November 1, 2013

Bailey v Swann?

It just might be one of the contests to watch in the Australian summer

Bailey could be one to make the transition from ODI success to the five-day variety © BCCI

When details of the current Australian ODI tour to India were first announced it was easy to understand why the series would have such appeal. India v Australia is always box office. Even during a rare tour when headlines have stayed predominantly on the back page, the on-field action between the two top-ranked one-day sides in the world has been more than enough to capture the imagination. Stadiums are full. Runs have flowed like a river. TV ratings are higher than Dhawan's Test average. And the BCCI and Cricket Australia administrators have been able to make whatever the equivalent of snow angels are when you're laying on a huge pile of money. For fans of limited- overs action, and those tasked with maintaining cricket's financial health, it has been a series to savour.

Exactly how helpful the timing of the tour is for Australian Ashes chances is more difficult to appreciate. Seven one-day internationals on unforgiving Indian pitches are a risk to the body and confidence of a bowler like Mitchell Johnson, who will need both in top order if he is to take his recent improved form into the first Test in Brisbane in three weeks' time. The 5'10" hustle of Bhuvneshwar Kumar is not exactly like-for-like preparation to face an English pace attack that arrived in Australia last week looking like an East European basketball team. And crucially, key members of the Test team, like Shane Watson, have missed a chance to get practice in home conditions during the opening round of Sheffield Shield games, which started on Wednesday. If Australia wants to "Return the Urn" it's far from ideal preparation.

But there are also benefits for Australian Ashes prospects that can be drawn from their current tour. Most notably the form of George Bailey, who has been so prolific with the bat as to perform the seemingly impossible task of out-Kohliing Kohli in India. It's form that doesn't so much knock on the door of the Australian Test selectors as kick it down, jump on their desk and aggressively twerk in the face of John Inverarity. And judging by Inverarity's recent comments, he's liked what he's seen.

Trying to carry form and confidence from shorter forms of the game into Test cricket has no guarantee of success, of course. With Eoin Morgan, England have already tried to promote a player into their Test match middle order, who, like Bailey, has a less than compelling first-class record but has shown impressive temperament and ability in one-day internationals. Despite some early success, that appears to be an experiment England have now abandoned.

But even with that example as a warning, Bailey should, at some point during the Ashes, get a chance to make a more successful transfer between the different formats of the game. There is much to commend him being given the opportunity. Not just for his general form and level-headed approach to ODIs over the last 18 months, but, with one eye on Graeme Swann's importance to England, the way in which he has recently played India's offspinner, R Ashwin, in particular.

England, like most Test sides, like to talk of how their bowling attack works together as a unit. In reality, Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann are very much first amongst equals. Anderson for his incision with the new ball, Swann for his ability to apply pressure with long, economical spells of bowling. Swann's form in particular is vital to England being able to play a four-man attack. If Australia are to have a chance of regaining the Ashes, they can't allow him to settle into his natural rhythm.

During England's last tour of Australia it was Mike Hussey who led the way in trying to unsettle Swann. For a while it seemed to be working, with Hussey scoring 151 runs off Swann in 239 deliveries during the first three Tests of that series. He was one of the first batsmen to consistently take the game to Swann in Test cricket.

With Hussey retired, Australia needs to find other players capable of forcing Swann out of the attack. Some of their more experienced batsmen like Watson and Clarke are obvious candidates. But so too might Bailey be.

The way Bailey has played Ashwin over the past few weeks has been instructive. Using the depth of his crease intelligently to pull anything slightly short of a length, and to sweep deliveries pitched further up. Mixing the power to clear the boundary with the deftness of touch to play the ball into space for a quick single; the 106 runs he has scored off 82 deliveries from Ashwin have been an object lesson in how to play offspin - all be it on admittedly flat surfaces.

Playing spin in Test cricket is a different challenge, with different fields, different pressures, and different objectives. But whilst in many ways a seven-match ODI series in India is flawed preparation for the Ashes, it may also have propelled Bailey into the Australian Test side just in time to face Swann in one of those great contests within a contest that make Test cricket so compelling.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses