“In search of a finisher, Australia is getting finished,” said Ian Bishop in the commentary box as Australia crumbled from 101 for three to 140 all out while chasing 196 in the second T20I against West Indies. Eloquent as ever, Bishop could not have summed it better. In the previous game, they flunked when the equation demanded 57 runs with 74 balls and eight wickets in hand.
Such incessant batting failures were the sorry story for Australia throughout their 10 T20Is in West Indies and Bangladesh. It culminated in the ultimate meltdown where Australia folded for 62, their lowest score in the format, in their last T20I before the World Cup.
It is hard to digest, not only for the Australian fans, but for world cricket which has perceived Australian cricket as an epitome of the never-give-up attitude. Now, they are imploding for fun.
A recurring theme around these consistent failures is their susceptibility to spin. Since 2019, they have the third-lowest run-rate in T20Is against spin (7.3) amongst Test playing nations. A more accurate picture can be gained by complementing it with their average, which is the second-lowest - 22.9. If you think it can be attributed to the conditions in West Indies and Bangladesh, they also surrendered to Yuzvendra Chahal’s leg-spin at home.
Australia have never been good against spin. In Test cricket, they consistently get beaten in the Asian countries. But that remains to be the case with most non-Asian sides. Playing spin in Tests and T20Is requires a different skillset altogether. The other non-Asian sides have answered the call in T20s but Australia stay way behind. West Indies average 24.4 which is not a big improvement but South Africa and New Zealand are at 29.4 and England at 30.
It boils down to Australia not producing enough quality batters of spin to satisfy the needs of T20 cricket. Steve Smith is probably the best example. An exquisite batsman against spin in Test and ODI cricket, he averages only 18.5 against them in T20Is since 2019, at a strike-rate of 114.4.
David Warner has a handsome strike-rate and hasn’t been out to spin since 2019 but his game is largely based around minimizing dot balls - a quality that could have come in handy if he was playing in Bangladesh. However, he is an opening batsman who should ideally try and go harder in the middle-overs.
Overall, Glenn Maxwell is their only resource who can force the issue against spin. That is what makes him special. There ain’t many around him, especially amongst the middle-order batsmen.
In the past, they had Shane Watson who hit spin at an exceptional rate of 153.2. For all his troubles against left-arm orthodox (average 22), he still belted them at 160.
That is another reason why Australia have not done well in the T20 World Cups. They reached the semi-finals in 2012 in Sri Lanka where Watson was Player of the tournament. But, they were miserable in the next two editions, also staged in Asian countries - Bangladesh and India.
Faulty batting approach
A lot of their travails are down to their approach. "These are as difficult conditions as I've seen for T20 cricket - 120 is like 190,” claimed Dan Christian after a consolation win in the fourth T20I against Bangladesh.
In the second T20I of the series, the only one in which Australia batted first, they were nicely poised to score in high 120s - 99/3 in 16 overs. In Mitchell Marsh, they had a batsman with his eye in. The recipe was perfect to score 30 more, though, with the condition that Marsh bats till the end.
Instead, Marsh got out on the first ball of the 17th over, miscuing a wild swing. Australia scored only 22 runs in the final four overs, settling for 121 which Bangladesh chased with an over to spare. Compare that to Mahmudullah’s knock in the third T20I where he carried Bangladesh from 98/6 to a total of 127. He didn’t attempt a slog until the last over which helped Bangladesh win by 10 runs. The bottomline is that set batsmen are worth gold in low-scoring matches.
In both West Indies and Bangladesh, apart from spinners, Australia faced death bowlers who dealt majorly in slower deliveries - Dwayne Bravo, Obed McCoy & Mustafizur Rahman. On slow pitches, even the set batsmen have minimal chances of clearing them. If you make it two new batsmen at the crease, the innings go down and under. Australia manifested this theory in this T20 season.
Mind goes back to one of Australia’s limited-overs’ specialists, Michael Bevan’s modus operandi. He coined the term “finisher” by minimizing risks and hitting the gaps consistently. In successful run-chases, his average was 86.3 whilst his strike-rate remained only 66.4. Batting 105 out of his 196 ODI innings at six, he scored only 27.5 percent of his runs in boundaries.
Bevan never played any T20 cricket and his last ODI was in 2004 but Australia can take a leaf out of his book.
Blocked BBL pipeline
While leagues like IPL, CPL and other domestic-franchise based tournaments have served as a supply line of new-generation cricketers for their respective countries, the Big Bash League has not fulfilled the same purpose for Australia. It is even more surprising because BBL is a well-established league with a nine-year long history.
Some of the batting talents it has thrown are DArcy Short, Josh Philippe, Alex Carey, Ashton Turner and Ben McDermott. Even Moises Henriques and Daniel Christian returned to the national setup based on their performance in the league.
Philippe, Carey and Henriques, in fact, build the reputation of being good players of spin bowling. Over the last four seasons, Philippe has belted spin at strike-rate of 156, averaging 37.1. Donning the Australian cap this year, Philippe has averaged 11.2 at a strike-rate of 103.7 in 10 T20Is this year. Yes, the conditions in Bangladesh were at the extreme but it still underlines the stark difference in playing spin in Australia and in Asian countries. Down Under, the ball at most grips a tad and there is little turn on offer which allows Philippe to hit through the line. He perished trying to do the same in West Indies and Bangladesh a few times.
Asian teams don’t play pacers well overseas because they don’t face enough of it in domestic structure. England batters are not known to bat long because not many county games inculcate that habit as they finish inside three days. Australia struggle to stand against spin for a similar reason - the pitches and conditions in their domestic structure.
Another factor is the quality of competition. The Big Bash is the only league which runs in parallel with the home season in the country. They not only miss out on international stars, they miss out on their own big players. Hence, it makes the step up to international cricket a lot less fluent.
All eggs in one basket
Things are further aggravated by a number of wrong selections. They started with McDermott at number six in the first T20I against West Indies and finished with Henriques occupying that slot in the last match in Bangladesh. Both of them are top or middle-order batters with no credentials of a specialist finisher.
The whole squad did not have many options to bat at five or lower. Beyond those who toured, Marcus Stoinis, Steve Smith and David Warner are all more prominent at the top. Australia have all their eggs in one basket while Maxwell remains to be their only jack of all trades.
More questions than answers
"For guys to be on this tour to get the first opportunity to put their hand up and take that spot [in the T20 World Cup squad] is what it is about," said skipper Aaron Finch about the air around the absence of major players before the West Indies’ series.
Australia began the series at the back of three consecutive bilateral defeats. They added two more to that tally, losing eight out of these 10 T20Is. The words of Finch mean little now as those who declined to tour have no one breathing down their neck. Well, except Marsh who was outstanding in West Indies.
Justin Langer and Co. have returned home with more questions than answers. The time is running out as Australia have played out all their T20Is before the World Cup. Not to forget, most of the future ICC events are staged in Asia.