Over the years, Australia have hardly been as dominant in T20Is as they have been in the two longer versions of the game. They have been brilliant on some days and produced pretty mediocre performances on others. And those 'other days’ have mostly turned out to be crucial matches of ICC tournaments or matches that have cost them series.
The Australian selectors have realised that there is an increasing demand for situational specialists over role-specific specialists in the T20 format.
T20s are won in particular situations and one big moment. Like a Test match can be won in particular sessions. So, T20 needs situational specialists - players who can perform under pressure in crucial situtions, like Andrew Tye does it in the death overs, or Glenn Maxwell makes use of the powerplays. You can afford to have bits and pieces cricketers in T20 cricket if their situational skill set is better than regular role-specific specialists, who are only fit to play a particular role in the team but their situational skill set may not be that good.
For example, Hashim Amla is a classic opener. You would choose him in ODIs and Tests with your eyes closed. But, if one has to choose between him and David Warner in T20s, he would have to go with Warner because the latter specialises in playing in all three situations of the game - powerplays, middle overs and in the slog overs.
It is the same with Finch whose situational value is more than someone like Amla who is largely a role specialist.
It's like weighing the players according to situational abilities and picking the one who is more skilled at performing better in different situations.
So the Australian selectors have finally acknowledged the need to look beyond regular ODI and Test playing names and address some much-required specific structural and situational role changes in the T20I squad.
One such crucial change has been the change in the batting position of Aaron Finch from the top to the middle order. On return from his injury against England in the third T20I of the ongoing tri-series in Melbourne on Saturday, the Australian think tank decided to accommodate him at No 5 without sacrificing the Big Bash League (BBL) sensation D’Arcy Short’s preferred opening position.
The move worked pretty well for them as Short remained unbeaten on 33 and Finch smashed his way to an unbeaten 20 runs off just five deliveries, ensuring a third straight victory in the tournament, by seven-wickets.
Finch’s presence in the middle order will allow players like Chris Lynn and Glenn Maxwell to reach the full potential of their hard-hitting abilities. That was visible on Saturday as both of them lit up the ground with their flamboyance and exuberance even though they were chasing a total as low as 138.
They will now know that even if either of them gets dismissed for a low score there is someone of the calibre of Finch after them who can play the same role towards the end of the innings. So, it will allow the whole Australian batting line-up to maximise their returns from the middle overs.
Moreover, Finch is someone who can control the pace of the innings well along with having the ability to tame even quality spinners. He is someone who can hit the ball out of the park from the word go and can even play the anchor's role in case things go awry at the top.
It might seem bit of an exaggeration to rate Finch as a top quality middle order batsman considering the fact that he has played in the middle order only three times in his international career so far. However, those who remember his exploits in the middle order for the Gujarat Lions during the 2016 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), know his true value and potential as a middle order batsman, at least in T20s.
He kept juggling between the opening and No 5 slots during that IPL season as the Lions were struggling to get their batting line-up right. Finch was the one who helped them balance the batting order by batting at different positions as and when necessary.
“He was outstanding for us. He played in some different roles for us. He started off at the top of the order and performed brilliantly, (then) got injured, Dwayne Smith came in and he played really well. So Finchy put his hand up for us and said, 'I'll bat in the middle for us then.' And he did it, and played brilliantly again,” Brendon McCullum, who played with Finch for the Lions during that season, said in an interview with cricket.com.au back in 2016.
Out of the total tally of 393 runs he scored in that edition, 193 of them came while bating at No 5 in a total of five matches and that too at an average of 48.25 - something way better than his IPL career average of 27.65.
Those runs in the middle order consisted of two half-centuries and all of them came at crucial situations when the team was in trouble. His overall strike rate of 133.10 in the middle order in that season reveals how he successfully maintained the free flow of runs while digging his team out of trouble.
“He probably learnt a lot from playing a different role. Because he’s still young in the game, he’ll benefit hugely from that. His ability to come in and straightaway attack the spinners. Not just being able to manipulate them in the field but actually being able to clear the ropes against them and create a strike rate from ball one,” McCullum added in that interview.
Finch had a reasonably good IPL 2017 as well, scoring a total of 300 runs in 13 matches, this time batting mostly at the top of the order.
In fact, the first time he batted in the middle order for Australia in limited-overs cricket was way back in 2011 in a T20I against England in Melbourne. Having walked out to bat at No 6, Finch scored an unbeaten 53, at a massive strike rate of 160.6. That reveals Finch’s ability to adapt to any drastic change quickly in order to fit the requirements of the team.
Getting their T20I batting line-up right has been the biggest headache for the Australian selectors in recent times. Despite having good batsmen in their line-up, what they have lacked so far is enough firepower in the middle order.
Someone like Steve Smith is a very good batsman in the longer versions of the game, but on most occasions, consumes some precious time and deliveries to get going in the shortest version of the game.
While the word is that Smith has been rested for this series, the selectors themselves know that it wouldn’t be a bad move to keep Smith limited to playing Tests and ODIs. It’s not that he is not a good T20 player, it’s just that there are better T20 players like Maxwell and Lynn, either of whom has to keep waiting on the fringes if Smith is there in the playing XI by default.
And Finch’s move down the order allows Australia to take such a bold step also as they are not sacrificing the situational and structural requirements of the team with that replacement. Moreover, with an excellent captaincy option in Warner, there is no issue with leading the side as well in Smith’s absence from T20Is.
Considering the way Finch is confident of his abilities as a batsman and the versatility he has shown, finding success in this new position for his country should not be a problem. He has over 6,000 runs to his name in over 200 T20 matches at an average of 34.28 and strike rate of 139.02. Those figures are massive and tell about his consistent run-scoring ability, which is a rare thing in T20 cricket.
Even McCullum had voiced the same opinion about his consistency in the interview with cricket.com.au.
"I think Finchy’s a magnificent player in T20 cricket. He’s destructive, he’s got touch, he’s got craft, he can pace an innings, or he can win you a game on his own. His record and his consistency in an inconsistent game is something to applaud."
For now, the selectors have taken just their first step towards converting Finch into a full-fledged middle order batsman. Only time will tell if he can transform his IPL success into international success as well. And Finch will be pretty eager to come out on top with flying colours once again.
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