India vs Australia: Peter Handscomb awaits stern test of playing spin against Ashwin, Jadeja
As much as experts have said, Handscomb is good against spin, he still has ways to go. So this series will be a serious education in handling spin for him.
As William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune", which led to the more common phrase, "Timing is everything". No phrase would describe the innings that Peter Handscomb played over two days on 17-18 November, 2016 more aptly than that.
Batting at No 4 for his state side Victoria against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), Handscomb made his first double century in first class cricket - 215 off 356 balls. In the New South Wales side were Steve Smith and David Warner, captain and vice-captain of Australia, and also in attendance was selector Mark Waugh.
That particular match, as luck would have it, was scheduled for the gap between the second and third Tests of the Australia-South Africa series, at Hobart and Adelaide (day-night) respectively. But it assumed career-defining proportions when Australia were swept aside in the first two Tests, and there were calls for regeneration of the national side with an influx of youth.
Handscomb was already in the radar of the selectors as a possible middle-order option as his sequence of scores leading in to that Shield match would indicate: 112, 61*, 4, 14, 137, 87, 24, 78, 10, 60, 110*. That he scored his maiden first class double hundred in the presence of the people who mattered, and against a bowling lineup that included Nathan Lyon, Steven O'Keefe, Doug Bollinger and Trent Copeland (all current or former Test bowlers) certainly must have convinced the powers that be to include him for the Adelaide Test, and so he was. At that point, Handscomb had scored more Shield runs than any other batsmen since the beginning of previous summer (1,147 runs at an average of 52.13), and hence, it was an easy choice for the selectors to include him in the side in the place of Adam Voges.
On debut, he managed a composed half century, and even scored the winning run. Handscomb has been known to be a good player of spin, and it was appropriate that the winning run came off a shot in which he danced down the wicket and flicked the delivery from South Africa's Tabraiz Shamsi to mid-wicket.
As he awaits the thorough examination of his ability to play spin against the two top-ranked bowlers in the world - Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja - his batting average is at a Bradman-esque 99.75. But he will be served well if he remembers Voges - the man he replaced in the team - also had such a blistering beginning to his 20-Test career.
Handscomb became one of only five men to make a 50-plus score in each of his first three Tests for Australia. After his debut 54 against South Africa, he toyed with the Pakistani bowlers to the tune of 344 runs at an average of 114.6. 105, 35*, 54, DNB, 110, 40* were his scores in the three Tests against Pakistan.
A peculiar stance - both of his feet are within the batting crease - and the bat raised vertical on the backlift as the bowler gets ready to deliver, have allowed Handscomb to play the ball late and off the square comfortably. His technique will be tested as the bounce becomes uneven, and the turn is unpredicatable, as it is sure to happen in India with highly skilful bowlers operating. He will have to display nimble footwork and soft hands while playing the ball in India.
He, however, possesses playing experience in India; with Australia A in 2015 and as a member of the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Rising Pune Supergiant. In the two unofficial Tests against India A in Chennai, he top-scored for his side with 91, but had twin failures - ducks - after that. As much as experts have said, he is good against spin, he still has ways to go. So this series will be a serious education in handling spin for him, and will hold him in good stead in the future.
He brings further value to the side as a sharp close-in fielder at short leg, and as back up wicket keeper to Matthew Wade, from his days behind the stumps for Victoria. He, in fact, made his ODI debut as wicket-keeper taking over from the ill Wade in New Zealand recently.
The son of British parents, born in Australia, and a talented tennis player at junior level, Handscomb will need all his sporting talent and instincts to survive and thrive in conditions that he may never have faced, and against bowlers that are on the top of their game. But if his well-timed double century ahead of national selection under watchful eyes is anything to go by, the pressure of the occasion will not overawe him. An impressive series in India - the hardest place for visitors in cricket - would set him up for the rest of his career.
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