When Australia announced their twelve for the opening Test of their home series against South Africa, Jackson Bird's name was missing. It was surprising considering he had taken a five-wicket haul in the last Test he appeared for Australia, at Christchurch (seven in the match), and that he was part of the touring party to Sri Lanka but couldn't find his way in to the playing XI.
Chairman of selectors Rod Marsh said that “the thing that probably cost him his place was his batting”. Peter Siddle was picked ahead for the opening Test at Perth and Joe Mennie was handed the debut at Hobart. But when Australia were blown away spectacularly in the two Tests, the Australian selectors regained their senses and brought Bird back in to the line-up.
How much his batting had improved in the interim is debatable. Bird did make his highest first-class score [39 runs off 71 balls] in shield cricket after being dropped but that's trivial considering he is a specialist bowler, and Test cricket is a sport for specialists. On his return to the side for the Day/Night Test at Adelaide, he took three wickets, and followed it with six at Brisbane vs Pakistan and another four at MCG before he was sent to the bench at Sydney, where Australia favored two spinners.
That will most probably be how Bird's contribution in this India series will go: making way for the two-spinner-two-pacer attack unless there is a pitch that suits the pacers (highly unlikely) or if there is injury to Josh Hazlewood or Mitchell Starc.
Even his debut, in 2012 at Melbourne versus Sri Lanka, Bird was drafted in to the playing XI as Australia looked to rest Mitchell Starc. However, Bird took the new ball along with Mitchell Johnson even as the more experienced Peter Siddle was in the side. In only his 10th delivery, Bird accounted for his first Test wicket, having Dimuth Karunaratne edging behind. Starc returned to the side in the following Test but with returns of 4/61 at MCG, Bird was handed the new ball again ahead of Siddle and Johnson.
A slightly unorthodox action, with elbows flying all over the place, Bird is the sort of bowler — steady and dependable — every side looks for in their third seamer, and the confidence that if one of the two leading seamers are out for any reason, he could slot in and do the job. It's almost like Bhuvaneshwar Kumar's role in the Indian side, who's picked only when one of the main pacers is out with injury or when the conditions warrant a third seamer, and the captain has complete faith in his abilities.
At Sydney against Sri Lanka following his debut, which also was Michael Hussey's last Test, Bird took the Man of the Match honours with a haul of 7/117 in the Test, once again impressing with the new ball. But it wouldn't be till the fourth Test of the 2013 Ashes at Durham that Bird was picked in the side but a disappointing return of 2/125 and the new management under Darren Lehmann meant Bird would not be in their plans till the tour to New Zealand early last year.
The first Test back at the Basin Reserve wasn't kind to Bird. He took the new ball alongside Hazlewood but it was at the Hagley Oval on a green first day pitch that flattened out to a batting beauty that Bird dismantled the Kiwi middle order to the tune of 5/59 in 17.1 overs, in the second innings. He proved his worth to the side by taking wickets when the conditions were harder for the pacers to be effective.
On two of the four venues in this series — Pune and Dharamsala — there is a real possibility of assistance to the pacers which opens the door for Bird to have a say in the series. It might be to Australia's advantage if they play to their strengths which is pacers. Teams that tour India tend to make the mistake of stacking their side with spinners to suit the prevailing conditions but almost always end up shooting themselves in the foot as their spinners cannot match the quality of Indian spinners, and that the Indian batsmen find it easier to negotiate opposition spinners rather than the pacers.
At the very least, if Bird is not picked for any or all of the Tests, we can be sure it won't bet his batting abilities that dictated the decision but the conditions or perhaps the flawed strategy of playing extra spinner(s) that plays in to India's hands.