When it comes to having a cricket philosophy, Australia’s is marked by a deep stubbornness on any number of matters that, depending on the case, can range from endearing to aggravating. At its best, it reflects loyalty, determination, self-belief; at its worst, hierarchical obeisance and damaging inflexibility. At its core is a belief in the exceptionalism of its players.
Getting overly technical or detailed with tactics or selection is treated as emasculatory. Even worse if other nations have set the lead, given their cricket is to Australians naturally inferior. The mindset is explicable given the decades of Australia winning in bulk, to the point that it no longer mattered whether it happened because of or in spite of the prevailing attitude – the correlation was deemed causative enough.
Accordingly, it was a classic Australian approach to launch into the T20 World Cup in Abu Dhabi on Saturday by picking the Test pace attack: Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, and Mitchell Starc. Let other teams worry about format specialists. Until recently, Hazlewood was one player deemed only for Tests, but recent inroads for the national team and an IPL-winning season meant he had to be picked. He couldn’t replace Cummins, the vice-captain, or Starc, a one-day wizard. In Australia, you don’t so much pick an XI as fill gaps around those who aren’t allowed to be left out.
Cummins and Hazlewood both defied and harnessed the surface, collectively going at 4.5 runs an over while reducing South Africa to a terminally damaging 46/4. Starc got comparatively clobbered at eight per over but took two wickets to hinder a late charge. Overall the configuration worked.
Yet it ran counter to what would be a logical spin approach in Asia. Part-timer Glenn Maxwell bowled a full spell along with lone specialist Adam Zampa for a combined 2/45 from eight overs. South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshaj Maharaj returned the exact same analysis. All of which supports the pre-game likelihood that omitted spinner Ashton Agar would have been a good pick, and that with two seaming all-rounders in the top six he could have been accommodated.
There was a similar thread to Marcus Stoinis and Matthew Wade finishing a tightening run chase of 119. Needing 36 from from four overs was uncomfortable on a slow-scoring pitch with the number six and seven newly arrived. Both these players have done their best T20 work opening the batting in the Big Bash, using faster home pitches to hit through the line of fast bowlers and over fielders inside the circle. When Stoinis has played destructive 50-over innings it has been after having plenty of time to get set.
The T20 middle order is a different challenge, with pace off the ball and the need to score immediately. Stoinis has been played there repeatedly in the IPL with only occasional success: he has days of destroying ordinary spinners but consistently struggles against good ones. In the season just gone he totalled 89 runs in seven innings, with his strike rate of 7.4 runs per over his second-slowest in his six seasons. In all T20 cricket since the last World Cup, Wade strikes at 7.2 per over against spin, largely faced in the middle order, compared to 9.96 against pace, largely faced at the top. None of this suggests that this is the pair Australia should want coming together late in a batting innings.
As with their bowling teammates, they made their situation work. Wade got lucky with one boundary and got creative with another. Stoinis hit powerfully and extremely straight, back past the stumps on more than one occasion, including for the four runs that all but sealed the chase. They got the win with two deliveries to spare.
They were aided by one notable piece of fortune. Each of those last four overs was pace bowling – exactly what Wade and Stoinis would have chosen. South Africa had likewise under-clubbed with spinners. Losing control of the run rate early, captain Temba Bavuma had to bring on Maharaj for the sixth over and Shamsi for the seventh. Defending a small total, he wasn’t game to pad them out with his only part-time option Aiden Markram. His stocks were exhausted by the 16th over, just when it was clear that all he needed was more.
If two spinners are so useful, a third option is essential. Foregoing that would not be a mistake that South Africa would want to repeat. And who knows? There may be those at this World Cup who could find something useful in another team’s experience. There may be those willing to take that chance to learn.