Alex Malcolm for ESPNcricinfo, 6 April 2022, where the title reads “Australia open to being creative if Sri Lanka Tests call for third spinner”
Selectors may ponder batting Ashton Agar batting at No. 7 if conditions dictate a different balance of team.
Australia could consider playing five specialist bowlers plus an allrounder in Sri Lanka as a way of sneaking three spinners into the side for back-to-back Tests in Galle.
They picked three specialist spinners, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar, in their Test squad last week along with three further specialist spinners – Todd Murphy, Matt Kuhnemann and Tanveer Sangha – for the Australia A tour to take place just prior to the Test series.
Chair of selectors George Bailey confirmed that the prospect of playing three spinners in the one Australian line-up was possible, something they did in Bangladesh in 2017 when Agar last played a Test match.
Speaking to SEN on Tuesday, head coach Andrew McDonald expanded on the selection conundrum of picking three spinners in the XI with particular reference to both Tests being played in Galle.
“It’s always there,” McDonald said. “You pick three spinners in your squad for that exact reason. We challenged ourselves on it in Pakistan but the information we had leading into the games there was probably two spinners at best.
“Galle creates another conversation. It’s how you fit them in. Mitchell Starc has an unbelievable record in the subcontinent and Sri Lanka in particular. I think the last tour there he was the leading wicket-taker. So you’re going to be a brave man to leave out either the captain [Pat Cummins] or Mitch Starc to pick a third spinner. So it’s really how it fits.
“Can Ashton Agar potentially bat one spot higher to create a bit of space? I think what we’ve done is we’ve given ourselves the options through what we’ve picked and that’s the important part.
“We feel as though we’ve got the balance to play multiple ways depending on the conditions. Two Test matches in the one venue back-to-back is an uncommon thing as well. There’s a few variables on the ground. But we’ll hope to make some good decisions when we get there.”
Starc took 24 wickets for the series on the 2016 three-Test tour of Sri Lanka including 11 wickets in the match in the last Test Australia played in Galle. But Australia were thumped by 229 runs with offspinner Dilruwan Perera bagging 10 wickets as Sri Lanka played three spinners and one fast bowler in the Test, with Vishwa Fernando bowling just two overs for the match. Australia played two spinners and two fast bowlers, with Mitchell Marsh as the allrounder. Lyon played as the sole spinner on debut in Galle in 2011 taking 5 for 34 in the first innings, but Australia’s quicks did the damage in the second innings.
Sri Lanka hosted four Tests at Galle last year, with left-arm orthodox Lasith Embuldeniya taking 28 wickets, while offspinner Ramesh Mendis took 20 in three matches. England won two Tests with a five-man attack picking two quicks and two spinners with Sam Curran playing as the bowling allrounder. Spin duo Dom Bess and Jack Leach took 22 wickets between in the two victories.
A five-strong Australian attack of Starc, Cummins, Lyon, Swepson and Agar would require the wicketkeeper Alex Carey to bat at No. 6 and would leave Travis Head vulnerable given Cameron Green‘s value as the additional bowling option. It also means there is still no room for Josh Hazlewood who was left out of the last two Tests in Pakistan while Scott Boland has not played since his remarkable debut in the Ashes.
However, the need for six bowlers in Galle might be surplus to requirements given there has not been a drawn Test there since 2013, with the last 15 Tests ending with a result.
Australia’s ability to bat long and bat big, particularly in the first innings, was pivotal to their victory in Pakistan. Although batting conditions may be more difficult in Sri Lanka, the same blueprint will be used to pave the way for success there as it was in the victorious tours of 2004 and 2011 when Australia had to bat their way out of trouble on several occasions. The inability to counter spin in 2016 led to a 3-0 defeat.
McDonald did confirm that Glenn Maxwell‘s name had briefly entered selection discussions ahead of the tour given his skill and experience on the subcontinent, but ultimately it was decided to stick with the group that succeeded in Pakistan.
“He’s got a great record in the subcontinent, India in particular with that hundred at Ranchi,” McDonald said. “He can give us offspin. Yeah, there was a small discussion around what it would potentially look like but I think the reward for the team that went to Pakistan as well, that squad, the way it went about it’s work, it was always going to be very difficult to change that way of playing.”