Before play on day four of the Melbourne Test, Justin Langer was asked to assess the performance of Australia’s opening batsmen in this series.
“It hasn’t been great,” the Australian coach replied. It was an understatement to rank with Ajinkya Rahane’s comment that India had merely put in a few bad sessions in Adelaide.
The more pertinent questions might have been: why was Joe Burns, as short on form as any Australian Test batsman of recent times, selected in the first place? And what function does Australia’s battalion of coaches actually perform if Burns and Travis Head are being sent into the fray with technical deficiencies so glaringly obvious to even untrained eyes?
There was an acute sense of missed opportunities on day four at the MCG, where it was not enough that the Australian tail wagged to set India 70 for victory. They achieved it with eight wickets to spare.
In the morning, rookie Cameron Green showed that any batsman prepared to wait for the right ball would have cashed in and ensured a far trickier chase for India. Pat Cummins survived longer than Burns, Head, Steve Smith and Tim Paine combined.
Green’s square drive to the fence off Jasprit Bumrah that moved him into the 40s hinted at lavish talents, but more impressive was his ability to learn from his mistake of the first innings, when he fell to the off side and was trapped by Mohammed Siraj’s in-swing. Other Australians repeated their errors. The corollary crime was denying Melburnians a longer look at Shubman Gill.
There is some symmetry to Australia’s anaemic batting efforts. Two summers ago, the absence of the suspended David Warner and Smith — the latter present in this series but so-far neutralised — cleared the way for India’s historic first series win on Australian soil.
The question is what transformative impact Warner will have if he returns in a week’s time in Sydney.
We know his image as a flat-track bully, averaging 65.94 at home against 33.17 on foreign soil. But his home averages against Pakistan (140.83), New Zealand (80.15) and West Indies (75.33) obscure his more human performances against India (49.5), against whom he’s scored in giant clumps or not at all.
It is safe to say Australia needs a few of those giant clumps.
Beside the loss of Warner’s runs, attitude and basic intimidation factor, his absence has revealed unacknowledged weaknesses elsewhere.
There has always been a tendency to focus on his strike rate and boundary-hitting sprees, which take scoring pressure off his batting partners. But equally valuable is his general busyness and rotation of the strike — a fundamental strength of the best openers, and a building block of the sorts of long partnerships Australia has lacked in the last fortnight.
By contrast, even when Smith and Marnus Labuschagne are making runs, their running between the wickets is a liability and they’re usually completely absorbed in their own batting worlds.
Warner has been accused of a certain unsophistication at times, but it can also be a virtue in a team sport because it keeps things simple and predictable for those around him.
The two Tests so far have also shown how difficult it is to replicate Warner’s combination of symbolic and statistical output.
In the first innings at Melbourne, Matthew Wade took his mantle of provocateur but got too aggressive too quickly with the bat, holing out when he was settled and ascendant. In the second innings, Wade seemed to expend half his energy in a war of insults with Rishabh Pant, but he was forced into a stodgier hand than he’d normally play, so pressure built at the other end.
Wade’s application provided a compelling case to keep him in the team. Ideally, he’ll be dropped down to number five, squeezing out Head, who can no longer hide behind a Test average skewed by his boot-filling series against the subpar Sri Lankans of two summers ago.
Australia would then use whichever combination of Warner, Will Pucovski and Marcus Harris is available. If fit, it will be the first two. The neglected specialist inside Australia’s quarantine bubble, Harris has surely chewed his fingernails to nubs watching Burns scratch around.
Australia’s misfortune is that its next-generational batting talent is so prone to injury. Like Warner, Pucovski is racing against time to prove himself fit for the Test debut he would have made in Adelaide if not for the latest in a series of worrying head knocks. They are the only blot on an impressive copy book. His 495 Sheffield Shield runs at an average of 247.5 this season have included two double-centuries.
With Pucovski comes a degree of the unknown. Warner, on the other hand, is the man who is never uncertain, never down on confidence, never rustled, never wrong, and never short of the unshakeable belief that he can bend the bowlers to his will and win the game off his own bat.
English cricket writer Rob Smyth once labelled him “a bad guy who is emphatically good for the game”. Right now, he’s also what Australia is sorely missing.