Sri Lanka v Australia Tests - Men
How Australia won the Galle sweepstakes
Australia's batters aimed to sweep or reverse sweep far more frequently in Galle compared with their last tour of Sri Lanka - and it paid immediate dividends
Louis Cameron and Josh Schonafinger
3 July 2022, 07:33 PM AEST
Had a lapsed Australian cricket fan who had not seen the men’s Test side play for a few years tuned in to watch the first 13 balls Alex Carey faced on his tour of Sri Lanka, they might have wondered if they had put on the right channel.
Facing only spin for those 13 deliveries, the wicketkeeper-batter attempted to sweep or reverse sweep every one of them.
He might as well have faced up on one knee.
Alex Carey used the sweep shots expertly in tough conditions. 15 runs from 15 sweeps 13 runs from 9 reverse sweeps 24 of his 47 balls faced (51%) were sweeps #SLvAUS— Josh Schönafinger (@joshschon) June 30, 2022
As noted by Usman Khawaja, the side's most prolific sweeper before Carey made his debut last summer, this was hardly a conventional Aussie approach.
"The amount of times I got told growing up not to sweep as a youngster – every second coach (was) telling me not to do it," Khawaja said during Australia's 10-wicket win.
Carey's plan may have been the most extreme rejection of that ‘play straight’ mantra – all of his 29 runs against spin in Galle came sweeping and he only got out when he tried to end that streak.
But it also speaks to a wider trend among the Australian batting cohort that has been emboldened by an attitude that sees "failure" as being "absolutely okay, as long as you are failing in a way you are happy to be", as captain Pat Cummins put it post-match.
A major factor of course was a diabolically difficult batting surface that prompted both teams to play aggressive batting styles with the acceptance a ball with their name on it was never far away.
"In a lot of ways, sweeps can be blocks over here, because you can get yourself in trouble (defending)," said new Australia assistant coach Daniel Vettori.
Yet the way a majority of the side's top seven have now embraced a stroke once discouraged both at junior levels and within Australian dressing rooms of generations gone by underscores a shift in thinking from previous subcontinental failures.
In Sri Lanka six years ago when they were whitewashed 3-0, Australian batters aimed to sweep or reverse sweep roughly 5.5 per cent of deliveries bowled by spinners, per Opta.
In Galle this week, that figure had jumped to over 20 per cent.
That is more than double the frequency of attempted sweeps against spin in Pakistan (7.62 per cent) earlier this year and four times more often than during their past six home Test seasons (4.29 per cent) combined.
Australia’s Test sweep and reverse sweep percentages against spin
In Australia (2016-17 -2021-22): 4.29%
In Sri Lanka (2016): 5.62%
In India (2017): 4.18%
In Bangladesh (2017): 4.58%
In UAE (v Pakistan, 2018): 7.77%
In Pakistan (2022): 7.62%
*In Sri Lanka (so far, 2022): 20.69%
"There was a plan for individuals to utilise whatever they felt comfortable with and to be as proactive and brave as they could with it," said Vettori, one of Test cricket’s most prolific Test spinners.
"The guys who do sweep very well tried to emphasise that as much as possible. You look at Alex Carey, I think his first 12 scoring shots were all sweeps."
But, Vettori emphasised, there has been no team-wide edict to pull out the broom.
On the one hand there is Khawaja, currently Test cricket's most in-form batter, who has become increasingly comfortable with and proficient at playing the reverse sweep he first trialled on that difficult tour of Sri Lanka in 2016.
Two years later, he played the most reverse sweeps ever recorded in a Test innings (21, per CricViz) against Pakistan in his marathon match-saving 141 in Dubai.
Also in the sweep-happy camp are Carey and Marnus Labuschagne, who had success on one knee in Pakistan and scored all but one of his 13 runs in the first Test against Sri Lanka with sweeps before getting out top-edging a reverse.
Cameron Green's conversion may be the most remarkable though. The right-hander faced 345 balls in Pakistan, his maiden Test series abroad, and did not sweep once.
One could have forgiven him for being content with that – he averaged over 50 for the tour.
Yet considerable pre-series training between the Pakistan and Sri Lanka series gave him the confidence to try it 15 times (from 109 balls faced) in Galle.
It brought him nearly a third of his 77 runs in an innings Cummins labelled as the "difference" in the Test and saw Green named player of the match.
"He expressed that 'I need to do this, what do you reckon?' He came to the decision that 'this is what I want to do'," Beau Casson, Green's batting mentor in Western Australia, told cricket.com.au.
"He's just adding layers to his batting in terms of the variety of shots he can play in different conditions."
At the other end of the sweeping spectrum are the side's two most experienced and successful Test batters in David Warner and Steve Smith.
The pair tried the sweep or the reverse just 15 times between them from nearly 900 balls faced in Pakistan. Warner showed few signs of changing tack in brief cameos in Galle, while Smith faced too few balls to make a judgment. He has not relied heavily on it for his previous success in Asia.
Australia won the sweep stakes in Galle from a bowling perspective too.
Although the Sri Lankans swept even more regularly than the Australians (22.8 per cent to spin, compare to Australia’s 20.7 per cent), the hosts lost seven wickets to the sweep shot including five in their horror second innings.
That’s already more than they lost to the shot for the entire 2016 three-Test series against Australia when they perished only six times to the sweep.
Nathan Lyon's improvement as a subcontinental bowler is a major factor; of his nine wickets for the most recent Test, five came from Sri Lankan sweeps, with his height and over-spin increasing the risk.
"Sometimes out here, bounce for spinners is spoken about as something that's not desirable but he showed here, with that bounce, he was unplayable," said Cummins.
Added Vettori: "That's where Nathan is so successful – he's so consistent and gets so much spin and bounce that even though a sweep is a good option, it's still a challenge against someone of his quality."
But Sri Lanka coach Chris Silverwood, who was in charge of England when they beat his current team on their two-Test tour last year, insists he will not be discouraging the stroke.
"We've just got to be better at playing the sweep, to be honest," said Silverwood. "We saw the Australians use the sweep to great effect.
"When I was here with England, we saw Joe Root and Jos Buttler use the sweep to great effect. Root gave an exhibition on how to play on spinning wickets, which led to the best season of his career.
"If we're going to play on turning wickets, it's something we're going to need to be able to do."
Qantas Tour of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Test squad: Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Pathum Nissanka, Oshada Fernando, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Kamindu Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella, Dinesh Chandimal, Ramesh Mendis, Chamika Karunaratne, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Asitha Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Praveen Jayawickrama, Lasith Embuldeniya, Jeffrey Vandersay. Standby players: Dunith Wellalage, Lakshitha Rasanjana.
Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Jon Holland, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner. Standby players: Matthew Kuhnemann, Todd Murphy
June 29 - July 3: Australia won by 10 wickets
July 8-12: Second Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
Sri Lanka v Australia Test matches will be screened live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports