The second test match between India and Australia starts in Deccan on Saturday. Two things are abundantly clear in the aftermath of the Australia’s abysmal showing in the first test: first that the pitch for the second test will no doubt mirror the first and second that Australia must select two spin bowlers if it is to be competitive in this fixture.
These two factors raise two selection conundrums that are polar opposites: the need to lengthen the batting order against the need for more bowling. There will be immediate calls from some factions of Australian supporters to immediately call into the team one of Glenn Maxwell or Steve Smith who, as all rounders, will have the effect of killing two birds with one stone however the answer to Australia’s bowling ills will not be solved by taking that step in my view. The answer to that question actually rests in the position of Peter Siddle in the team.
Before we get to Siddle it is important examine the “candidates” for the role as second spinner in the Australian team for the second test:
1. Xavier Doherty: An excellent one day bowler, Doherty has been brought on tour as an alternate or second spinning option to Nathan Lyon. Off the bat (pardon the pun) it needs to be acknowledged that his test career to date has been less than stellar as a bowling average after two tests of 102.00 at an economy rate of 4.00 attests. Still he is the second spinner on tour and thus the search for reasons why this selection decision came to pass must also be examined. It can not be based on his first class record: a bowling average of 44.56 does not make for pleasant reading even taking into account the seaming home track he plays on. In the interests of fairness it is also necessary to look at his ODI and List A records and whilst the bowling average there is better an economy rate of around 4.50 is still a worry. A blocker at best with the bat he will do little to strengthen the batting lineup.
2. Glenn Maxwell: Seemingly the anointed next big thing in Australian cricket is a batting all rounder who bowls off spin much in the same style as Nathan Lyon. The interests of variety alone mean the selection chances of Maxwell must, on their face, be slim at best. Selecting another off spinner after your main spinner who is also an offspinner has gone for 200 runs in less than 50 overs is not palatable at best and suicidal at worst in my opinion. Still, in the interest of fairness, an examination of Maxwell’s first class record needs also to be considered in this context. 27 wickets in 24 innings at an average of 34 is not the worst record that one has ever seen before a selection for a test. The problem as I see it is that in those 24 innings, Maxwell has only bowled 1808 balls, or roughly 300 overs. To ask a bowler who averages less than 14 overs an innings at first class level to face the best players of spin in world cricket in a test match could only be detrimental to his development and simply should not happen.
3. Steve Smith:Once the golden boy of Australian cricket, Smith has returned to favour in recent times of the back of some solid performances with the willow. The problem with selecting Smith as a second spinner, and to state the bleeding obvious, is that he barely bowls for his state in first class cricket at, of all places, the best wicket for spin bowling in the country. He bowls for his state even less than Glenn Maxwell and a first class bowling average of over 50 again does not make for confidence inspiring reading. I can not see how Smith could be selected as the second spinner for the next test match or in the future.
The foregoing brief consideration of the possible inclusions into the team as second spinner reveals the yawning chasm in Australia’s spin bowling stocks. Nonetheless given the squad that is in India it is fairly clear that Xavier Doherty needs to be selected as the second spinner in the next test match.
That then leads to the conundrum as to who should be left out of the team. Henriques has done the job he was asked to do in this test match and was impressive batting with captain with the pressure was on. In order to avoid lengthening the tail of Australia’s batting order even further Henriques must remain in the team in my view. Which fast bowler needs then to be dropped (or rotated out) for the second test? The choice is down to two players (assuming Pattinson is fit for the second test) between Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle. Both failed to take a wicket in the only innings of note (the first) of India in the first test and both performances were concerning.
It is unfortunate but the only conclusion I can reach is that Peter Siddle is the player who must miss out. Coming only 3 matches after he took 9 wickets against Sri Lanka (albeit on a seaming wicket) and given his full hearted performances over recent years this feels like a very hard call however Siddle’s propensity to look innocuous against quality batting on wickets not offering any assistance counts against him here. Mitchell Starc offers greater variety than that offered by Siddle particularly bowling left arm and will have learned some tough lessons after his performance in the first test match.
Despite Australia’s crushing loss in the first test I am only suggesting one change to the team: Siddle out and Doherty in. Whilst the batting order did not perform all that well (the captain aside), with P Hughes looking particularly out of depth against the spin bowling of India, making changes to that lineup would be a reactionary move at this stage.
India have to be short priced favourites for the second test but it was not that long ago that England found themselves in the same situation and they came back to win the series. Here is hoping that X Doherty can do the same for the Australian team as M Panesar did for England in that series. If he can not one fears that this is going to be a very very long and difficult series for the Australian team.