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Given Australia's struggles against Sri Lanka's mystery spinner in the limited-overs games, it was surprising he was not picked for the Test
August 31, 2011
So much of Australia's preparation for the first Test revolved around the perceived threat of Ajantha Mendis that the tourists were given something of a shock when they heard he was not part of the team. Alongside Lasith Malinga, who has retired from Tests, Mendis had been responsible for much of the most panicky Australian batting in the limited-overs portion of the tour, and there was still some trepidation on the way to the ground on match morning.
Australia's subsequent progress on the first day in Galle was extremely wobbly on a pitch that tended towards the spiteful, but they were aided by a Sri Lanka team that was curious in its construction. If the tourists' had sighed with relief when Malinga reiterated his decision to retire from Test cricket at the conclusion of the ODI series, they were whooping with delight to discover that Mendis had been omitted from the Sri Lanka XI.
Mendis' Test match returns have diminished down the years against opponents who have got a proper sight of him but Australia are not one of those teams. While the Australia Twenty20 and ODI sides had plenty of opportunity to sight Mendis' variations in the fixtures that preceded the Tests, there are five members of the Test team - Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Trent Copeland, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon - who have never faced Mendis before. Another, Brad Haddin, seemed no closer to solving his riddles at the end of the ODIs than he had been at the start.
Assisted by Mendis' absence, Australia struggled on via the admirably broad bat of Michael Hussey. Some of the other batsmen, Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting in particular, could be censured for inattentiveness, and their mistakes made Hussey's contribution all the more spinal. His accomplishment against slow bowling and on subcontinent pitches is clear - since 2008 he has averaged 65.29 when facing the tweakers, soaking up an average of 141.7 balls while doing so - but the variations presented by Herath and the pitch made this a most noteworthy effort.
Of those watching from the dressing room, no-one should have been observing Hussey more closely than Khawaja, whose first two balls in subcontinent Test cricket were not for the squeamish. Arriving at the wicket following Ponting's failure to get to the pitch of a Rangana Herath delivery, Khawaja aimed an expansive drive at his first delivery and could manage only an inside edge into his back pad as the ball turned back at him. Next Herath offered a straighter variation to which Khawaja played for spin and was beaten conclusively on the outside edge. While subcontinent flourishes do exist in Khawaja's game, he can learn a great deal from Hussey, who began life as a stolid opener and gained an affinity for spin only with time and great care.
Hussey's form entering into the Test had been indifferent, and the observations of the Argus review about selection needing to be based more squarely on performance were clearly made with cases like his in mind. For too long leading into the Ashes, Hussey had been allowed to subsist on inconsistent contributions, and would have been one of several players Simon Katich could have pointed to as proof he should have been persevered with at 35.
Nevertheless, the application evident here was equal to that demonstrated by Hussey against England, but the poor showing of most of his fellow batsmen has maintained an unhappiness in the team despite a gap of nine months and a change of captain.
With their continued troubles against spin, Australia needed all the help they could get. Mendis' omission was the closest thing to a charitable gesture.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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