Head-less Australia's horses-for-courses approach backfires
Head's replacement fell for a duck, but what does this decision do to his confidence if he's needed later in the series?
Travis Head cut a forlorn figure in the Australian dressing room a day out from the first Test having been told he had been dropped after scoring 525 runs at 87.50 in his last five Test matches during the home summer.
Matt Renshaw, his horse for course replacement, cut an equally forlorn figure as he trudged off for a first-ball duck.
Australia's horses-for-courses selection backfired as they were spun out for 177 on Nagpur's carefully curated pitch. Time will tell whether that score is a decent one or not as the pitch is only going to deteriorate further. But Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul made it look underwhelming with an assured partnership in the final session.
Regardless, Head's non-selection will cause a stir either way the result falls. Jaws dropped collectively in both Nagpur and Australia when the team sheet landed without Head's name on it.
This Australian selection panel, comprising chairman George Bailey, coach Andrew McDonald and Tony Dodemaide, has been suggesting for some time that they wanted to be adaptable with the team depending on conditions. They have never talked about picking the best XI cricketers, but rather they have been consistent in picking the best team for specific conditions.
They have done that consistently with the bowling unit, playing two spinners in four out of five Tests in Asia last year at the cost of leaving out Josh Hazlewood. They picked Michael Neser for two pink-ball Tests at home when the opportunity presented. They picked Scott Boland for the MCG, albeit they didn't get the flat conditions they felt they needed him for.
They did it too with Ashton Agar in Sydney. Although that selection now has some questions attached to it given he too was left out for Todd Murphy in Nagpur. In Sydney, they were adamant they needed the left-arm orthodox to complement Nathan Lyon, as opposed to the next best spinner who was Murphy. The rain conspired against them, and Agar didn't get to bowl in the sharp-spinning conditions that were expected. But his lack of control was a worry. And his lack of control and form in the training camp in Bengaluru meant he was not selected for tailor-made conditions in Nagpur - even better than those anticipated in Sydney - where Ravindra Jadeja scythed through Australia's middle order with 5 for 47.
Agar's experience exposes the problem with the plug-and-play horses-for-courses philosophy. The theory is perfectly sound. Play your best players in conditions where they are best set up to succeed and avoid setting players up to fail. But what it does not do is account for the fluctuation of form in cricket. The greatest bowlers in the world need match-play to find rhythm and can be adaptable in all conditions. The best batters of all time have fallen in and out of form but have eventually problem-solved most challenges that are thrown at them.
To ask players to have short-term success for short-term assignments belies the continuity that the great players throughout history have needed.
The theory to leave out Head in Nagpur was sound. His experience in Asia last year had already raised red flags. On far better batting tracks than the one in Nagpur, with the exception of Galle, Head scored just 91 runs at 15.16. Either side of those tours he plundered 882 runs in nine Tests at home averaging 73.50 with three centuries and five half-centuries.
But his ability on fast, bouncy pitches in Australia is nullified significantly on the low, spinning subcontinental tracks. He struggled in the training camp in Bengaluru having fallen out of form in the BBL after a long home summer.
The Nagpur pitch with dry, bare patches outside the left-handers off stump caused Australia's selectors to think long and hard about the number of left-handers they would pick. In the end, they were right to pick Peter Handscomb as a right-handed horse for the course at No. 6. His defence was as assured as anyone's against Jadeja and R Ashwin while Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith both looked in sublime touch until Jadeja knocked them over.
Leaving Head out on that basis could well have been the right call. But the flow-on effect is significant. Renshaw was picked for his superior play against spin, yet he fell to Jadeja plonking his front pad lazily into line first ball. Players can fail when they first walk to the crease, and Renshaw should be allowed more chances in this series having been given a start based on his skill set. But that footwork pattern to Jadeja cannot have been a better method than whatever Head might have brought.
What does it do for Head's mindset if he is needed later in the series knowing his own selection panel doesn't believe in his ability against spin?
And further to that, when do the same horses-for-courses principles apply to David Warner? He was bowled through the gate from around the wicket by Mohammed Shami. It was a dismissal more akin to those inflicted by Stuart Broad in England as opposed to his previous struggles in India. But as it stands, Warner averages 22.88 from 17 Test innings in India with just three half-centuries. He also struggled in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year, just as Head did.
Ultimately Australia did not bat well enough despite the selection decisions. They had planned meticulously for the spin threats of Jadeja and Ashwin only for Warner and Usman Khawaja to be knocked over by pace in the first 13 balls of the Test. Labuschagne, Smith, Handscomb and Alex Carey all batted beautifully at times for their respective starts, yet none could go on.
They knew big runs were needed in India and failed at the first time of asking. The horses picked for the course were slow out of the gates early. There is time to rectify it but only time will tell whether these horses can.
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo