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Injury nightmare casts long shadow over Australia's WC aspirations

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Last updated on 20 Sep 2023 | 09:48 AM
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Injury nightmare casts long shadow over Australia's WC aspirations

As it stands, Australia have only eight players in their 15-man squad that are 100% match-fit

There was a point in Australia’s recently-concluded tour of South Africa where it looked like all Mitch Marsh wanted to do was gather his troops and get out of the country as soon as possible.

The pain the South African batters were inflicting on the Aussie bowlers was partly responsible for that but, majorly, it was because Marsh was watching his men fall like flies, just weeks prior to the World Cup. 

Believe it or not, with 20 days to go for their first World Cup 2023 clash against India, Australia have only eight players in their 15-man squad that are 100% match-fit. 

We’re here to explore exactly how bad the situation is, if Australia are sorted on the back-up front and what could be the best / worst case scenarios for the side.

The injury list

Travis Head

What’s the injury?

Fractured left hand. Head sustained the injury in the fourth ODI against South Africa after getting hit flush on his arm by a rising delivery from Gerald Coetzee. 

How bad is the injury & what’s the recovery time?

Extremely bad. Head coach Andrew McDonald has confirmed that Head, at the very least, will definitely miss the first half of the World Cup. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case (and likely) scenario is that he will play no part in the showpiece event.

How big is the blow, and do Australia have an able back-up?

It’s a huge blow. Australia are arguably losing their best and most in-form batter. Since 2020 in ODIs, Head is averaging 60.84 and has struck at 119.84. In this period, he and David Warner average 93.4 as an opening pair (strike rate 127.00). Needless to say, he also offers the side a spin bowling option.

He will be replaced in the XI by Marnus Labuschagne but the good thing for Australia is that they have an equally destructive replacement up the order in the form of Mitch Marsh. This year, Marsh is averaging 88.33 as an opener while striking at 129.9. He opened in the ODIs against India in March and was Player of the Series.

Uncapped Matthew Short, who has been picked for the India ODIs, is another potential replacement. Short has grown as a T20 batter in the last 18 months but he still has a pretty underwhelming List A record, averaging 30.50 after 57 games.

Steve Smith

What’s the injury?

Tendon damage in the left-wrist. Smith sustained it during the second Ashes Test at Lord’s.

How bad is the injury & what’s the recovery time?

The injury has kept Smith out of action for the past two months but the good news for Australia is that he is in the final stages of his recovery. He started batting in the nets last week, pain-free, and has been named in the squad for the three-match ODI series against India.

Now, it is unknown if Smith will be fit enough to play all three ODIs but he is expected to take some part in the series. For Smith, the India ODIs and the World Cup warm-ups will be all about building match fitness.

Do Australia have an able back-up?

Marnus Labuschagne is the only like-for-like replacement Australia have for Smith. Labuschagne was in sublime form in the South Africa ODIs but he is still not in the same league as Smith, who post the 2019 World Cup is averaging 59.42 at a S.R of 91.86. 

Should Smith, by chance, aggravate his injury and get completely ruled out of the WC, Australia might think of recalling someone like an Usman Khawaja and moving Marsh down the order. Khawaja has a fantastic record in Asia (avg 55.08) and will bring both experience and stability. The only downside to this move is that the left-hander has not played any List A cricket since November last year.

The other wildcard option Australia have is recalling either Peter Handscomb or Ben McDermott.

Mitchell Starc

What’s the injury?

Groin soreness. Starc complained of the same after returning from the UK where he played the WTC final and four of the five Ashes Tests in an eight-week window.

How bad is the injury & what’s the recovery time?

Starc is in the same boat as Smith; perhaps even ahead of his compatriot in terms of where he’s at. He is expected to play a significant part in the India series and will look to build his match fitness.

Do Australia have an able back-up?

Yes and No. In terms of the package? Probably yes, Spencer Johnson is a left-arm tearaway who can swing it at pace (Johnson is currently nursing a minor injury). Then there’s Jason Behrendorff, who does not have the pace but has experience and is a very potent new-ball bowler.

But all things considered, Starc is one player Australia cannot afford to lose. 

He is the World Cup GOAT, one of the ODI GOATs and has been in ridiculously good form in this format, having picked up 35 wickets across his last 14 ODIs. He ran riot in India earlier this year, picking up 8 wickets in 3 ODIs, including a match-winning five-fer in Vizag.

Australia have to wrap Starc in Cotton Wool.

Glenn MaxwellWhat’s the injury?

Soreness in the ankle. Maxwell experienced it in the lead-up to the South Africa T20Is; the soreness in his ankle stemmed from the same leg he broke last November.

How bad is the injury & what’s the recovery time?

Maxwell recently had a cortisone injection in the ankle. He’s been named in the squad for the India ODIs but he himself revealed a while back that he is unsure whether he’ll feature in the three-match series.

"I still want to play some part of that India series. But I'm not feeling any pressure on it,” Maxwell said at the start of this month.

“The selectors and the staff have been brilliant with me as well. They don't want to put too much pressure on me to sort of set that date because they know they've got a bit of extra time before the World Cup. 

“So instead of rushing it and probably putting myself a week or two behind, being able to give myself extra time and make sure we get through the whole tournament."

It is safe to assume, then, that Maxwell will likely not start the India series. 

The biggest challenge for him will be to build match fitness. At least Smith and Starc have played lots of competitive cricket this year but Maxwell has played all of four non-T20 matches (List A/first-class) throughout 2023.

Do Australia have an able back-up?

Tim David played the Maxwell role in the South Africa ODIs but without any success — 45 runs in 4 innings at an average of 11.25. Like Maxwell, David can bowl off-spin but the similarities end there: the 27-year-old is not in the same league as the Victorian when it comes to usefulness with the ball in hand. 

Another option Australia can potentially look at, should Maxwell not recover in time, is Ashton Turner. The 30-year-old has not had too much success in List A cricket of late but has been in superb form in T20s since last year, having scored 1,197 runs at an average of 35.21 and SR of 156.1. Turner is no stranger to playing the finisher role (across formats).

Crucially, Turner has started bowling again. He recently rolled his arm-over in the unofficial ODI series between Australia ‘A’ and New Zealand ‘A’ and picked up 4 wickets in 2 innings.

Pat Cummins What’s the injury?

Fractured wrist. Cummins injured his left wrist diving in the field on day one of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval.

How bad is the injury & what’s the recovery time?

Cummins was with the Australian camp for the South Africa ODIs, albeit only to build up his fitness. He is expected to be fully fit for the India series. 

Once again, for Cummins, too, the bigger issue will be match-fitness.

Do Australia have an able back-up?

The Aussies have the perfect like-for-like replacement for Cummins in Sean Abbott but — wait for it — he is nursing an injury as well (more on that later).

The other like-for-like option they have at their disposal is Michael Neser, who played two ODIs against South Africa and did reasonably well. 

Cummins is not rated highly in white-ball cricket but he does possess a superb record in ODIs in India, having picked up 20 wickets in 13 innings at an economy of 4.95.

But should Cummins end up missing the World Cup with injury, it might solve a headache for Australia. As it stands, they’ll have to drop one of him or Hazlewood if they want to play both Agar and Zampa. An injury would mean they wouldn’t have to make an uncomfortable call.

Ashton AgarAgar suffered a minor calf tear that ruled him out of the South Africa T20Is. He featured in the first ODI and played a match-winning hand (with the bat), but then experienced calf-soreness again that ruled him out of the following games. He then flew back to Australia for the birth of his child.

Agar will miss the India series due to the same reason (birth of his child) but will join the rest of the squad for the warm-ups. He is expected to be fully fit by the time of the warm-up matches but Agar will only have two matches — the Netherlands and Pakistan — to bowl himself into rhythm before Australia’s first WC game against India. Match fitness and rust will be a concern with the all-rounder as well.

Do Australia have an able back-up?

Leggie Tanveer Sangha is in the reserves but he’s not a like-for-like replacement. He does not offer the same accuracy, is a greenhorn and is more of a Zampa back-up. Not to mention, Sangha cannot bat as well.

A better option for the Aussies would be Matthew Kuhnemann, who returned to action from a back injury in the unofficial ODI series against New Zealand A. Kuhnemann is a good like-for-like replacement for Agar with the ball, but he, too, will not be able to provide handy runs down the order.

Owing to this reason, Agar is another individual Australia cannot afford to lose.

Sean AbbottAbbott played in four of the five South Africa ODIs, and did well — 5 wickets @ 5.86 E.R in a high-scoring series — but split his webbing in the fifth and final ODI while fielding (non-bowling hand). Despite that, though, he bowled his full quota of overs and also scored 23 runs with the bat.

Aaron Hardie is being flown to India as a cover but Abbott is expected to feature.

Neser is again the alternative in case Abbott ends up aggravating his injury ahead of the World Cup.

Cameron GreenGreen suffered a concussion in the first ODI against South Africa and subsequently missed the next three ODIs, but returned to action in the fifth and final ODI. Encouragingly for Australia, he was able to bowl 10 overs and also batted at No.6. 

Green should, in all likelihood, play all three India ODIs unless he experiences more concussion symptoms. Unlikely, given the medical team gave him 10 full days to recover before slotting him in for the fifth ODI. 

Aaron Hardie will take Green’s place in the squad should he end up missing the World Cup. A straightforward, like-for-like replacement.

Mitchell Marsh

Marsh is not carrying an injury as of the time being, but he has not bowled since the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval. He operated in the South Africa tour as a specialist batter. 

Marsh’s bowling fitness is something that will need to be monitored, heading into both the India series and the warm-up games.

Marsh being unable to bowl will mean Australia will definitely have to play one of Stoinis or Green in the XI. 

Nathan Ellis

Nathan Ellis sustained a low-grade adductor strain in the fifth and final ODI against South Africa. Owing to the same, he was unable to finish his quota of 10 overs.

Ellis is not in the World Cup squad but was set to be a reserve. Him participating in the India series seems unlikely now. 

Spencer Johnson

Johnson is nursing a hamstring strain that ruled him out of the South Africa ODI series. At this point, his fitness is also uncertain.

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