Australia World T20 Preview

Posted on March 19, 2016


By SB Tang

Note: an edited version of this piece ran on The Guardian Sport Network on Thursday 17 March 2016

The World T20 — the only major trophy that the Australian cricket team is eligible for that they haven’t won. As one Sheffield Shield cricketer cheerfully put it to me over a coffee recently: “Australia haven’t won one yet, so it’s about time the boys stand up and get the trophy”. He wasn’t having a go at his mates in the Australian team; he was merely articulating an entirely reasonable and empirically well-supported opinion here in Australia — that with the talent and resources that we have at our disposal, Australia really should’ve won a World T20 by now and that wrong ought to be rectified as soon as possible.

In 2007, an underdone Australian one-day team, fresh off a well-deserved four month holiday following their 5-0 home Ashes whitewash and record third consecutive World Cup victory — and fourth overall — journeyed to South Africa for the inaugural World T20 with barely non-zero experience in the game’s newest format. Still, the team, clad in strange, space-age skin-tight uniforms, pushed eventual champions India all the way in their nail-biting semi-final, going down by 15 runs. Indeed, had Brad Haddin chosen to unfurl his glorious cover-drive — instead of trying and failing to execute his crude hoick over mid-wicket — to four balls from RP Singh in the crucial 18th over that were wide of off-stump, then the Indian Premier League — and, indeed, the broader T20 revolution itself — may never have happened.

Since that inaugural tournament in 2007, Australia’s World T20 results have been: eliminated at the group stage (2009); finalist (2010); semi-finalist (2012); and eliminated at the group stage (2014). That’s puzzling when one considers that, from the inaugural edition of the IPL in 2008, a disproportionate number of the foreign superstars who the franchises have shelled out the biggest bucks for have been Australian — Shane Watson, David Warner, Steve Smith (who, people tend to forget, was smashing it in the IPL even when he was curiously out of favour with the Australian selectors), Mitchell Starc, James Faulkner and Glenn Maxwell. To date, four of the IPL’s eight season MVPs have been Australian.

All those aforementioned stars — with the crucial exception of the injured Starc — are in the Australian squad for this edition of the World T20; but a cursory glance at Australia’s T20I XIs in between World T20 tournaments reveals why Australia has struggled to perform consistently in the format: the selectors rarely send out their first-choice XI. That’s not their fault. Australia’s home T20Is often clash with Tests (this summer, they clashed with Australia’s Test tour of New Zealand), therefore, the Australian selectors have no choice but to send out second-choice XIs for T20Is in between T20 World Cups.

The fact that the first-choice Australian T20I team rarely plays together makes it difficult for the captain to work out their optimal batting order and bowling line-up. For this edition of the World T20, the sum total of the first-choice Australian T20I team’s pre-tournament preparation — for a tournament being played entirely in India — was a three-match T20I series against South Africa in South Africa (which they won 2-1) and one practice match against the West Indies in Kolkata (which they lost by three wickets).

That’s not ideal; but, unless someone invents an instant cloning machine, it is unavoidable if the primacy of Test cricket is to be preserved. However, the Australian selectors have made an unavoidably difficult situation worse — especially when World T20s have been played on the sub-continent — by not picking the best players for those peculiar conditions.

In 2012, the World T20 was played in Sri Lanka, and Australia, powered by their scintillating top three of Shane Watson, David Warner and Mike Hussey, qualified comfortably for the semi-finals. Unfortunately, the Australian team’s second specialist spinner — for a tournament, remember, played on the sub-continent — was Xavier Doherty, a left-arm orthodox spinner who, with a career first-class bowling average consistently in excess of 40, had the truly remarkable ability to both preserve the sanctity of the batsmen’s wickets and keep their strike-rates healthy. (A good T20 spinner either threatens to take wickets or keeps the run-rate down; a great T20 spinner does both.)

In Australia’s 2012 World T20 semi-final, the West Indies won the toss on a raging turner at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo and chose to bat. The match was delicately poised as the West Indies, with Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard both at the crease and absolutely clobbering it, entered the final over of their innings on 3/180. The Australian captain, George Bailey, had to decide who would bowl the final over: Brad Hogg, a two-time World Cup winner whose three overs had gone for 21, or Doherty, Bailey’s hardworking state teammate whose three overs had gone for 23.

ESPNCricinfo’s brilliant ball-by-ball commentator, Sidharth Monga, summed up the thoughts of a nation when he saw Doherty walking up to bowl the final over: “Something tells me this is a huge mistake”. Gayle and Pollard scored a quarter of a century off Doherty’s final over — 6, 1, 6, 6, 6, out (Pollard caught at long-off) — and, in the space of five balls, an excellent total in the high 180s to low 190s was transformed into an unreachable, match-winning total of 205.

Unfortunately, the Australian selectors appear not to have learnt their lesson from that night of carnage in Colombo three years ago. They have, once again, dispatched an Australian World T20 squad to the sub-continent sans a quality second spinner. The player that they’ve chosen to perform that vital role, 22-year-old left-arm orthodox spinner Ashton Agar, faced more balls (97) than he bowled (54) in this summer’s Big Bash League.

Like the Australian prodigies Steve Smith and Cameron White before him, the phenomenally talented Agar broke into senior state cricket at such a young age that it is, at this embryonic stage of his career, still unclear whether he is a bowler, a batsman who bowls or a genuine all-rounder. In the Australian summer just past, his performances with the bat — in the Sheffield Shield, Agar, batting at eight, scored 361 runs, including two hundreds, at an average of 36.10; in the BBL, batting mainly at five and six, Agar averaged 24.8 with a healthy strike-rate of 127.83 — surpassed his performances with the ball — in the Shield, Agar took just nine wickets at an average of 76.88; in the BBL, he bowled just nine overs, taking three wickets at an average of 23 and an economy rate of 7.66.

Agar — uncapped at T20I level when he was picked in Australia’s World T20 squad — has played all of one T20I match in the lead-up to this tournament. In that game, he didn’t bat, fielded well (which was to be expected — he is one of the 10 best all-round fielders in Australia) and looked very, very uncomfortable when he bowled two overs which went for 25 runs. In his defence, the conditions in which he made his T20I debut were the toughest in the world for a spinner — an absolute road at the high altitude of the Wanderers with a small, fast outfield — but the manner in which he bowled was concerning. He appeared to commit the cardinal sin that many young cricketers make when they’re picked before they’re ready: forgetting what got him there in the first place.

When Agar is bowling well for Western Australia, he bowls with a lot of natural over-spin and loop, tossing it up above the batsmen’s eye-line and getting it to drop on them. He’s never generated much side-spin or had a doosra. His drop and his control — he doesn’t bowl many long-hops or full tosses — are the keys to his bowling. But at the Wanderers, Agar completely changed the way that he bowls. Instead of giving the ball air, he mainly fired in flat, medium-pace darts with a forced, unnatural looking action. David Miller, like any good T20I batsman, took to his medium-pace length balls and half-volleys like a 10-year-old in an ice-cream parlour, smashing him over long-on for 4, 6, 2 and 6.

Agar’s inclusion as Australia’s second spinner makes even less sense when one glances at the records of the two well-credentialed young spinners who were omitted to make room for him: Cameron Boyce and Nathan Lyon. The 26-year-old leg-spinner Boyce served as Australia’s first-choice T20I spinner from October 2014 until the announcement of Australia’s 2016 World T20 squad. His T20I record is impeccable — in seven matches, he’s taken eight wickets at an average of 19, economy rate of 6.6 and a strike-rate of 17.2. He has also performed consistently well in the last two BBLs. He took the most wickets of any spinner last season and the second-most this season. Over the last two BBLs, Boyce has taken 21 wickets at an average of 22.1 and an economy rate of 8.29. Crucially, he gives the ball a rip and is unafraid to toss it up above the batsmen’s eye-line — and thereby risk getting hit — to snare a wicket.

Australia’s Chairman of Selectors, Rod Marsh, explained Boyce’s shock omission from Australia’s World T20 squad by saying that the selection of the impressive 23-year-old leg-spinner Adam Zampa (who was the leading wicket-taking spinner in this summer’s BBL and is a better fielder and batsman than Boyce) precluded Boyce’s selection: “we couldn’t take both of them. We were never going to take two leg-spinners.” That is a strange bit of logic. The Australian selectors committed to having just two specialist spinners and one spin bowling all-rounder in their 15-man World T20 squad — a composition that many would deem inadequate for sub-continental conditions — and with Glenn Maxwell a certainty to be picked as the off-spinning all-rounder, that left just two spots for specialist spinners.

One of those spots was always going to go to a leg-spinner — leggies turn the ball in the opposite direction to Maxwell and quality leggies have proven to be the best method to take wickets and restrict the run-rate in T20 cricket — but there is no good reason why the last spot couldn’t go to a leggie too. The third spinner in Australia’s three-man spin unit was always going to turn the ball in the same direction as one of the first two spinners. Both Boyce and Agar turn the ball in the same direction as Zampa. However, Agar, as a left-arm orthodox spinner, offers a different angle of attack from Zampa. But that advantage of variety is minimal when one considers that Boyce and Zampa are substantially different in style as leggies — Zampa bowls slightly flatter and quicker, whereas Boyce bowls slower and with more loop. Most saliently of all, Boyce, unlike Agar, is a proven performer with the ball at both BBL and T20I level.

The other excellent option for the third spinner’s spot was Nathan Lyon. Still just 28 years of age, he is already, with 195 Test wickets at an average of 32.87, Australia’s greatest ever Test off-spinner. The lad from the small country town of Young in New South Wales originally got his big break via T20 cricket in January 2011 and has enjoyed excellent BBL campaigns for the Sydney Sixers over the past two summers, taking a cumulative total of 15 wickets at an average of 14.53 and an economy rate of 7.07. But he remains mysteriously out of favour with the Australian selectors in the limited-overs formats. This summer, he was only given two ODIs and one T20I to make his case for limited-overs selection. From the perspective of team balance, one could argue that there is a stronger case for the final spinner’s spot going to a specialist off-spinner than a specialist leggie or left-arm orthodox spinner — Maxwell is a batting all-rounder, not a genuine frontline off-spinner, and in Indian conditions, he may well need support with the ball.

There is a second substantive problem with Australia’s chosen World T20 bowling unit — the absence of an in-form, internationally proven death bowler. In Mitchell Starc — the tall left-armer capable of delivering searing 150 kilometre per hour yorkers at will — Australia has the best white-ball fast bowler and death bowler in the world. Unfortunately, he’s injured. His chosen replacement, 29-year-old right-armer AJ Tye, has fully earned his spot by consistently being the best death bowler in the BBL over the past two seasons. Tye has helped the ever-impressive Perth Scorchers bowling unit regularly defend totals of less than 130 and closed out many a game for them. But, to date, he has struggled to replicate that form at T20I level: he has a bowling average of 59.50 and an economy rate of 10.50. On the two occasions he’s been tasked with closing out a T20I game for his country, he’s been unable to defend 17 (against India at the SCG) and five (against South Africa at Kingsmead).

To be fair to the Australian selectors, there aren’t a lot of other death bowling options. The 22-year-old right-arm New South Welshman Gurinder Sandhu — the form death bowler in the country last summer — lost form so badly this summer that he was dropped by his BBL side, the Sydney Thunder. His replacement, 33-year-old Clint McKay, helped the Thunder to their maiden BBL title and previously experienced success as a death bowler in the Australian ODI team between 2009 and 2014, but it appears that the Australian selectors have moved past him because of his age.

More broadly, as Dean Jones has astutely pointed out, there is an alarming sameness to the Australian bowling attack — Australia’s probable first-choice XI will feature at least five right-arm fast-medium bowlers: Josh Hazlewood, John Hastings, Shane Watson, Mitch Marsh and AJ Tye/Nathan Coulter-Nile — which could spell disaster. The veteran left-armer Doug Bollinger — now 34, but still capable of bowling close to 150 kilometres per hour — would’ve been worth a look.

Despite all these aforementioned weaknesses, Australia are (probably) correctly listed as one of the favourites for the tournament by the bookies for two simple reasons: their batting and their fielding. In Steve Smith, David Warner and Glenn Maxwell, the Australians have three of the best all-round fielders in the history of the game — safe hands, accurate rocket arms, foot speed and excellent mobility and lateral movement — and the fielding unit as a whole barely put a foot wrong in the just completed three-match series against South Africa.

The Australian batting line-up is blessed with a surfeit of world-class T20 destroyers, nearly all of whom have extensive IPL experience: David Warner, Shane Watson, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner and Mitchell Marsh. The only issue will be squeezing them all in and arranging them in the optimal order. Australia is especially stacked with T20 openers — the squad contains four in Warner, Watson, Finch and Khawaja — and there will only be room for three in the final XI. Warner is a certainty to be picked. As is Watson because, unlike the other three, he is a genuine all-rounder. That leaves Khawaja and Finch fighting for the last remaining spot. Finch’s T20I record is beyond reproach — he averages 39.82 at a strike-rate of 152.92 — but I’d plump for Khawaja because his left-handedness will enable Australia to maintain a left-right combination — handy for mucking up bowlers’ lines and lengths — throughout their entire top five (which would be Watson, Khawaja, Smith, Warner and Maxwell) and he is in the form of his life, having averaged 172.50 (that’s not a typo) at a strike-rate of 163.50 in the BBL this summer to lead the Thunder to their maiden title.