News Analysis

Agar, Renshaw, Morris: Australia's Sydney balancing act

Could Scott Boland be forced out of the team? Where does Marcus Harris stand after a summer as a reserve?

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Australia can book a spot in the World Test Championship final with a win over South Africa in Sydney. But for one of the rare times during this WTC cycle, Australia's selection is very much an unknown. They have added Matt Renshaw and Ashton Agar to the squad in place of the injured pair Cameron Green and Mitchell Starc, but what the XI will look like will remain unclear until they see the pitch at the SCG, which is expected to offer turn.
"One thing I've learned around wickets recently is never assume anything," Australia coach Andrew McDonald said. "I think we'll just wait and see what unfolds from the ground staff in terms of the wicket they prepare. But what I will say around that is that we feel as though we've got a squad for whatever that surface may be. We've got pretty much all bases covered."
Green's injury is what makes the selection complex. Pat Cummins described him as irreplaceable, and Australia haven't opted for an allrounder to replace him. They need to decide whether they pick seven batters or five bowlers.
The case for Ashton Agar
Firstly, the decision to include Agar as the second spinner in the squad has raised eyebrows. Agar's first-class average and strike-rate are significantly inferior to a host of Australia's domestic spinners including Mitchell Swepson, Todd Murphy, Jon Holland and Matthew Kuhnemann. Even South Australia's Ben Manenti and Western Australia understudy Corey Rocchiccioli have better records from small sample sizes. But McDonald confirmed Australia's selectors wanted a left-arm orthodox to complement the right-arm offspin of Nathan Lyon.
"We feel as though the complementing type of spinner that we've picked here with the left-arm orthodox is the way that we wanted to go," McDonald said. "Sometimes the second spinner isn't necessarily the best next spinner if that makes sense. It's the one that complements what you have and we feel like the left-arm orthodox can be successful in Sydney and also as we venture the subcontinent."
The control of a left-arm orthodox spinner, as opposed to a right-arm legspinner, seems to be the preference. However, Agar has a higher career economy rate, average and strike-rate in first-class cricket than the other two left-arm orthodox options in Holland and Kuhnemann. Agar has been focusing on his white-ball bowling in recent years, with great success, and has only played three first-class games since October 2020 including two in the last five weeks. Crucially, though, he also averages 28 with the bat with three first-class centuries, which is a major reason why he has got the nod and it gives the selectors two ways of picking him for Sydney and India.
"It could be two spinners, two quicks," McDonald said. "It could be we could play a slightly more aggressive team with Alex Carey going into six and play five bowlers [with Agar at No.7]. We feel pretty comfortable that Ash has got that skill set and he's a very mature player now and we feel that if he was to get that opportunity in India, or firstly here, that he'll be able to step up."
The case for Matt Renshaw
Renshaw has returned to opening for Queensland this year with success. He also opened for Australia A in Sri Lanka in the winter and for the Prime Minister's XI against West Indies where he made 81 and 101 not out. However, Renshaw is clearly being looked at as a middle-order option because of his skill against both the new ball and spin bowling and his experience from Test tours of India and Bangladesh in 2017.
It seems Renshaw would likely play if it was going to be an old-school big spinning pitch in Sydney, like the Sheffield Shield pitch between New South Wales and Western Australia earlier this summer, where Australia would only need four bowlers, including two spinners, and then an extra batter at six with good skill against spin who could play a vital role in a low scoring game.
"We feel with Matt in particular, he's got the flexibility to bat anywhere in the order from the top through the middle as well and we've seen over time his spin play has improved," McDonald said. "We feel as though he could potentially fill that middle-order position."
McDonald noted that Peter Handscomb, one of Australia's best players of spin and the leading Shield runscorer in the past two summers, could consider himself unlucky not to be called up for Sydney and remains in the frame for India.
The case for Marcus Harris
Harris has been the spare batter in the squad all summer and last played in the Sydney Ashes Test 12 months ago. Harris' best chance to feature is if the SCG pitch is a batting-friendly, non-spinning track, similar to the modern Test pitches in Sydney. In which case, Australia could pick seven batters, three quicks, and one spinner. Harris would come in as the next batting cab off the rank and he could open, with Usman Khawaja sliding to No. 5 as a one-off, the position he batted on his recall last year where he made twin hundreds.
"With Marcus Harris, we feel he's an opening batter or top three," McDonald said. "We've seen him bat at three at times across his career. We don't want to give too much away. The Khawaja one, yeah, he could bat in the middle. But we do like the combination of him and David [Warner] at the top and that's probably where we'll head in the future as well unless things shifted significantly on us."
The case for Lance Morris or Josh Hazlewood
There is a scenario where Morris, the fastest bowler in Australia, could play in front of Hazlewood, who has declared himself fit after a side strain, or even Scott Boland (Test average 12.21). It would likely come if Australia picked a five-pronged attack and felt the third quick needed to be a short-burst strike bowler with high pace, given Cummins, Boland or Hazlewood, and two spinners would be able to shoulder the majority of the overs and control the run-rate.
"All scenarios are on the table," McDonald said. "If we feel as though we need some airspeed then no doubt Lance is the obvious one. The conditions will determine that. I'd love to be able to speak in more depth around it. In two days' time, I'll probably be better positioned to be able to discuss and talk about that. I think that's one that's possible if the conditions present that way."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo