Spots up for grabs as Australia approach Windies litmus test with an eye on World T20

Australia return to the cricket field this week after a four-month hiatus, and awaiting them is a wounded Windies side desperate to make amends following a heart-shattering loss against the Proteas. SportsCafe looks at the key talking points for the Aussies heading into the five-match series.

A chance for a host of pacers to put their hands up

That Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, if fit, will make it to the playing XI come the World T20 goes without saying, but Australia are far from zeroing in on the third, fourth and fifth seamers. Kane Richardson, as things stand, despite opting out of the tour of the Caribbean, seems to be the front-runner, but he’s had mixed success, having never showcased consistency in his start-and-stop career. His namesake, Jhye, also blew hot-and-cold on his comeback against the Kiwis in February, while the likes of Daniel Sams and Sean Abbott have struggled to excel at the highest level.

This uncertainty in the pace department provides those currently in the squad for the five T20Is a golden opportunity to stake a claim for a WT20 berth. Josh Hazlewood, Riley Meredith, Jason Behrendorff and Andrew Tye are all well in the mix for a WT20 spot and could leapfrog some of the absentees through a strong showing.

Hazlewood, despite being a Test and ODI regular, has only played 2 T20Is in the last 5 years, but the right-armer could put his hand up by forging a new-ball partnership with Starc. Alternatively, Behrendorff was the best seamer in the powerplay in BBL 10, and, having already excelled bowling in tandem with Starc in the 2019 World Cup, the left-armer could make himself a very attractive pick should he reign supreme.

Riley Meredith and Andrew Tye, meanwhile, provide a different package all together, and they too could catch the selectors’ eyes by tormenting the Windies batters in the middle-overs with their raw pace. Skipper Aaron Finch has already claimed that the players who have opted out of this tour have put themselves in a vulnerable position with respect to WT20 selection, so the aforementioned seamers could pile the pressure on the no-shows by shining across these five matches.

Josh Philippe’s opportunity to make the No.3 spot his own

Josh Philippe did not have the greatest of introductions to international cricket, but the five T20Is against Kiwis made it evident that the Australian selectors were willing to invest in the 24-year-old, who played all five matches. What was interesting about that series, though, was that Philippe batted four of the five games at No.3, a position generally occupied by Steve Smith. Now, whether the management decided to slot Philippe, a natural opener, in at No.3 in that series with a long-term vision remains unknown, but with Smith hinting that he could skip the WT20 in order to recover in time for the Ashes, the five T20Is serve as an opportunity for Philippe to potentially lock his WT20 spot.

Contrary to general perception, Smith has been a rock for Australia at No.3 in the last two years –  363 runs at an average of 40.33 and SR of 139.08 since the start of 2019 – and Philippe will indeed have big shoes to fill. But despite having only ever batted 5 times in the position before (T20s included), there is plenty of evidence that suggests that the Western Australian could thrive in the role. The 24-year-old’s game is a blend of solidity and aggression, and notably, he is a far quicker scorer than Smith, whose overall T20 SR of 126 is 11 fewer than Philippe. Most importantly, though, Philippe has thus far shown that he’s adept against spin, a quality that will define batsmen come the WT20 in UAE.

Since the start of 2019, the right-hander has averaged 38.23 against spinners in franchise cricket, while maintaining a ludicrously high strike rate of 155.3. That the level of spinners in BBL is not the greatest is something that needs to be acknowledged, but these are, nevertheless, promising numbers for a batsman who is far from being a finished product.

Why Philippe batting at No.3 could ultimately benefit Australia, though, is that his presence will enable the team to field an extra batsman or an all-rounder. Philippe, a gloveman, slotting in at No.3 in a full-strength side will mean that there would be no need for the Aussies to slot in a wicket-keeper in the middle-order (which they do when Smith and Warner play), and thus this could enable them to further bolster the middle-order – a point of weakness – by picking specialists.

The need for Ashton Agar to showcase his firepower with the bat

Even if Ashton Agar did not know how to hold a bat, he would walk into the Australian T20 side as a specialist bowler – since 2018, he’s taken 37 wickets in 30 games at a remarkable ER of 6.66 and has, by far, been the most consistent Australian bowler. But why there is still scrutiny over the batting of Agar is because the southpaw has been entrusted with the responsibility of being an ‘all-rounder’ by the management. Agar has never batted below No.7 in 3 years and versus the Kiwis in February, he batted at No.6 in three of the five matches. His returns, though, paint a grim picture.

13.53 is what the southpaw averages with the bat in his T20I career and his strike rate, 112.82, is borderline unacceptable for a lower-order batsman. Against New Zealand, despite being promoted up the order, 7.25 was what Agar averaged, hitting a solitary six in the series. While Agar does have a respectable first-class record with the bat, there is little to suggest that he could be a potent weapon in T20s as even in the BBL, since 2018, the Western Australian has averaged 18.2 and struck at 110.6, hitting a six only once every 26 balls.

Should Agar not impress with the bat versus the Windies, one imagines that it would be prudent on Australia’s part to demote him to No.8, promoting Cummins to the No.7 spot. Cummins’ influence with the bat has been steadily growing over the years, and in IPL 2021 for KKR, the 28-year-old arguably batted the best he ever has. He averaged 31.00 while striking at 166.07 and almost helped KKR pull off one of the greatest chases of all time. Agar’s spot in the side might be secure, and rightly so, but perhaps it’s time to start viewing him more as a bowler and less as an all-rounder.

Audition for the ‘finisher’

Despite half a decade of chopping, changing and experimenting, Australia have been unsuccessful in identifying the ideal candidate for the role of the finisher, and with the WT20 three months away, they will head into the Windies T20Is hoping to find their man by the end of the fifth game. Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Marsh, Ashton Turner, Alex Carey and Matthew Wade have all been tried to no avail, and, really, it has been Glenn Maxwell who has carried the middle-order single-handedly for the past three years and more.

Both Stoinis and Maxwell opting out means that Marsh, for the umpteenth time, will in all likelihood get an extended run in the middle-order, but he will also, this time around, be joined by his Perth Scorchers teammate Turner and the returning Dan Christian. Both Turner (152.00) and Christian (182.55) scored at impressive rates in the tenth edition of the BBL, but despite having been frozen out of the T20I set-up for multiple years, both players could bat themselves right back into the mix for WT20 selection through strong showings.

Marsh and Stoinis are, as things stand, front-runners for the spot(s), but their places are far from fixed. While Marsh is coming on the back of a horror series against the Kiwis, where he averaged 16.75, Stoinis has seldom showcased consistency.  Dan Christian, in particular, would go a long way in making a case for WT20 selection through a strong showing as apart from being a power-hitter, he also is an all-rounder who can make valuable contributions with the ball.

Moises Henriques is the other all-rounder in the squad, but given he plies his trade at No.4 and above for the Sixers, it is all but certain that it is Marsh, Christian and Turner who will be vying for a place in the middle-order come the WT20.

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