Who partners Nathan Lyon? Can injury-hit Australia accommodate Cameron Green?

The visitors have Mitchell Swepson, Ashton Agar and Todd Murphy as spin-bowling options, even as they ponder replacements in their pace battery

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Just days out from the start of their blockbuster series against India in Nagpur, Australia face several selection headaches. Three certain starters in Cameron Green, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are injured, leaving the No. 6 batting position and the composition of the bowling attack unknown, while no definitive decision has been made on who Nathan Lyon's spin partner will be if they select two spinners. Here are the debates facing Australia's selectors ahead of the first Test starting Thursday.

Does Green play as a pure batter?

Green broke his right index finger during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa last December, and thus required surgery. He did not pick up a bat for the next four weeks, with another seven days having passed since the injury. Australia coach Andrew McDonald has already confirmed that Green is currently unable to bowl, although he admitted that he was surprised at how well Green was batting given the short recovery time.
Green is pushing to play as a pure batter in Nagpur, but the short turnaround from the injury and the obvious need to be protected in the field means it might be touch and go. If Green is not fit, Australia will almost certainly pick a specialist batter at No. 6, as they did against South Africa in the Sydney Test after Green's injury. It was Matt Renshaw who had got the nod there, and he has been in tremendous form in all formats recently and has experience in India as an opener.
But if Renshaw plays, Australia will have five left-handers in the top seven. Peter Handscomb is a realistic option if the selectors prefer a little more right-left balance to not give R Ashwin a chance to settle against a bevy of left-handers. Hanscomb is one of Australia's better players of spin, and had the experience of playing all four Tests in 2017. He is also coming off two back-to-back big-run-scoring seasons in the Sheffield Shield, Australia's premier first-class competition.

Two spinners or three quicks?

It seems highly likely that Australia will play two spinners as they have only three fit quicks to choose from following the injury to Hazlewood. Starc doesn't arrive until after the first Test, as he continues to recover from his finger injury, while Green can't bowl even if he does play. Australia did win at the old Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground in Nagpur in 2004 with three quicks and one spinner, but that was with Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne.
Scott Boland looks set to play in place of Hazlewood, and has a good record on very flat, low pitches in Australia in the Shield, although he has hardly bowled on a flat pitch in international cricket so far. Australia have one other quick option in Lance Morris, who has made a name in Shield cricket as Australia's fastest bowler, and has proven himself to be more than capable of reversing an old ball at high pace and troubling batters on slow surfaces.
But Morris regularly plays in a five-man attack for Western Australia and is used in short impact spells. Thus, handing him a Test debut in a four-man attack - especially with Starc and Hazlewood missing, and Boland low on experience - would be a huge risk, especially on Indian pitches.

Who partners Lyon?

It was Ashton Agar in Australia's previous Test in Sydney, as McDonald went on record stating that they wanted left-arm orthodox to complement Lyon, particularly with Travis Head's improvement as a part-time offspinner heightening the need for a different skillset in the attack. Agar went wicketless and battled for control, which was understandable given he has worked tirelessly at becoming one of Australia's best T20 bowlers in recent years at the expense of playing very few first-class games; before Sydney, his last Test had come back in 2017, while since 2021 he has played only four first-class games.
Todd Murphy has emerged as arguably Australia's second-best red-ball spinner but, like Lyon, he too is an offspinner, albeit a different one. The desire for a left-arm spinner is strong, though, given that in the previous game played at the venue of the first Test, Vidarbha bowled Gujarat out for 54 when defending only 73 in the Ranji Trophy, India's premier first-class competition. Granted, that match was played on a side pitch while the Test between India and Australia will be held on one of the centre pitches, but it was left-arm spin that did most of the damage.
Nine of the ten wickets in Gujarat's second innings - which happened to take place on the third day of the match itself - had fallen to left-arm orthodox spin, while 23 of the last 30 in the game also went to the same kind of bowling. The pitch for the first Test is expected to be very dry, and India are certain to have at least four right-hand batters in their top seven; that number could rise if they play one or both of Suryakumar Yadav and KS Bharat.
But Murphy's record against right-handers in seven first-class matches - with 14 wickets at 26.7, and a strike rate of 62.2 - far outweighs Agar's in his last 12 matches (10 wickets at 75.9, while striking at 171.5).
Legspinner Mitchell Swepson is also in the squad, having played four of Australia's five Tests in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year. But Australia's selectors have flagged a clear preference for a fingerspinner offering more control in India, with even India not preferring Kuldeep Yadav at home in recent times; although the fact that all three of Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel are better batters than Kuldeep might have also played a part.
Eventually, Australia must decide between trying Agar for the first time in Asia in the last six years, or handing a debut to Murphy, which would leave them with two specialist offspinners, and a part-time offspinner in Head with very little rough to exploit outside the right-handers' off stump given there will be no left-arm quicks playing in either team to create any footmarks to exploit.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo