Struggling opener Aaron Finch appears likely to stay at the top of the Australian batting order for the final Test of the series against India at the SCG through a lack of other options in the squad. Coach Justin Langer insisted the white-ball captain would “be better” for learning how to juggle three formats after the fashion of Steven Smith and David Warner.
In adding yet another middle-order batsman to the Sydney squad in Marnus Labuschagne, the Australian selectors left themselves short of top-order options. Among the eight batsman now available, only Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja and Finch have experience as openers. Should Khawaja be moved up to open with Harris in place of Finch, this would create another issue as all of Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Peter Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh and Labuschagne prefer to bat at Nos. 4, 5 or 6.
With this in mind, Langer was left to state that Finch needed to take on the lessons of the series so far, where his technical wherewithal to deal with the likes of Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah has been tested to its very limits and beyond. An ill-advised attempt to cut at Bumrah second ball he faced in Australia’s second innings summed up the accumulated mental toll of the series on minds that are unseasoned as to the wages of extended Test match jousting.
“Something we’re talking about obviously,” Langer said of Finch’s position. “He’s having a bit of a lean run of it although he’s got a couple of 50s. Got a 100 run partnership one Test match ago and that set up the whole Test match for us. Finch is a really good player, we know that, he’s great in the team, he’s working harder probably than he’s ever worked and as I’ve said to him for some time he’s in this uncharted territory where he’s the only guy playing all three forms of the game.
“We saw Warner do it for a while and Smith do it for a while and he’s a great example of how to prepare now. He’s got to somehow recharge his batteries over and over and over again. It’s a great challenge for him at the moment. He’ll be better for this period I think. Test cricket is about toughness and character and he’ll be better for this period,” Langer said.
Among the defining characteristics of a Test series is the sustained nature of contests between opponents, as the same batsmen and bowlers fight each other in different cities and varying conditions. As the former Test opener Ed Cowan wrote in an ESPNcricinfo column about his first series, also against India in 2011-12, “A lengthy timescale in such psychological battles also allows for the pronouncement of “bunnies”. I now understand how the disintegration of Daryl Cullinan by Shane Warne took place. There was simply nowhere to hide.” Langer said it had been challenging to mentor a team where the majority of the batsmen were experiencing this all at once.
“I remember at the end of our careers when we had the most experienced [team], I think we got called Dad’s Army in our last Test series and we’d played a bit of cricket and I remember how tiring it was for us, every Test match,” Langer said. “There’s some physical tiredness but just the mental drain of Test cricket, honestly it’s relentless. And then with these guys one of the hardest things about Test cricket is one of the distractions, so they’re learning on the run actually.
“Got a lot of guys learning on the run at the same time actually so not easy for them but that’s OK, we’ll collectively be better for it, like Finchy, we’ll collectively be better for it over time. Just got to make sure we stay in this contest and be great at the end of it – India have come here determined to win this series, we know that, we see that in everything they’ve done since day one. It would be nice for us to send them home drawing the series not winning it.”
Asked about the system underpinning Australia’s batting production line, Langer acknowledged there was a wider sense that opportunities were being afforded to players, at club, state and international level, who had not earned them in the time-honoured way of churning out consistent runs over time. But he also pointed out that teams still needed to be chosen for matches regardless of performance, adding complexity to the job of the selectors.
“Most of our batters who are knocking on the door are averaging in the 30s and that’s probably not… whether it’s the system I’m not sure,” Langer said. “Whether it’s something we’ve got to change in our psyche, I’m not sure. Specifically about the system you’re asking but it would suggest we’ve got – the art of batting, we’ve got some work to do on it.
“We’ve got to be careful not to reward poor performances. But again, trust me, try being a selector at the moment. I’m not – that’s part of our job. It’s not as if the guys are absolutely banging the door down. Whether it’s from second grade cricket to A grade cricket, progression is everything that we want. If you’re talking to some A grade or 2nd grade coaches, [they’d say] we’re playing kids who probably don’t deserve to play A grade or second grade. But it’s where we’re at at the moment. It’s something everyone is looking at. We want to work on getting better.”
As for the complaints raised by the captain Tim Paine about some of the surfaces offered up to visiting teams in Australia, not least an MCG surface that was slow and to the advantage of India’s methodical, skillful approach, Langer stopped short of similar criticism but agreed he would prefer more bounce and pace than what had been seen in Melbourne. “I love playing at the WACA and I love playing at the Adelaide oval, a bit of pace and bounce,” he said. “I guess all I’d say is all the years we’ve gone to India we haven’t had too many bouncy wickets, it usually spins square. But its also our way in Australia to just produce the best wickets we can.
“We’re interested to see what we’re going to get in Sydney next week, we’re not sure, been a bit inconsistent. India played a practice game there and it was very flat and Shield game there a few weeks ago it’s very flat. We certainly hope it’s not. Saw in the press, most important thing in Test cricket aside from absorbing pressure from our batters is the wickets we play on.
“Because you want to see a great contest and in Melbourne the last couple of days were more of a contest but that was because the wicket deteriorated and you want to see a good contest. Want to see a contest from bat and ball. From Australian perspective you’ve got three of the best fast bowlers in the world and a gun spinner you’d like to see a bit more bounce.”
Apart from setting an example of Finch to follow in terms of the format juggle, Smith and Warner have been in plenty of headlines over the past week, not least due to the interviews Smith and Cameron Bancroft conducted for the host broadcaster Fox Cricket. Langer, midway through his first summer as head coach, responded wearily to the ongoing saga. “It’s all just part of the soap opera we’re in every day,” he said. “I feel like a director of a soap opera at the moment, I honestly do.
“That’s part of coaching – it’s man management, looking after people and caring for people. That was just another distraction last week. There’s different ways you can look at those interviews. so it’s just another part of our day to day job. We’re in touch with the boys all the time, there’s a really good process we’re going to go through to get the boys back into the team. It was great to see Cameron playing last night. It’s part of the soap opera.”