India vs Australia: Steve Smith and Co will be hurt if they rely too much on bits and pieces players

Cricket Australia has made the long-awaited announcement of its Test squad to tour India in February and March. Australia’s poor record in Asia over the last decade and the memories of their 0-4 hammering the last time they toured India had made this announcement one of the most anticipated in recent memory, and have set off considerable debate.

Steve Smith will lead a side that has clearly been selected as a horses-for-courses squad for the spin-friendly conditions that will be encountered in India.

Australia have picked five spin-bowling options (Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Mitchell Swepson, Ashton Agar and Glenn Maxwell) in the hope that they can use the conditions to their advantage and take 20 wickets in the match. Lyon and O’Keefe are set to be the first choice options and Lyon, in particular, will be hoping to improve his record in Asia. It won’t, however, be easy against an Indian line-up that is very comfortable against slow bowling.

 India vs Australia: Steve Smith and Co will be hurt if they rely too much on bits and pieces players

Australian captain Steve Smith (L) and head coach Darren Lehmann. AFP

O’Keefe has been the leading spinner in domestic cricket for some time and his slightly round arm, accurate style of slow left-arm spin could be effective in India. O’Keefe’s bowling is in a similar mould to that of Ravindra Jadeja, neither being big turners of the ball, but relying on nagging accuracy and some assistance from the wicket to build pressure.

Uncapped leg-spinner Swepson is Australia’s third frontline spin option and he has been selected ahead of ODI and T20 leg-spinner Adam Zampa as he is a more attacking option. Swepson is relatively inexperienced but has come through Australia’s academy setup and is known for being a big spinner of the ball. However, if the young Swepson does play in India, he will have his work cut out, for even the legendary Shane Warne struggled in India and there is no doubt the Indian batsmen will target the young Queenslander.

The five spin-bowling options are joined by fast bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird and pace bowling all-rounder Mitchell Marsh who returns to the squad and replaces fellow West Australian Hilton Cartwright after his debut against Pakistan at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Shaun Marsh has also returned to the squad, a selection certainly based on his reputation for playing spin well and his impressive record in the subcontinent where he averages 79 from three Tests and has also been a regular in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The Australians will be hoping that Marsh can add to his impressive record and take some of the pressure off batting cornerstones Steve Smith and David Warner. The other specialist batsmen in the squad are Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb and the gritty young opener Matthew Renshaw.

Despite not having played red-ball cricket since breaking his finger against South Africa in November, Marsh’s inclusion is important, considering Renshaw and Handscomb haven’t played Test cricket in the subcontinent and Khawaja’s recent record in Asia is underwhelming. One would think Marsh will find his way into the starting eleven for the first Test in Pune from 23 February.

Matthew Wade is the sole wicketkeeper in the squad, although Handscomb can provide able backup, and his glovework in particular will be under the microscope. Wade was recalled to the Test side to replace Peter Nevill owing to his superior batting, but failed to deliver with a run of low scores against Pakistan. Nevill is the better glovesman of the two and may have been the better option to tour India – a country where wicketkeepers must be on their toes behind the stumps to account for the variable bounce and sharp turn.

In the attempt to cover all the bases for this tour, Australia have selected three all-rounders with different strengths. Glenn Maxwell, well known for his white ball exploits, will look to attack and take on the spinners and can chip in with some part-time off spin of his own. He will need to overcome his propensity for brain fades and adapt to the longer format to be an asset to his side during what will be a tough tour.

Ashton Agar is a bowling all-rounder who will bowl from higher and with more flight than his left-arm counterpart O’Keefe and is coming in with some good Sheffield Shield form with the ball behind him. Mitchell Marsh is the only seam-bowling all-rounder in the squad and has been recalled for being a better bowler than Cartwright. Marsh’s Test record, particularly with the bat, has been disappointing for a man of his talent and if he plays in India he will be expected to contribute runs in the middle order as well provide relief and support for Starc and Hazlewood.

Smith and coach Darren Lehmann would do well to learn from the mistakes England made in India. It’s all well and good to pick players who you think are suited to certain conditions, and it might seem like a good idea to pick players who can perform a multitude of different roles that are required in the subcontinent, but picking bits and pieces all-rounders who don’t excel in either skill is not the way to conquer India in India.

The squad selected is arguably the best possible one the selectors could have chosen, but the make-up and balance of the starting side will be crucial to any success Australia might have. Finding the right balance between picking a team for the conditions and playing to your strengths is very difficult for touring sides and the Australians will need their senior players – Smith, Warner, Starc, Hazlewood and Lyon – to step up to have any chance of winning.

With a largely inexperienced, albeit talented squad, playing in very alien conditions, it could be a long tour for Australia if they don’t get the balance right.

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Stephen O'Keefe, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade (wk).

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 08:37:24 IST