Australia’s spin stocks appeared destined for another shake-up, but an injury issue to Jon Holland has given Mitchell Swepson a reprieve ahead of the first test against Sri Lanka in Galle starting Wednesday.
Australian captain, Pat Cummins, has confirmed Swepson will play in the first test despite reports suggesting the 35-year-old Holland was set to make a remarkable return for his match since 2018.
If the spin-friendly pitches of the one-day series are any indication, Swepson will have a major role partnering Nathan Lyon in Australia’s bowling attack.
The lack of a world-class second spinner
Although conditions appear to have forced selectors into picking a second spinner, the idea of a shock Holland recall must put into question the confidence, or lack thereof, in Swepson or other prospective options.
Holland was once again in the frame having taken nine wickets at an average of 63.77 in four previous tests. That, combined with his age, says very little about Australia’s spin-bowling depth behind Lyon.
That’s nothing against Holland, he’s had an incredibly successful first-class career with 286 wickets across nearly 15 years. But clearly selectors were uninspired by the leg-spin of Swepson in Pakistan, forcing them to consider Holland before injury struck.
They would be right to hold that mindset – Swepson produced two wickets across two tests at an average of 133. Australia’s other realistic option, Ashton Agar, was also ruled out with injury and regardless, averages an unimposing average of over 40 in first-class cricket.
Perhaps selectors had surmised that Holland was their best option, although Agar’s added batting and fielding components would’ve made him an interesting prospect. If they actually did believe Holland to be the second best of the spin-bowling brigade, then it’s hard to find plausible arguments against it.
However, maybe we should question the decision to pick a second spinner in the first place. Why can’t we conclude that, at least at present, no spinner outside Lyon is test-worthy regardless of the conditions?
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Is three seamers, plus Green an option?
It’s not as if Australia have a subpar fast-bowling attack. With Mitchell Starc cleared to return from a finger injury, the left-armer is likely to pair with Cummins leaving Josh Hazlewood to carry the drinks.
Sure, Hazelwood’s metronomic line and length is less effective in subcontinent conditions, but still, his steady presence at the bowling crease has remained somewhat valuable in three previous tests in Sri Lanka – seven wickets at 32.71.
The rise of Cameron Green, the long-awaited dream of a genuine all-rounder, appears to have closed the door on Australia playing him alongside three fellow seamers in such conditions.
They actually did in the first test in Pakistan earlier this year, producing disastrous effects. The home team made a combined 4 for 728 across their two innings, with Australia then turning to Swepson for the following two tests.
Still, you’d think Hazlewood’s impeccable test record (215 wickets at 25.92) deserves more respect even in these circumstances. Would the potential inclusion of Glenn Maxwell, in place of an injured Travis Head, adjust selectors thinking in relation to the bowling set-up? It’s improbable, with Maxwell likely to be seen as simply another option for Cummins to turn to.
Although you may judge it unfair, Swepson is now placed under substantial pressure to perform. Australia can’t go through this series chopping and changing between their second spin options, doing so would confirm the idea that they’re playing a second one just for the sake of it.
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