The exclusion of Travis Head raised quite a few eyebrows in Nagpur. Whether Australia was right in roping in a replacement in Peter Handscomb, who last played a Test match four years ago, and pushing Matt Renshaw up to No. 5 is worth an argument.
Based on the performances on one particular day, it wouldn’t be fair to judge a batter.
Head would have been coming on the back of a brilliant home series against the West Indies and South Africa. He amassed 525 runs in the home Test summer at a mighty average of 87.50, becoming the first Australia batter to breach the 500-run mark.
But what might have convinced the Australian selection panel of George Bailey, Andrew McDonald and Tony Dodemaide to go ahead with the current plan was Head’s record in Asia and his recent performances for the Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash League.
The 2021-22 Ashes Player of the Series has managed to score merely 213 runs at 21.3 in the continent while his last four BBL scores read 1, 5, 9 and 19. To be sure, he may not have been too convincing at the nets in Alur as well.
Renshaw may have departed without bothering the scorers on Thursday but his skills when playing against spin are worth noting. He has scored 356 runs at an average of 44.50.
Moreover, the inclusion of Handscomb, a right-handed batter at No. 6, adds a new dimension to the batting lineup, earlier speckled with left-handed batters - four in the top seven.
The call was, in all probability, taken to negate the effect of left-arm spin against left-handed batters, a factor Australia batter and vice-captain Steve Smith had noted in his analysis of the deck.
“(The wicket looks) Pretty dry. Particularly, one end will take a bit of spin. The left-arm spinner getting it back into the left-handers. I feel the surface is going to be quite skiddy,” Smith had told the media.
In the batting horror show that was at Jamtha, Handscomb was one of the only four batters who could get beyond the 30-run mark, courtesy of some exceptional bowling by spin twins Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin.
On his return to the Test side, the 31-year-old said, “It was nice. It’s a really nice feeling to play Test cricket again for Australia. I’ve worked really hard on a lot of things in my game, mentally, tactically and on my technique as well. To work that hard and get the rewards to come back in, it’s a really nice feeling. I’m just grateful to be out there and give it a crack this time.”
On why Australia struggled to this extent against Jadeja, who picked up his fourth fifer against the Aussies, Handscomb said, “It’s tough out there. Jadeja was obviously bowling very well, not really giving our batsmen a lot to hit and I found him tough to score (against)... My plan was just to bat for as long as possible, then eventually get some runs.
Hope you nick a couple or push a couple through the odd gap here and there. The Indian team bowls really well as a unit and didn’t give us much to score off.”
Handscomb added, “When the pitch is playing tricks, that starts to play with your mind a little bit. The ball that doesn’t do as much you expect to do a little bit more and that’s where you can come undone with the ball that goes straight on, rather than the big turners we saw out there as well.”
Australia is not the No. 1 Test team in the world for nothing. Despite the selection conundrum, the Kangaroos will be expected to start afresh on day two. As Handscomb put it, “The music was back on straight after we walked back in.”
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