Domain Test Series v Pakistan
Langer's call for top-order to bat bigger
Having confirmed the first Test XI the Australia coach wants to see first-innings totals busting the 300-run barrier on a consistent basis
Andrew Ramsey in Brisbane
19 November 2019, 07:30 PM AEST
Australia's men's team have convened in Brisbane for a traditional start to the Test summer, eyeing a demonstrably different mission but vexed by a hauntingly familiar challenge.
It's less than a year since Tim Paine's squad gathered in Adelaide to take on India, the world's top-ranked Test team, without the services of their two most accomplished batters, and with the World Cup and Ashes campaigns looming dauntingly large.
Now, with Steve Smith and David Warner returned and the urn retained, fifth-placed Australia tackles the number seven (Pakistan) and two (New Zealand) ranked teams in the new ICC Test Championship across the dual Domain Test Series.
Australia coach Justin Langer today confirmed that, barring unforeseen events, Joe Burns would open alongside David Warner in the first Test starting Thursday with auxiliary batter Cameron Bancroft and fourth seamer Michael Neser missing out on the starting XI.
And while doubts persist about the potency of Australia's batting that leaned heavily upon Smith's virtuoso talents in the Ashes, Langer sees a marked shift in preparation from the atypical season that dawned 12 months ago.
The sheer volume of international cricket the team has racked up since their winter assignment in the UK – with the World Cup and Ashes followed by a home hybrid of domestic one-day matches, T20 Internationals and Marsh Sheffield Shield games – led Langer to note his charges could scarcely be more ready.
"We've had a very different preparation this week than a lot preparations we've had for the first Test in Brisbane before," Langer said prior to Australia's main pre-Test training session at the Gabba today.
"And the reason is we've had four or five months of cricket in England, we've had Sheffield Shield cricket, the boys have had some T20 cricket, we've played some one day cricket.
"So they're up and running, which is a real positive coming into the summer and there's definitely a distinct difference in the feel and preparation of the group."
But although the diversity and depth of competitive cricket has helped forge a cohesive core group of players over the past six months, a glaring inadequacy remains.
As a celebrated member of the men's Test team's most recent golden era, Langer recognises that a key to winning match after match, series upon series is settling upon a reliable batting unit that consistently posts big first innings scores.
Despite Smith's heroics since he and Warner returned from suspension earlier this year, that ambition has remained elusive.
Only twice in the past year have Australia scored 350 or more in their first innings, and both of those Tests – against Sri Lanka at Canberra, and the decisive fourth Ashes Test at Manchester – resulted in hefty wins.
Perhaps more instructively, across those 11 Tests the team has employed 14 specialist batters (including allrounder Mitchell Marsh) and experimented with five different opening combinations.
That number will grow to six this week when Warner is reunited with his Queensland sidekick Joe Burns for the first time in three years, with Langer expressing his hope that the latest batting combination might yield runs and stability.
"We're number five in the world in Test cricket at the moment, and there's reasons for that," Langer said today, citing the newly instituted ICC Test Championship table.
'They're both rare units' 😂 Joe Burns and David Warner are set to resume their 'unique' relationship at the Gabba! @AlintaEnergy | #AUSvPAK pic.twitter.com/2hDUukq8YL— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) November 17, 2019
"One of them is that we don't score 300-plus in the first innings enough.
"Our batters are very aware of that.
"They understand that's part of the responsibility and privilege of being selected in the top six in the Australian Test team.
"We're not going to shy away from that. It's no secret. We know we've got to keep improving and I'm confident we will."
Langer is also hopeful that the "odd couple" opening partnership of Warner and Burns can rebuild a first-wicket union as uncompromising and unlikely as the record-setting bond he established with Matthew Hayden.
Langer and Hayden were opposites in physique as well as approach, with the towering Queenslander imposing himself on rival bowlers while diminutive Langer relied more often on deft nudges and patient defence.
But Langer also points to Burns's record in the vital first innings of Test matches as another compelling case for his recall having missed selection for the Ashes tour.
In his 16 Test matches to date, Burns has scored 756 runs at an average of 47.25 (with three centuries) in his team's first innings, while his second innings record shows 367 at 30.58 from 12 innings with a single hundred.
"He got a very good first innings record, and I know Davey likes batting with him … not that he doesn't like batting with other people," Langer said of Burns today.
"And I obviously have some understanding of how important it is for the openers to get on really well, and work well together and understand each other.
"One of the things we need to do is get our top three cemented and get that as strong as possible because it's a pivotal part of winning games of cricket.
"So I'm hopeful the odd couple will get out there and, like we've seen in the past, form a really good opening partnership."
Langer said that in the wake of the ICC World Cup, which was ultimately won by host nation England after Australia were knocked out at semi-final stage, he has a fairly clear idea of the players who form the nucleus of his best XI in white-ball cricket.
He concedes that clarity does not yet exist in the Test format, but the unprecedented intra-squad trial match that preceded selection of the Ashes squad last July provided a reassuring reminder of the depth of talent that exists within first-class ranks.
Once that core group is identified, the challenge is to determine how long that nucleus can be maintained while at the same time knowing when new blood needs to be added to replenish the personnel without significantly diluting its potency.
"That's what we are aiming for, a settled group of guys who can work toward a goal, whether it is the Test championship or the 2020 (T20) World Cup or the 50-over World Cup," he said.
"It's a bigger goal than just winning the next Test match.
"I remember talking to Alex Ferguson (legendary former Manchester United manager boss in the UK this year) about that, and he said he always had one eye on now and an eye (focused) four years down the track as well.
"It's a balancing act, but I guess that's the art of coaching and the art of selection.
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"A lot of times we've lived on the philosophy in Australian cricket that we pick the very best team for today, and tomorrow can look after itself.
"There's a bit of an art to it, a bit of a balancing act.
"Sometimes you get it right … sometimes you don't."
Domain Test Series v Pakistan
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner
Pakistan squad: Azhar Ali (c), Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Imam-ul-Haq, Imran Khan Snr, Iftikhar Ahmed, Kashif Bhatti, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Musa Khan, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shan Masood, Yasir Shah.
Warm-up match: Australia A v Pakistan, match drawn
Warm-up match: v Cricket Australia XI, November 15-16, WACA Ground
First Test: November 21-25, Gabba (Seven, Fox & Kayo)