Cummins, selectors reveal leadership cracks
Two critical things were evident from Australia’s tough first day of the series against India.
Firstly, the pressure of captaincy finally got to Pat Cummins.
And secondly, the leadership team – coach, selectors and captain – appeared willing to abandon the long-held mantra of picking the best available team to instead try to pluck a winning lottery ticket in the hope it would combat a superior opposition.
It was the sort of thing England used to do in the era when Australia normally wrapped up the Ashes by about day three of the third Test.
Cummins had the worst day of his short and highly successful tenue as captain during which a dominant Australia have won four and drawn one series.
They have been tested along the way but 10 Test wins and just one defeat – on a spinning deck at Galle – indicate they have had sufficient answers for the questions put to them.
That was not the case at Nagpur yesterday.
Bowled out for 177 with the long tail contributing almost nothing and the veterans at the top of the order looking as creaky as they did at times against South Africa, Cummins’ response with the ball was telling.
Normally as reliable a seamer as Australia have had for decades, a bowler capable of repeatedly hitting a hard length and doing enough sideways and upwards to test the most skilled batsmen, Cummins lost his control as the external pressure built.
Thirteen off the first over, including two leg stump half-volleys, was a remarkable slide for a player averaging 21 at Test level. Cummins’ figures improved - slightly - but his control didn’t as he gave up 27 in four overs to allow Rohit Sharma to build a foundation.
Any prospect of Australia matching their 2004 success with highly disciplined pace bowling was undone by the wayward skipper whose tepid body language sparked a warning from commentator Ravi Shastri about the poor example it set for Cummins’ team-mates.
The bigger issue was the selection lottery applied by Andrew McDonald, Tony Dodemaide and their confidants.
Leaving Travis Head out, presumably because he averaged just 13 in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year rather than his left-handedness, was a puzzling decision.
Yes, Head had been challenged on the sub-continent but this is a player who was coming off an outstanding summer, had repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to take on the game in a fashion that will be required in India and has clearly improved as his career has progressed.
Dropping him sends a message that the selectors don’t believe he has the capacity to learn from his experience, that he can’t maintain his improvement and that he doesn’t have the ability to work his way through adverse circumstances.
The selectors instead backed two new boys in Matt Renshaw, who missed a straight ball first up, and Peter Handscomb who made a decent though undersized fist of his opportunity. Apart from his unexceptional return at the SCG last month, Renshaw has been out of the Test team for nearly five years. Handscomb has been missing for four.
To suggest that either batsman would be a better option than Head could only be guesswork, not an evidence-based decision. Renshaw has slightly the better record of the trio, with 13 innings on the sub-continent and four scores above 35, which should have put him ahead of Handscomb, who has two scores above 35 from 10 innings.
Head’s scores of 8, 23, 26, 11*, 6, 12 and 5 in Pakistan and Sri Lanka are hardly imposing but he had the value of tenure and recent form. That no longer appears to count. Off-spinner Todd Murphy made a steady start with a handful of cheap and respectable overs.
He is an unusual bowler who does not pivot on his front leg when he bowls, thereby losing the torque required to generate side spin, but is relatively front-on in his action which increases his chances of drifting the ball across the batsman.
He faces an intriguing second day on the job.