The dilemma now for national selectors is where to fit in Steve Smith and David Warner
Even on the face of it, it’s a hell of a turnaround. In the early hours of Thursday morning, Australia became the fifth team in history to come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a one-day international series. Along the way they were also the fifth to score more than 358 in a run chase. The other two victories involved setting a target – one large, one modest – then bowling the opposition out. It was a series win showing the full range of ability.
So Australia now leave India with the ODI series win and the Twenty20 International series preceding it. After years of leaving India empty-handed, the rule has this exciting exception.
But for this Australian team it’s even more of a turnaround because the last couple of years have been dire against all opponents, in all conditions. Before the comeback started in this series, Australia had lost 22 out of 26 ODIs dating back more than two years over seven losing series. India looked a lock to be number eight. Then things turned around.
For whatever reason, the players who looked most vulnerable in this team suddenly clicked. Usman Khawaja looked to be a seat-warmer when he was brought into the team in Australia in January after a lean Test summer, but a move up to open the batting in India saw him peel off back-to-back hundreds in the final two matches and top even the format’s undisputed champion Virat Kohli for series runs.
Leg-spinner Adam Zampa has been chopped and changed out of the side routinely for the last couple of years, and played only three ODIs of a possible six in Australia’s home season, going wicketless throughout. In India he roared back to take 11 in the series and be one of Australia’s most important players, especially as India roared to 358 in the fourth match but couldn’t collar his bowling to push closer to 400. As much as any batsman he made that record chase possible.
His off-spin partner Nathan Lyon has received even less faith as an ODI player, and likewise couldn’t take a wicket in two starts at home in January. While one wicket per match doesn’t look like much, his three matches were all Australian wins, and his control was vital in sinking India’s two run chases. He went at 4.43 runs per over across the series and regularly gummed up the middle overs for the batting side.
Finally, Peter Handscomb was a batsman with a point to prove. The most like-for-like player for Steve Smith, his approach is to bat long through the middle of an innings while taking a highly positive approach: hustling runs, working the field, and playing aggressively against spin. Handscomb’s first ODI century was complemented by a 52 and a 48, his boundary patrolling was outstanding in the field, and he offers a back-up option as a wicketkeeper should selectors need to create a vacancy in the order.
The more established players offered good-news stories as well. Patrick Cummins showed the class that has just won him the Allan Border medal, grabbing 14 wickets at a cost of 15 runs apiece. Glenn Maxwell offered scoring acceleration twice when Australia badly needed it. Aaron Finch battled early but almost made a century in Ranchi to remind him that he can do this. Nathan Coulter-Nile and Jhye Richardson bowled fast and well, and batted usefully. Then there was Ashton Turner’s breakout moment, smashing 84 not out off 43 balls to seal that massive chase in Mohali.
Indeed, the only stragglers were Shaun Marsh, with three low scores, and Marcus Stoinis, who made some runs but consistently struggled with his strike rate and rotation. But Marsh missed two matches for reasons beyond his control, while Stoinis is needed almost as much for his bowling as his batting.
So the same squad heads off to Dubai with a spring in its collective step, hoping for a more cheerful visit against Pakistan than the Test and T20 thrashings last October. Steve Smith and David Warner will duck over from the Indian Premier League for a visit once their Cricket Australia bans come to an end, but won’t be considered to play the final two matches of that five.
The dilemma now for national selectors is where there is space for those two in a team with no obvious vacancies. The Pakistan series is a chance for the current players to assert their right, but conversely a couple of poor matches could well be used as a spurious excuse for omission.
For all the upbeat change in the camp, it’s worth noting that India have also been frantically trying to work out their World Cup team. This series was India’s last before the squads are picked and the official warm-ups begin in May, with the IPL soaking up the intervening period. Australia’s win came against a team that was very much in experimentation mode, and who noticeably took their foot off the pedal after two comfortable wins.
MS Dhoni gave the last couple of matches to understudy wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, who missed chances and couldn’t add much with the bat. Kohli at one stage swapped out of his blue-chip spot at No 3, and the middle order chopped around every match: KL Rahul played once, Ambati Rayudu three times, while Pant and Kedar Jadhav and Vijay Shankar tried different roles. One of India’s biggest weapons, leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, played one game. One of the best seamers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, played two.
This wasn’t the India that Australia will take on in London on 9 June. But then, neither was this the Australia that India defeated in Melbourne on 18 January. The confidence and dynamism have slowly grown. The current team in green and gold are trying to make their changes one steady step at a time. That most recent win in Delhi this week was another one.