World Cup selection fails to solve Australia’s historical T20 problem

We all know that players get better when they’re out of the team. At least, they get better in the mind’s eye. Especially in sports like cricket or baseball, where statistically players fail more than they succeed, those in the team have to carry the weight of those failures, while supporters are irresistibly drawn to imagine the triumph that might have awaited those left out. The possible tantalises when the actual disappoints.

Which means that skipping a disastrous overseas excursion – eight losses in 10 T20 Internationals across the Caribbean and Bangladesh – has been a good career move for a stack of Australian cricketers. The captain Aaron Finch left the tour early with injury, while David Warner, Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Pat Cummins, Kane Richardson, Marcus Stoinis and Daniel Sams elected to sit it out. Now that so few of those who did travel have returned with reputations enhanced, the eight above have slotted straight in to Australia’s T20 World Cup squad without any decision-making angst.

Of those who toured, Ashton Agar, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Adam Zampa were already part of the furniture – and in any case, bowlers were not the problem across those two losing series. Only four fringe players won selection via the tour. Mitchell Marsh churned out 375 runs in 10 hits at first drop, a consistent streak defying the nature of the format that included four half-centuries and two scores of 45. Leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson scored the perfect balance of in-team results with out-of-team benefit: by only playing three times on tour, he pretty much booked his spot with one return of 3-12 in Dhaka. A third spin option was essential with the World Cup to be played on worn wickets in the UAE.

Dan Christian and Nathan Ellis scored spots as travelling reserve players given their worth as all-rounders who can bowl slow seamers suited to those conditions. Which leaves Matthew Wade as the only player to make the cut after a personally poor tour. Shuffling between opening and the middle order, the wicketkeeper had a top score of 33 across his 10 games while averaging 12.9 at barely a run a ball. Most likely he survived because fellow keeper Alex Carey fared even worse – averaging 8.1 and scoring at five per over – and Carey has never established himself outside the 50-over team.

Batting themselves out of contention alongside Carey were Ashton Turner (averaging 10.2 at four an over), Moises Henriques (13.5 at six), Josh Philippe (6.6 at five) and Ben McDermott (13.2 at five). The matches in Bangladesh were slow and low-scoring for both sides on rough surfaces, but those numbers are still dire. On the bowling front, Riley Meredith and AJ Tye are the tourists who miss out, while Jhye Richardson is the only player to pay a price for choosing to stay home.

All of which leaves only one player coming into the final squad from outside initial considerations. Western Australian wicketkeeper Josh Inglis was lucky not to be considered for the Australian tour: instead he has dominated the T20 Blast in England, making 531 runs at more than 10 per over, before moving on to play The Hundred. In he goes, backed by irresistible form at the right time.

What this doesn’t do is solve Australia’s historical problem in T20 cricket. The bowling is fine: Australia’s three premier Test quicks to lead the charge, Kane Richardson’s variations in support, and three good spinners. The top order is solid with Finch, Warner and Smith. But power and versatility through the middle and late have been problems. At times too much has been left to Maxwell, who has more recently settled at No 4. Inglis has done his recent good work opening. So has Stoinis, who struggles to get going quickly. Marsh has his recent success at No 3.

As has been the case for years, there is a glut of top-order players without those to finish. Agar has rarely been destructive enough to be a genuine No 7. The only players who consistently hit big at the death are Christian and Sams, both of whom are stuck as reserves. There is no XI you can build from this first-choice squad that feels fully balanced.

T20 cricket has never sat comfortably with the Australian team, no matter the success of Australians individually playing and coaching around the world. It’s hard to pin down why. Other teams seem energised by the format, relishing its freedom, where this team does well at times but fumbles when it counts. With the supposed next tier of players failing their recent auditions, and a lack of apparent solutions to well known problems, the relationship in 2021 has not yet got better.