As Australia mentally prepares for a gruelling tour of India, one curious characteristic of captain Stephen Smith is being ignored. This is Smith’s attitude towards spin and spinners when it comes to any form of cricket.
In India, any international team that wants to win a Test series must have a decent spin attack. This has become the case in recent years; the last time a team won in India was when England did so in 2012. They had Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann in their ranks.
During the three-Test series against Pakistan that concluded recently, Smith showed a curious reluctance to give the side’s only spinner, Nathan Lyon, a lengthy stint. He mostly depended on the medium-pacers and since Australia won all three Tests there were no questions raised.
His attitude towards spin was underlined in the second one-day game against Pakistan — in which the visitors registered a win at the MCG after 32 years — where he allowed Travis Head, one of two players who was expected to comprise the spin contingent, just three overs, one of them being the last of the match.
Pakistan bowled first, and 24 of the 50 overs were sent down by spinners. Some of these spin bowlers were part-timers: Mohammad Hafeez, the captain, is also the opening batsman, and Shoaib Malik bats at number five. They managed to contain Australia to 220, on a wicket that had uncertain bounce, but no great degree of turn.
Thus, Smith’s refusal to use spin is rather perplexing, even more so when one considers the fact that Head had bowled 10 overs against Pakistan in the first one-day game and given away just 28 runs.
Head’s first over went for 11 and after that he was kept away from the bowling crease until the 46th over, when it was all over bar the shouting. Pakistan’s winning run came from a wide bowled by Head.
So how will Smith adjust to the reality of spin in India? The Australian squad named for the tour has four spinners in its ranks: Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Mitchell Swepson and Ashton Agar. How will Smith utilise these resources? He has only three recognised medium-pacers in the team: Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird.
The last time Australia toured India in 2013, it was an unmitigated disaster ending in a 4-0 brownwash. But Lyon did take seven wickets in the final Test in Delhi in a relatively low-scoring game. Glenn Maxwell had 4-127 in the second Test which Australia lost by an innings. Xavier Doherty, the other spinner in the ranks, did nothing to set the Yarra on fire.
Will Smith treat the spinners the same way that he has so far in his career? Will he display the same reluctance to bowl Lyon and the others? This is his first tour of India as captain and while he did play in two Tests on the losing 2013 tour, his experience of the country is very limited.
One aspect of the squad which defies explanation is the selection of a leg-spinner. No leggie, not even Shane Warne, has done well in Indian conditions. (Indeed, Warne has never done well against Indian batsmen, no matter the venue.) Then why take a leggie along, especially an uncapped one? Will he be thrown into the cauldron (and in India the use of the word cauldron is apt) and asked to take five wickets in order to keep his place in the side? Will it be another case of a youngster going along for one tour and then being discarded?
We should have answers to these questions by the end of March.