Australia’s Sydney selection conundrum might return for Nagpur with news that Cameron Green and Mitchell Starc are “touch and go” for the series opener against India.
The duo are missing the third and final Test against South Africa after suffering finger injuries that could keep them out of action well into February.
Green, who is recovering from surgery on his broken finger, said he will be ready to fulfill his $3.15m IPL contract — but the first Test against India on February 9 might come too soon.
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“Obviously my first priority is the Test series that’s in advance,” Green said.
“I think me and Starcy are maybe touch and go for that first (Test) but obviously we’ll give ourselves the best chance.”
Starc’s finger isn’t broken but he suffered ligament damage while trying to take an outfield catch at the MCG.
Missing two key players for one of Australia’s biggest Test assignments in recent memory is something close to a doomsday scenario for selectors.
Their recovery means they will now be asking the same question as they were in the build-up for the Sydney Test: Who will replace Green and Starc on a wicket that’s expected to take spin?
Given the conditions, and the fact Australia doesn’t have an obvious like-for-like replacement for Green, there are several directions in which selectors may go.
It’s arguably fair to assume that those picked for Sydney are in pole position to be retained, given the third Test XI was selected with a view towards India.
Selectors went with an extra spinner to replace Starc in the form of left-arm Ashton Agarwhile an extra batter in Matthew Renshaw was picked at No. 6 to cover Green.
It’s hard to say at this point if either have passed their audition.
Thanks to rain and the dominance of Australia’s top-order, Renshaw faced just 11 balls in the first innings, while the first three days passed without Agar bowling a ball.
Nevertheless, Agar appears to be the frontrunner to partner Nathan Lyon in India with Mitchell Swepson not doing enough across his four Tests in 2022.
The recent success of left-arm orthodox spin in the subcontinent is set to work in Agar’s favor, too, as is the fact that he has experience in Asia across all formats.
India’s own left-arm spinning all-rounder, Axar Patel, has the second-most Test wickets in India over the past three years with 39 at just 12.43.
In fact, four of the top five on that list are left-arm orthodox spinners.
England’s Jack Leach took 18 wickets at 28.72 in four India Tests, Ravindra Jadeja claimed 15 at 16.46, while New Zealand’s Ajaz Patel snared 17 at 22.05, including a 10-wicket haul in December 2021.
Meanwhile, Agar has played 20 international fixtures in Asia across all formats, including two Tests in Bangladesh in 2017.
The fact that he also averages 32.50 with the bat in Test cricket, including his 98 on debut in 2013, boosts his credentials further over a specialist spinner.
Meanwhile, on the fringes of the spin conversation is Todd Murphy. He has14 wickets at 17.71 in the Sheffield Shield this season, and appears to have also jumped ahead of Swepson in the selection queue.
Earlier this year, he took 4-52 for Australia A against Sri Lanka in what was only his third first-class match, while Kerry O’Keeffe believes he’s “as good an off-spinner I’ve seen since Nathan Lyon.”
“I think the ball comes out of his hand beautifully. He’s working on his variations, and he’s going to be a star for the Australian cricket team when the time comes,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“Every year he just seems to get a little bit better.”
Adam Zampa is another smokey to play in Nagpur having played first-class cricket again for the first time in three years.
It feels like he’s coming from too far behind, but he announced in November that he wants to “throw my hat in the ring” to play Test cricket.
Zampa’s experience in Asia certainly counts for something — even if it’s white ball experience. He’s played 53 matches in Asia across formats, taking 78 wickets at 24.23.
As for Australia’s No.6, Renshaw forced his way back into the XI for the first time in nearly five years after averaging more than 50 in this summer’s Sheffield Shield.
He’s also noted as one of Australia’s stronger players of spin, while he also has some invaluable experience in Asia having played all six Tests against India and Bangladesh in 2017.
While he didn’t make any big scores in either series, he did notch two fifties, and made three other scores between 30 and 50.
Despite playing in Sydney, however, Renshaw’s retention is less obvious than Agar’s, should both Green and Starc be missing in Nagpur.
Australia was already taking a big risk by only picking two fast bowlers in Sydney, with one being Hazlewood who has managed just four Tests in a year, and none since the first match against the West Indies.
Should just one fast bowler go down, it would leave Australia with a major predicament and likely turning to Marnus Labuschagne to send down some of his rare mediums.
Australia would need to be extremely confident that the wicket will be a raging turner to go with only two fast bowlers, freeing up a spot for Renshaw.
Luckily for Renshaw, that is what is expected in India.
What also plays in his favor is that selectors will be cautious about Australia’s batting depth in Asia, considering the team’s troubles against spin.
In Sri Lanka last year, Australia lost the second Test by an innings after being rolled for 151. David Warner averaged only 21.33 in that series, and Travis Head just 7.66.
As such, it would be a big risk for Australia to elevate Alex Carey and have just the six specialist batters. Australia will likely want to bat deeper, meaning Renshaw will be firmly in the conversation if Green is unavailable.
The alternative option, which gained some traction ahead of the Sydney Test, is the uncapped 23-year-old Aaron Hardie.
Ricky Ponting and Kerry O’Keeffe sang the praises of Hardie before he was edged out by Renshaw.
“The most recognizable like-for-like I can think of for Cam Green’s replacement for Sydney is someone like Aaron Hardie,” Ponting told Channel 7.
“Another Western Australian all-rounder. Very talented youngster, we’ve seen him make his mark on the shorter forms of the games so far, more so than anything else.
“He did get 100 in the Shield final last year and can bowl some handy overs. Bit of a smoky there, but I’m happy to throw it out there.”
Meanwhile, O’Keeffe said on Fox Cricket: “He’s behind Cameron Green as an all-rounder – but I’ve watched him for some time – I think he’s an outstanding talent.
“He bats like Cameron Green, very strong down the ground. He bowls quality outswing. He’s in their sights, I’m pretty sure. I think he’d be a good like-for-like.”
Hardie averages an impressive 44.57 with the bat in first-class cricket and has 41 wickets at 30.80, making him a worthy candidate for consideration.
Another all-rounder option, albeit not as similar to Green, is the Queensland veteran Michael Neser.
Neser has two Tests behind him and could potentially fill an all-rounder role having provided plenty of runs for Queensland recently. This season, he averages 42.66 with the bat, while he has two first-class centuries to his name.
Prior to the Sydney Test, Brad Haddin called Neser a “must” for Australia, and Brett Lee also picked him in his predicted XI, although he ultimately lost out.
The least likely scenario is that the conditions shock everyone and Australia goes with its traditional 7-4 line-up that features three fast bowlers.
In that situation, Lance Morris would come right back into the equation to replace Starc.
Morris has been billed as the fastest bowler in Australia who could potentially trouble India’s batters with his raw speed through the air.
He’d bring an element of the unknown to Australia’s rivals, as well as a point of difference to the more precise Cummins and Hazlewood.
Scott Boland is also looking for a way back into the XI, although it seems unlikely that Australia would play him alongside two other line-and-length bowlers.