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Feature

Unsettled Australia face wicketkeeper crisis

A day before the Chittagong Test - one that they need to win - the visitors remain unsure what their best XI is

Matthew Wade watches the ball into his hands, Dhaka, August 20, 2017

Matthew Wade could be dropped at the expense of a part-time wicketkeeper  •  Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

In behavioural economics it is known as the 'empathy gap'. The theory that decision-makers can misunderstand the full psychological toll of what has just happened when determining what to do next. It's a risk for the bruised Australian camp at the moment, as they pore over a Rubik's Cube worth of combinations before team sheets are exchanged in Chittagong.
Steven Smith's charges took a pounding following Australia's loss in the opening match. The captain says they were embarrassed; both he and coach Darren Lehmann acknowledged the hurt it caused, highlighting the extent to which the leadership's thinking has changed in the space of a week. Smith was refreshingly forthright about the team that had been assembled and why. Now, there is genuine discussion to be had about sacking the wicketkeeper.
The first Test in Mirpur might have been Matthew Wade's last - part-time wicketkeeper Peter Handscomb could be in line to replace him. Under any circumstance, that's a big deal. Doubly so in the subcontinent, where the gloveman is paramount. It might be justified on numerical grounds, with Wade's woes well-documented. But it creates an unavoidable and distinct dislocation and is - by no means - an easy call.
It is one thing to go down to a host nation that is on the rise, and strung together more than enough top-shelf cricket to earn the result in Mirpur. It's another altogether for Australia to become the first nation other than Zimbabwe and West Indies to lose a series to Bangladesh. Especially on the cusp of an Ashes summer.
As a result, an empathy gap can readily fuel a "present bias" in these deliberations as well; where the implications can be worried about later, so long as they escape with a drawn series. Where Smith had once pegged Bangladesh as a platform for the future, they now need an immediate solution.
Complicating matters is torrential rain nailing the city since their arrival, ruining any chance for the tourists to have an outdoor training session on the eve of the match. The forecast is for heavy rain and thunderstorms throughout the Test.
"We'd still like to have another look at the wicket and see what is happening with the weather before we decide on a final XI," Smith said, declining this time to name a side ahead of the toss. "We might show up to the ground and [see] it is raining and change our decision again."
That leaves Wade on tenterhooks. At the short session they had on Saturday, Handscomb did not put on the keeping gloves, but did engage in two one-on-one conversations with Lehmann. Smith established the framework for the change if it were to happen.
"It is obviously an option," he said. "We have got Petey here who can keep, and that will give us the option to play another spinner or another batter; whatever we want to do." Despite not practicing with the gloves two days out from the Test, Smith confirmed that Handscomb would train in the final indoor session.
"He's been working on his keeping before we came and I think he's taking the gloves for Victoria in the one-dayers when he gets home," Smith said. "So, he certainly has kept and we've seen him keep before. He's done a good job."
On Wade, Smith said it "certainly would be a tough call" to omit the only specialist wicketkeeper on the trip, but it is one he is prepared to defend on batting grounds.
"We just need a little bit more from him with the bat," he said. "He's nine Tests now and I don't think he's got a fifty in those nine Tests. And he knows this." Wade did raise the bat once in Dharamsala in March, two Tests ago, but the captain's broader point stands - he has made 255 runs in his last 15 innings.
Asked if Handscomb could end up as a regular fixture behind the stumps, Smith said the flexibility of that option was more suited for short-form cricket. "I think it is difficult to do that for a long period of time in Test cricket," he said.
But this isn't a long period of time. As the return of Steve O'Keefe reinforces, this is a match occurring in an unexpected vacuum. The left-arm spinner has next to no chance to play in their next encounter, an Ashes clash in November. So his one-off mission is clear: join Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar - to form Australia's first three-spinner attack since the Chittagong Test in April 2006 - and spin a face-saving win.
In the one Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test - in Ranchi - that required hours of graft, O'Keefe was the man Smith called on, to the tune of 77 overs. With a rock-hard track, based in brown clay rather than black, Smith has suggested O'Keefe might play that role again.
"[O'Keefe's] still got a very good set of skills for these conditions, there is no doubt about that," he said. "If we go in with the three spinning option, they are three different spinners. We saw last week with the three spinners that Bangladesh had, they bowled very different. It is good to just change it up so you don't give them rhythm against a certain bowler."
Smith noted he is "useless at reading wickets" but even so, it was not ideal that rain prevented a second look at the track the day before the game. The surface's recent history has shown consistent - as opposed to volatile - turn, which might also count in Handscomb's favour. Allrounder Hilton Cartwright seems the man most likely to come in if Wade is omitted.
"If we go in with one quick we might need Hilton bowl a few overs," Smith said. "He's been bowling well in the nets. It feel's like the ball's a bit heavier out of his hand, which is nice. I think he's bowling well and he could do a reasonable job if called upon."
That calibration would confirm Usman Khawaja's spot too. Smith last week said Khawaja, alongside Agar, was playing as much for future contests as the present. Despite the scrutiny after the loss in the first Test, Smith remains steadfast about the side's ability to walk and chew gum.
"At times you also have to look a bit to the future and look at guys that you think can play a role," he said. "I was open about that. I don't think at any point we really said that we weren't concentrating on this tour. I don't think that was ever the case. Peter Siddle's entitled to his opinion but I never think that we've looked too far ahead and not concentrated on this tour."
In 1999, Australia lost their opening Test on a tour of Sri Lanka before the final two games were washed out. Given the grim weather, a lot will need to go right for Smith's men not to suffer a similar fate.