Feature

Australia embrace the unknown with all bases covered

The selection panel looked into some Pakistan domestic data to see how the grounds were set to play but Australia aware they would likely be flying blind

Alex Malcolm
08-Feb-2022
Australia's selectors and players openly admit they have no idea what type of conditions will be thrown their way in Pakistan but they are confident they have picked a well-rounded squad to cover anything that comes up.
Chairman of selectors George Bailey announced the 18-man squad on Tuesday with no new surprise omissions from the Ashes squad and a few predictable additions. They have picked five fast bowlers, leaving only Jhye Richardson at home for workload management reasons, two fast-bowling all-rounders, and three spinners including an offspinner in Nathan Lyon, a legspinner in Mitch Swepson and a left-arm orthodox in Ashton Agar ahead of three Tests in Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore. Australia have not played a Test in Pakistan since 1998 and only five Tests have been played there since international cricket returned to the country.
Bailey revealed the selection panel had delved into some Pakistan domestic data to see how the three grounds were set to play but admitted Australia would likely be flying blind.
"We don't know what conditions [we will get]," Bailey said. "A lot of first-class data that we've been looking at, and chatting to a few people that have played over there, there's one pitch in particular we think will suit the fast bowlers. I think Karachi will take a little bit of spin and we're not quite so sure on Lahore. That generally has been a bit of a better batting wicket.
"I'm not entirely sure what to expect. But I think over the last, not necessarily touring Pakistan, but some of the subcontinent tours we've been on, there's been opportunities for teams to exploit some of the gaps in our skill sets at different times.
"But I certainly feel with this squad we've obviously got an incredibly strong, fast-bowling line-up with some all-round depth at the moment, which gives us great flexibility in what XI we want to go with.
"We've got some great spin depth, obviously Gaz [Nathan Lyon] has been outstanding, but we're really confident that Swepo and Ash Agar would do a good job if they got the opportunity. And also Marnus [Labuschagne] and Steve Smith and Heady [Travis Head] can also bowl some handy overs as well."
The inclusion of Agar is noteworthy given the only two spinners to have taken five-wicket hauls in Pakistan in the most recent five Tests played have been two left-arm spinners last year. Nauman Ali took five wickets on debut against South Africa in Karachi while George Linde took 5 for 64 for the visitors in Rawalpindi. Meanwhile, legspinner Yasir Shah has 14 wickets at 36.50 in four of the five-Test matches played in Pakistan since 2019. the leading wicket-taker over the five Tests has been Shaheen Shah Afridi with 20 while Hasan Ali took 10 wickets in the last Test played in Rawalpindi.
Swepson, a legspinner, has long been regarded as the next spinner in line behind Lyon, or if Australia ever played two spinners, but Bailey did note the value of a left-arm spin in Asia.
"Absolutely having that option in your squad is particularly important I think for some of these wickets where sometimes legspin, you can be bowling on the best part of the wicket on some of the subcontinent [pitches]," Bailey said. "I think it was a place where at times Warnie [Shane Warne] struggled as well to make an impact whereas the finger spin tends to have more of an impact at times."
Bailey was full of praise for the 28-year-old Agar who has already played four Tests, his last in September 2017 in Bangladesh as part of a three-man spin attack.
"What we like about Ash is the incredible all-round skill set," Bailey said. "I think his bowling will continue to get better. But what we've seen is that the way he bowls, he's pretty adaptable to red-ball cricket. So we're really, really happy with that."
Since his last Test in 2017, Agar has only played 15 first-class matches in four years, taking 33 wickets at 48.72 and striking at 99.02. Labuschagne's part-time legspin, and rare mediums, has yielded 57 wickets at 46.45, with a strike rate of 75, in the same period. Australia's only other two left-arm spin mainstays in first-class cricket, Jon Holland and Matt Kuhnemann have both averaged under 31 with the ball. But Bailey was adamant Agar was ahead of both of them in the pecking order, with his batting a key part of that. Agar averages 27.76 with the bat in first-class cricket with three centuries and a Test match 98.
There were no surprises in the batting department although Marcus Harris has been included after losing his place at the top of the order for the final Ashes Test in Hobart. Usman Khawaja is set to open in Pakistan having had great success opening in the UAE against Pakistan in 2018. Harris may not play on the tour but Australia have a longer-term view with trips to Sri Lanka and India coming up in the next 12 months.
"I think David Warner and Uz would most likely start as the openers in Pakistan but we also are aware that, not that age is a be-all or end-all barrier, but both Uz and Bull are reasonably old, I think they're around 35," Bailey said. "So we're just conscious that that specialist opening role is really important to continue developing and that we've got a lot of subcontinent cricket coming up over the next 12-18 months. So it's important to keep focusing on a bit of a succession plan there and developing Harry's skills."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo