Faulkner, Maxwell turn into each other
Golfers are often heard to say that they are defined less by the quality of their best strokes than the quality of their least. A similar story is set to emerge when Australia meet India at the SCG in the World Cup semi-final, for the game's defining performance may not arise from the first two or three bowlers chosen to take the ball but from the fourth and fifth instead.
Having followed a strategy of plumping for pace at this tournament, Australia's bowling attack is somewhat lacking in terms of spin and variation, something highlighted by a voice as sage as that of Michael Holding in the build-up to the encounter. Much will rest on the shoulders of James Faulkner and Glenn Maxwell, a seam bowler who started life as a spinner and a spinner who once dreamed of taking the new ball as a fast man.
By their varied developments as bowlers, Faulkner and Maxwell illustrate much of the dominant cricketing culture down under. As a child, Faulkner was besotted by the wrist spin variations of Shane Warne and others, before deciding it made more sense on the seaming pitches of Launceston to lengthen his run-up and deliver the ball from under the wrist rather than over it.
In contrast, Maxwell followed a common pathway for spin bowlers in Australia, only resorting to the slower, more subtle art once it became apparent that for all his ambition and confidence, pace bowling would not be the way of his future. That so many Australian spinners are in fact former seamers may in fact explain why there is a curious apologetic tone about many of them, while Faulkner's slow bowling background goes some way towards explaining his mastery of the tactical side of working out a batsman's weak point even if he does not have searing pace or boomerang swing to aid him.
Maxwell's spin has grown enough, via the tutelage of Cricket Australia's spin consultant John Davison, that he has been the only slow bowler chosen by the selectors in all but one match this tournament. The omission of Nathan Lyon from the squad was also a partial nod to Maxwell, for the selectors did not feel his offbreaks were so inferior as to merit the inclusion of another man spinning the ball the same way.
"I've taken a couple of wickets this tournament which has been nice, and I feel like I've been doing the job that Michael Clarke has been asking of me whenever I've come to the crease," Maxwell said. "I've had a chat to John Davison and he said my shape was looking really good and it's starting to become a bit more of a frontline spinner's action as well and not so much just a run-stopping option but it's actually becoming semi-threatening, compared to just going and putting the ball on a tee.
"I think after that UAE series [in October] I worked out a few things with my bowling. As soon as I came back to Australia I worked really hard on it and I felt like I was starting to get signs of what I wanted to do with my offspin and what other coaches had been looking for me to do as well which was to get that drop and a bit more energy on the ball.
"Coming from a fast bowler's background growing up I have a long bowling stride for an offspinner and I've been trying to shorten that but still have the same energy through the crease. It's been a long work in progress, I've had to change my action about six or seven times since the Academy which has been frustrating, but hopefully with this change there's only an upward curve now."
Maxwell's usefulness has been illustrated by the taking of a key wicket against New Zealand in Auckland, where Corey Anderson's swipe down the grown opened up an end for Mitchell Starc to attack and draw the game to its hectic conclusion. He was then responsible for the downfall of Misbah-ul-Haq in Adelaide, as Clarke reasoned that he would challenge his opposite number to try to slog the allrounder into the prevailing breeze.
Faulkner has also offered pivotal contributions at times when other more obviously threatening options have not quite been able to dominate as expected. The Sri Lanka match at the SCG, which has become one of the more relevant fixtures of the Cup this week, was notable for the way Faulkner scotched the visitors' momentum far more effectively than any other bowler save for Starc. His use of slower variations - the assistant coach Craig McDermott can count at least three slower balls in the Tasmanian's repertoire - robbed Sri Lanka of the consistent pace on the bat they were enjoying from Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson and even Xavier Doherty.
"I did use it a fair bit because they got off to such a flier in the chase Sri Lanka, we had to try and change things," Faulkner said. "So I decided to use more back-of-the-hand deliveries and offcutters and try to take the pace off the ball, because they were doing quite well against our openers.
"It's something I've had, I worked on it when I was really young in the backyard with my old man. I bowled a bit of legspin so that's where it came from, and I'm bowling it now. So it's nice to have it, and hopefully I can work on a couple more slower balls."
Given the likelihood of Doherty's omission against India, Faulkner laughed and nodded when it was put to him that he will actually be bowling a spinner's overs in the semi-final. "It's sometimes used as that," he said. "You can look at it like that, yeah." Australian progress to Sunday's final may well depend as much on the back of Faulkner's hand as it does on the better-known blade of his bat.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig