SYDNEY: Australia’s humbling series defeat to India left selectors to pick through the rubble on Tuesday as they face tough decisions with two Tests looming against Sri Lanka and then an Ashes tour of England.
Their 2-1 capitulation — the first time India has won a series Down Under in 71 years of trying — stemmed from batting failures and a bowling attack that struggled to tame some of the world’s top players.
The squad to play Sri Lanka in the first Test later this month in Brisbane is expected to be announced on Wednesday, with few standout performances to offer much encouragement.
With the banned Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft all missing for the India series, it had opened the door to a host of fringe Test cricketers including Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne and Marcus Harris.
Harris, handed his debut in Adelaide, was the only one to categorically demand future consideration.
Senior players like Usman Khawaja failed to consistently stand up while the Marsh brothers, Shaun and Mitchell, again disappointed.
There are also question marks over Mitchell Starc, long Australia’s main strike bowler but who didn’t perform as expected.
The Australian broadsheet lamented a ‘summer of lost opportunities’ after the curtain came down on a rain-affected Sydney Test, where Australia was forced to follow on at home for the first time in 31 years.
Despite the doom and gloom, skipper Tim Paine said selectors’ options were limited, with few people knocking on the door.
“In an ideal world, yes [there would be more players coming through], but that’s nothing we as a playing group can control,” he said. “All we can control is how hard we are working. We’ve said numerous times we are trying our absolute backsides off. We’ve got what we’ve got and our playing group is working as hard as we can to improve.”
Paine and head coach Justin Langer have often spoken of the need to pick and stick to try and build a settled team, but the pressure is mounting.
Names being touted in the media as possible contenders include Matthew Wade, Joe Burns, Matt Renshaw and even Bancroft, who has only just returned from his ball-tampering ban.
There has also been a push by several former top players to hand all-rounder Marcus Stoinis a chance.
Paine insisted there has been something to gain from the loss to India.
“It’s the experience at this level that those guys have got now that they wouldn’t have got,” he said. “If we get to the Ashes and Marcus, Travis and Marnus are playing they understand now the pressure and magnitude of the situation on them.
“You don’t experience that anywhere but when you walk out in Test cricket. For them to have the experience they now go away, train and know what to expect and know where they need to improve.”
Former England captain Mike Atherton, writing in The Australian, laid much of the blame for the batting woes on a degrading of the importance of the four-day domestic Sheffield Shield competition, once the envy of the world.
This used to be where Test batsmen honed their skills but few have time now to play, with an explosion of the limited overs game.
“A lesson from afar is that you tamper with your premier competition at your peril,” he said.
Another ex-England skipper Michael Vaughan was more brutal in his assessment of Australia’s problems.
“If you think Australia’s problems will be solved the moment Steve Smith and David Warner are available for selection again then you are wrong,” he said in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald. “They have issues that run far deeper than two players. Batting, bowling, selection and tactics were poor against India, and Australia have to admit they were just not good enough.”
Australia are ‘kidding themselves’ if they think the return of Steve Smith and David Warner is the answer to all their problems and a serious overhaul is needed if they are to win the Ashes this year, Vaughan further said.
Former captain Smith and his vice-captain Warner are serving 12-month bans for their role in a ball-tampering scandal in South Africa last year and are not available for selection until the end of March.
While Australia have undoubtedly struggled in the pair’s absence, Vaughan said the team’s problems ran much deeper and the Ashes series in England would highlight their deficiencies unless big changes were made.
“I cannot see Australia beating England this summer unless they assess themselves brutally,” Vaughan wrote. “Batting techniques have to be better and they need to be more consistent with the ball. Every facet of their test team has to improve. They are kidding themselves if they think everything will be rosy when Smith and Warner come back.”
Australia have passed 300 runs just three times in 14 innings since Warner and Smith were banned last March, with a highest score of 362-8, and Vaughan said the team were not producing enough runs to make them competitive.
“On flat, good batting pitches, Australia really struggled as it is on those tracks that weaknesses are highlighted,” Vaughan said of their performances during the India series. “A batting unit’s defences are tested because it is necessary to bat for long periods. Australia are unable to play long innings. “They look like a team who can score 250-300, and that is good enough on sporting pitches, but not when it is flat.”