Twenty20 domination in view as Justin Langer corrects Australia's course | Sam Perry
As the Australian men’s team launched into their home summer over the weekend, powering their way to a T20 victory over Sri Lanka, one could almost hear the faint echoes of distant summers past.
A sunny afternoon. A clinic of muscular first-innings batting, personal milestones, and sympathy for the opposition bordering on mild condescension. Then the innings break, when you ask, “is there a game here?”, during which time brutish Australian quicks have already stung the bodies and claimed the wickets of hapless top-order fodder in fading light, while commentary reminds us that they “must adjust to the bounce in Australia”.
The match already over, it is then relegated (or promoted) to something of an exhibition, as we while away the remaining overs gawking at the superior speed, power and athleticism of an exciting Australian unit, whetting our appetites for further demolitions ahead.
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For Australian cricket fans who lived through the nineties and noughties vintage, these displays can be intoxicating in their familiarity. And after calamities industrial and cultural, such victories are frankly pretty welcome, too. So, with no looming crisis, no impending review, the Ashes safe, and five ODI World Cups to rest easy on, the question surely becomes: can Australia now conquer T20 cricket?
Part of understanding the solution is to recognise the problem. While Australia have never been short of excellent T20 players, the national setup has rarely prioritised the format, and has often found itself playing catch-up with other nations. Despite Sunday’s annihilation, estimates have Australia around fourth in the global order, behind India, England and West Indies.
Australia’s fortunes have often suffered at the hands of its own rigid cricketing ideology. We are self-appointed custodians of technique, and how a player is meant to “look”. It means the clever player can be overlooked for the thoroughbred, and there’s an uneasy relationship with the sort of lateral thinking T20 strategy demands. “Just go out and whack ‘em,” was how we used to do it, pre-Langer.
Though as he’s done with nearly everything, Justin Langer is correcting the course. The team has managed to rid itself of a top order with five openers, and despite some hipster protestations to the contrary, Steve Smith’s inclusion introduces the sort of insurance that permits David Warner and Aaron Finch to explode early, safe in the knowledge any mess can be cleaned, should it not work out. Moreover, for every Adelaide flat-track that renders Smith ineffectual, the T20 World Cup will throw up tricky chases on low-slow wickets, with the wile and guile of world class spinners to overcome. Nobody in Australia solves these puzzles better than Smith, and this is where his value will come to the fore.
While Warner, Finch and Glenn Maxwell pick themselves at this point, there will be sterner tests for Australia’s middle-lower order. Are Alex Carey and Ashton Agar able to finish an innings with a strike rate of 220, like the way Kieron Pollard or Hardik Pandya can? Will Australia take another look at Dan Christian – global T20 expert, inveterate closer of games and tournament winner – or does returning to a veteran risk losing face?
On the bowling side, are “bouncy home pitches” enough to sustain a relatively samey, pace-on attack? India regularly commence with two spinners – would Australia consider Chris Green to defend 12 balls bowling around-the-wicket off-spinners during the powerplay? Or would that be too strange? Kane Richardson is great at the death, and AJ Tye has a knuckle-ball, but there are few other bowling tricks among the quicks. Adam Zampa regularly exceeds expectations with his slide-in spin and occasional wrong’un, and bowls fantastically to good players on flat wickets, but generally speaking Australian cricket is bereft of the sort of quality mystery spin and trickery that can stop an innings in its tracks. Options would be ideal.
Given next year’s T20 World Cup is at home, it may be argued that high octane pace is indeed the answer. After all, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson did the business here in 2015. However, while the longer of the short formats can sustain a pace-on approach, the shorter of the two increasingly emphasises pace-off. And besides, Starc has not reached the dizzying heights of 150 for some time (as he did in 2015), while Cummins hovers somewhere closer to 140, too. International batsmen deal with pace regularly now – would Australia countenance the idea that thunderbolts have lost some lustre?
There are 23 T20 games until next year’s World Cup commences, through which time we will form a sense of Australia’s approach. In a format that demands invention and original thinking, Australia’s willingness to emerge from the shackles of its own ideology will be instructive. So will the appointment, and age, of its next selector.