Pat Cummins: Australia to persist with Marcus Stoinis in middle order
"I think we're pretty happy with our combination, it's worked for us over the last couple of years in T20 cricket," he says
Australia's first international match since the previous home summer was shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic was always going to throw up some selections. None more so than the shape of a middle order that had to be manufactured from a bevy of top-order batsmen.
So there was undoubted significance to the decision to place Marcus Stoinis in the No. 5 position after a pair of domineering seasons with the Melbourne Stars as an opening batsman, either side of his failure to have any impact on last year's World Cup in a similar "finisher" role.
What damage Australia's collapse from a virtually unassailable position against England on Friday will have had on Stoinis only he can say. But it now appears inevitable he will get numerous opportunities to make the critical role his own ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup in India, largely because other more suitable candidates appear determined to keep their more traditionally prominent spots higher up the order.
While once established at the crease, Stoinis' hitting power is unquestioned, his tendency to soak up dot balls and create pressure for the batsman at the other end has long been viewed as a deficiency for opponents to exploit. It was more or less the main reason why the Stars pushed him to the top of the order, where a full 20-over allotment and the initial powerplay gave him much more time to work with.
There are numerous accomplished middle-order merchants in the BBL, not least the Adelaide Strikers' doughty clean-up man Jon Wells. But of the players on the England tour, the best candidates for this critical role would appear to be the captain Aaron Finch, who has excelled in it in past editions of the IPL, or the prodigiously talented and adaptable Steven Smith. Both, though, appear to have settled into their top three perches. Mitchell Marsh also occupied the role in recent times when Stoinis was out of favour, while Marnus Labuschagne would happily fulfil any role offered to him.
Pat Cummins, the vice-captain, was at the other end as Stoinis was unable to clear the boundary on the last ball of the night to hand England a win that had seemed impossible half an hour earlier. He indicated that the pairing of Stoinis and Alex Carey at Nos. 5 and 6 was likely to be persisted with in order to give them the chance to make the berths their own in the absence of dedicated middle-order specialists in the chosen group.
"I'd say them, plus we've got the other guys in this squad over here that are identified in that middle order, so more than likely those guys are going to get a long run," Cummins said. "I think we're pretty happy with our combination, it's worked for us over the last couple of years in T20 cricket, so it's just about slotting those guys into those roles consistently. I'd say that's more than likely going to happen.
"It's something we've spoken about for exactly that reason. They're all the best players when they go back for domestic comps and you could argue that middle-order role is one of the hardest in any cricket team. That's what we've identified - that we've got to try and give guys a go in that - because someone like MS Dhoni was best in the world at it because he'd played 300 or 400 ODI games. And I think you saw this week during the practice games we gave a lot of guys a go in that and we know it's not going to happen overnight.
"That's been a common theme that the selectors and Finchy have spoken about - we'll identify roles and give them a long run in that. I think we've got the right squad, the right players, it's just about trying to get plenty of games into everyone now."
Reflecting on the result, Cummins was happy to admit that the pain of defeat was nothing like that of an Ashes Test - Australia's last Test loss to England was Ben Stokes' match at Headingley a year ago - but was equally forceful in stating that it was a scenario from which no one should be losing, not least the No. 1 team according to the ICC rankings.
"I thought for 80% or 90% of the game we played really well, we were on top, in a commanding position and just the last third of the batting innings we let it slip, a few wickets," Cummins said. "I felt at times like we were only two boundaries away from the game finishing in about the 15th over. So it's a shame, something we're going to have to try to get better at, it's happened a few times, so I'm sure every one of us will review in our own way and think about what we could've done differently. But for sure, you should be winning just about every game in that position."
He also noted the oddness of playing in an empty stadium, although he doubted it had any impact on performance.
"It, for sure, was strange. We know what we were signing up for, but until Starcy's [Mitchell Starc] bowling that first over and you can hear a pin drop, it's just weird. After a couple of overs we got into it, but it's just odd that unless we create the noise out in the field there is absolutely no noise happening. So a bit of an adjustment, but everyone has played enough cricket. It's certainly different being over here in England and not hearing some of the songs."
As for the BBL, a tournament that Labuschagne in particular would dearly like to show his T20 wares in, Cummins said he was hopeful of ways being found for uncontracted Australian players to take part. This comes on the back of ESPNcricinfo's report that next year's scheduled series against New Zealand is likely to be moved in order to give the tournament's pointy end some clear air.
"This summer's going to have a lot more challenges than perhaps in the past, but I'm not going to rule it out, we'll see how it all comes together," he said. "It's going to be busy, it's going to be hard, but it's a great competition, us Aussie guys love playing it [and] international guys. Even speak to some of the English guys, they really want to have a crack at it like they do every year. I'm not going to say either way, but we'll see how it pans out.
"When we're not playing the Big Bash it means we've got international cricket, so whatever happens we're normally playing cricket somewhere, but I'll leave the scheduling to the other guys."
Whatever the scheduling, Australia's T20I batting order remains a puzzle in which a couple of top-order pegs must be fitted into middle-order holes - Stoinis, Smith or Finch. Unless, that is, they belatedly turn to a specialist like Wells.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig