No Meg Lanning, no worries? Australia finds a way without its talismanic batter

When the Australian men’s team set its record streak of 21 wins in one-day internationals, it did so with Ricky Ponting batting at number three.

This was the man who would finish as history’s most prolific first drop, scoring an edificial 12,662 runs from 335 matches.

When the Australian women’s team equalled that record on Wednesday this week, it did so with a number three who was playing her third match, batting in her second innings, and was still a week shy of her 19th birthday.

That made Annabel Sutherland the youngest player ever to bat first drop for an Australian side — men’s or women’s — in any format.

She was in the team as a bowler and got promoted on impulse when her captain Meg Lanning took a precautionary injury rest.

The move worked well enough: Sutherland made a slow but stable 35 that helped set a foundation of 222 with 10 overs to go, something the late-innings hitters turned into 325.

Ponting and Sutherland’s contrast sums up their respective teams. The 2003 streak was built on extraordinary practitioners of individual roles: names like Gilchrist, Hayden, Martyn, Bevan, Symonds, Watson, Harvey, Lee, Bichel.

Meg Lanning (left) and Annabel Sutherland (right) run between wickets for the Australian women's cricket team.Meg Lanning (left) and Annabel Sutherland (right) run between wickets for the Australian women's cricket team.
Annabel Sutherland (right) played the stoic Meg Lanning (left) role for Australia against New Zealand.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

The modern women’s team is built on adaptability. At any time in the past three years, seven or eight players on a given team have been proper bowling options, while nine or even 10 have been legitimate with the bat.

This is how Lanning’s teammates were able to so effectively cover her absence, with Sutherland moving up from number seven and fellow all-rounder Tahlia McGrath coming into that spot.

Lanning surpasses Ponting’s percentages

Lanning has been to her team as Ponting was to his. Both batting prodigies who became hard-edged captains and aggressive run-scorers batting at third in the order.

Ponting missed one match in his team’s streak, contributing 738 runs and averaging 52. Lanning missed two, making 857 at 57. Both made three centuries.

Proportionally speaking, Lanning’s tally of 2758 runs from 53 matches at first drop surpasses even Ponting. From 15.8 per cent as many matches she has made 21.8 per cent as many runs and 37.9 per cent as many centuries.

As far as captaincy goes, Ponting remains the most successful in men’s ODIs with a win rate of 76 per cent, while Lanning leads all comers with 87 per cent.

For the record-equalling win, you can see why it took two other players to replace her. Sutherland and McGrath effectively combined to offer what Lanning does: namely, a blend of control and of dominance.

Through the first two matches in the just-concluded series against New Zealand this was on display.

In the first match she scored two runs to deep cover, amongst a dozen scoreless deliveries, but when bowler Sophie Devine first slipped in line onto Lanning’s leg stump, she picked up the ball with a flick over square leg for six.

In the second match, after a 14-over stretch in which Lanning faced 29 deliveries and scored nothing but 16 singles, she received the same delivery from Devine and played the exact same shot. Same result.

Youngsters holding their own

The mark of the best players is that even when they’re not motoring, and even when things may be difficult, they don’t miss out on their easier opportunities. They’re ready to take full toll. Lanning did.

Sutherland as a young emerging player doesn’t have that kind of confidence yet. She does have a remarkable degree of calm for her age, and managed not to get flustered while driving nicely and neatly but repeatedly to the field.

With her stand-in captain Rachael Haynes scoring quickly at the other end, Sutherland did the Lanning job of keeping stability in the innings after the first wicket had fallen.

Once she had gone and McGrath got a late chance to bat, the new inclusion provided the other half of Lanning’s game: the power.

Four balls to the rope and one to clear it in the final two overs of the innings gave her 29 from 11 balls. Nobody in the women’s game (where data is available) has scored that many or more at a faster rate.

Consolidation and destruction, and in the end Australia’s permanent captain was not required in the win that will be defining for her team, her era, her legacy.

Haynes as deputy captain has done an excellent job when required in the last three years.

Of course, Lanning’s team now has the opportunity to go beyond Ponting’s.

The question is when that chance will come, with pandemic uncertainty ruining the already sparse scheduling of women’s international cricket.

It is telling that the men’s team set its 21-game streak in just over four months. The women’s team has needed almost three years to play as many matches.

Instead of letting frustration be a distraction, these players have focused on the numbers within their control. On those measurements, at least, they have created equality for themselves.