Australia have hit a roadblock in One-Day Internationals (ODI). The reigning champions in the 50-over format and five time winners overall have now lost their last four bilateral ODI series. They have lost 14 of their last 16 matches. Since their World Cup triumph on home soil in 2015, Australia have lost more matches than they have won. Last year at the Champions Trophy, they failed to advance beyond the group stage. According to the ICC rankings, the men in yellow have slid to sixth on the ODI table, a 34-year low in their rich history.
On Tuesday, Australia slumped further as the English batsmen battered their bowlers into submission by plundering a world-record score of 481/6. So where has it gone wrong for the world champions?
The numbers and data will highlight the deficiencies, but injuries, suspensions and loss of form have played a huge part. The three instrumental figures in the 2015 World Cup victory were Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner. The three filled key roles — that of a key batsman, a strike bowler and an all-rounder — that ensured perfect balance to the playing XI.
Out of the three, Faulkner’s art of bowling back-of-the-hand slower balls and his power hitting with the bat has diminished so rapidly that he is not even part of the Cricket Australia's contracted players. For the last 12 months, Australia have tried desperately to find that bowling all-rounder capable of delivering in the death overs and batting at No 7, but are yet to find a sturdy replacement.
Mitchell Marsh and Marcus Stoinis have been tried, but both are batting all-rounders, as is Moises Henriques. The struggle to find that ideal all-rounder has resulted in plenty of chopping and changing, and often has resulted in poor selection.
Australia have used 42 different players, the third most among nations, since 2015. Add to that the fact that five different men have captained the ODI team in that period. A lot of it is also due to injuries, but it also illustrates the fact that the bench strength is not quite capable of meeting international standards.
Captain Smith has continued to churn out the runs, but such has been the demands on him that he even admitted to be being ‘burnt out’ during the ODI loss to England earlier this year. Smith has spent a lot of time batting in Tests, and the sole reliability on him has left him mentally drained and has affected his ODI performances.
While Smith’s figures make for a decent reading, having averaged 42.77 in last three years, the expectation of holding down the batting order has prevented him from expanding his game in the ODI format. Also, the inability of the middle order to cope against spin has meant Smith has had to hold down the fort, and it has resulted in Australia stalling during the middle overs. Interestingly enough, Smith’s strike rate of 84.1 is the lowest among the top 15 leading run-scorers since the 2015 World Cup.
Starc, the third man and possibly the most vital member of the Australian ODI team, has only played in 31 of Australia’s 57 matches since the World Cup. The left-arm pacer's wicket-taking ability with the new ball and his searing yorkers in the death overs are so vital to Australia’s success that with him in the playing XI, there winning percentage jumps to 59 percent. Without him, the Australian pace bowling unit looks extremely vulnerable and impotent.
Perhaps the biggest issue confronting coach Justin Langer is spin bowling. In an era of wrist spinners dominating white-ball cricket, Australian selectors appeared to have Ashton Agar and Nathan Lyon. Adam Zampa’s figures are still quite impressive, with an economy rate of 5.68 and an average of 33, but the leg-spinner has rarely been backed by Smith, resulting in Zampa losing confidence and eventually losing his place.
For the past 12 months, Australia has constantly taken the approach of filling the spinning duties with Travis Head and Glenn Maxwell rather than picking a specialist wrist spinner capable of taking wickets during the middle overs. Australia might want to look at the composition of the top three teams in ODI cricket, which will make them realise that each of them have a leg-spin option — Adil Rashid for England, Yuzvendra Chahal for India and Imran Tahir for South Africa.
While the top three have done quite well, the lack of consistency in middle order is an area Langer needs to resurrect quickly. After playing 84 ODIs, Maxwell still remains an enigma; his shot selection and temperament seems to have stagnated. Head, earmarked as the long-term No 4, has constantly been shifted up and down the order. There has been no stability or creativity. As Smith put it bluntly “we need to start looking at other teams on how they play their cricket.”
England has certainly taught Australia a lesson in their past two series and if Langer wants to coach his country to record sixth title, he needs to start finding solutions soon, or face the prospect of Australia not even qualifying beyond the group stages at the next’s year World Cup in England.