Smith is back but fate of urn rests on support act
Labuschagne excepted, Australia’s top seven need to fire to retain the Ashes, says Tim Wigmore
‘Like the World XI at one end, and Ilford second XI at the other,” Graham Gooch once said of the contrast between facing Richard Hadlee and the rest of New Zealand’s attack. The line could easily be adapted to encapsulate the contrasts in Australia’s top-order batting so far this summer.
This Ashes, Australia’s No4 – Steve Smith and then Marnus Labuschagne – have a combined 591 runs at 98 apiece. Meanwhile, the rest of Australia’s top seven have 660 runs between them at an average of a shade under 19. Viewed in this light, perhaps it is Australia, rather than England, who should be grateful to get to the fourth Test locked at 1-1 in the series.
Thanks to Smith’s return, Australia will have both Smith and Labuschagne together for the first time this series, with Labuschagne promoted from four to three. And yet, for all Australia’s excitement over the return of the world’s best Test batsman, this will be tempered by the sense that the rest of the top order need to bat far better if Australia are to retain the urn.
The treatment of Usman Khawaja amounts to acknowledgement of as much. Khawaja has played in every Australian Test since November 2017, and has been touted as a future Test captain. Yet now Australia have decided to dispense with their No3 in the reshuffle.
“Usman’s obviously a key player in our side batting at three and he hasn’t scored the runs that he or we would like, so with Steve Smith coming back it was a tough decision to make on Usman,” Tim Paine, the Australia captain, said. “But we think he’s still got a lot of cricket left in him. He’s had a very good Test record over his career, and we expect he will bounce back pretty strongly.”
The problem for Australia is where that fine Test record has been built. Khawaja’s overall Test average is an admirable 41.
But few players in history
have had such imbalanced records. A Test average of 53 in Australia plummets to just 29 overseas. In six Ashes Tests in England, Khawaja averages just 20, with a top score of 54.
In this light, Khawaja can hardly grumble about being omitted. Yet in a broader sense, Khawaja can perhaps consider himself unlucky. After all, three of Australia’s top seven who will take the field at Old Trafford do so with a worse record this series than Khawaja.
Partly, of course, this betrays the simple arduous nature of batting in Test cricket in 2019: across all Tests last year, the average number of runs per wicket was just 27 – the lowest figure for 61 years. And many of the same broader reasons for the malaise in England’s Test batting could as easily be applied to Australia, too.
Just as in England, the Australian nursery for Test cricket has been shunted to the margins of the season. And, just as in England, the allure of the cash players can earn in Twenty20 cricket has encouraged more of a focus upon these skills.
For Australia, the upshot has been unpalatable batting returns everywhere bar No4. Twelve innings by opening batsmen have produced just a solitary individual score above 20. David Warner has averaged 13. While Matthew Wade made a century at Edgbaston, he has passed six only twice in six innings – even though, with the ball softer and the bowlers tiring, No 6 should nominally be a far easier time to bat.
Australia’s No 7 is faring even worse. Paine averages 12.86 – numbers more befitting the wicketkeeper for Ilford second XI, than the captain of Australia’s Test team. The summer in which Gooch made his remark, 1986, England still lost the series: Hadlee took 19 wickets in the series, even as none of his team-mates mustered more than six.
But Australia know they cannot expect to retain the Ashes while the returns from their top seven remain so wildly diverging. And so, for all of Smith’s brilliance, and the outstanding impression of him from Labuschagne so far, the sense is that the fate of the urn depends on which of those two extraordinary numbers – 98, for Smith and Labuschagne; and 19, for the rest of the top seven – come to look less remarkable by the summer’s end.
Lone furrow: Steve Smith has scored 378 runs in three innings