja was also not out on 18, each doing enough to suggest that they will play.
I for one don’t think that there will be very much doubt as to who will play, but the tour match perhaps will make certain of the ideas. If Wade gets a big century and Khawaja fails, perhaps, just perhaps, Khawaja might miss out, but Khawaja’s captaincy itself suggests that his spot, at least, is in no doubt, and any thoughts of leaving Harris out seem to be gone with his half century.
An interesting little 3-day game, just the same and it may yet decide the final make-up of Australia’s 4th test XI.