It was appropriate that Australia’s winning moment in the Adelaide Test came with two debutants: Matthew Renshaw and Peter Handscomb at the crease, because this was the result of a new era. After Australia handed debuts to three players and made four changes from the calamitous defeat in Hobart, this match took on significance despite being a dead-rubber at the end of a series. That they won, and that they did so with significant contributions from two of their debutants, will have been cathartic after two weeks of turmoil.
This was a victory that illustrated that Australian cricket – although it has its fair share of problems, some of them that run deep – still have some quality players and in particular a very strong bowling attack.
While Renshaw and Handscomb made valuable contributions to this result, Australia’s two standout players were Usman Khawaja and Nathan Lyon, two men who boast considerable experience, but in the last few months have failed to assume responsibility reflective of that.
Although Khawaja made runs in Perth, questions have been asked over his ability to score runs in difficult situation, and if it wasn’t for an injury to Stephen O’Keefe, it is entirely possible that Lyon would have been dropped for this Test. That these two men made telling contributions in this match was as emblematic of a new era as the performances of their debutants. As much as Australia need new talent, they also need Khawaja and Lyon to bridge the gap between Steven Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and the rest.
Khawaja’s first innings century was certainly one scored in difficult situations. Even discounting the background to the Adelaide Test, this was a hundred scored under immense pressure simply because of the match situation. Having been forced to open the batting by Faf du Plessis’ cheeky declaration, something Khawaja admitted annoyed him, he remained unflappable and once Australia were reduced to 37 for 2 with the dismissal of Warner, he took it upon himself to anchor the innings: he faced 42 percent of Australia’s deliveries.
The conditions in this match were not as favourable to seam bowlers as they had been in the day-night Test last year, with less grass on the pitch and fractionally less seam movement on offer. As a result, it was critical that Lyon played his role, particularly in the second innings. The pitch showed signs of turn as early as day one and on the third day, Lyon bowled with exemplary control of line and particularly length, to capitalise on the opportunity provided by the scoreboard pressure established by a first innings lead.
The performances of Renshaw and Handscomb were of course significant. In Renshaw, Australia appear – and it is important to stress these are very early days – to have found an opener in the Chris Rogers mould who can occupy the crease and provide the perfect foil for the aggression of Warner. Renshaw left with caution outside off stump and was resolute in defence, attributes that bode well for the future, particularly with Pakistan’s much-vaunted pace attack being Australia’s next opposition.
The performance of Handscomb went beyond merely his innings and his runs. The very presence of him in the team, given his notably unconventional technique, for a country averse to selecting such players, was significant. Especially after a week in which questions were being asked about very fundamental aspects of the Australian system, and indeed whether its production line of powerful, top-handed batsmen who go hard at the ball is a weakness that is exposed as soon as the ball moves laterally. Glenn Maxwell aside, Handscomb is arguably the most unconventional player to debut for Australia since Steve Smith, and that’s no bad thing.
In Warner, Renshaw, Khawaja, Smith, and Handscomb Australia have the makings of a strong batting order, and with a strong bowling attack, quite suddenly things are not looking quite so gloomy. It would be wrong of course to hold this victory up as an example of the strengths of the Australian system. Deep flaws have been exposed by the events of the last few months and one win does not change that.
For South Africa this was naturally a disappointing result but one that should not tarnish an otherwise sensational achievement to win their third consecutive Test series in Australia. Du Plessis’ first innings hundred was a momentous one after the tampering saga while Stephen Cook’s second innings hundred adds another intriguing dynamic to the selection debate that must now ensue with AB de Villiers set to return to the team. However, these are debates that can and should wait. In this series, South Africa suggested that the downturn that had begun earlier this year with defeat at home to England, is over. The future, perhaps for both these nations, is bright.