Magellan Ashes 2017-18
WACA nightmares delay selection call
Captain Steve Smith says potential recall of Mitchell Marsh would say more about WACA pitch than Peter Handscomb's batting
Andrew Ramsey in Perth
13 December 2017, 04:46 PM AEST
The hesitation in Australia finalising their XI for the series-defining third Magellan Ashes Test is founded upon concerns that the WACA Ground pitch might be softer and therefore slower than expected, thus increasing the likelihood an extra bowling option will be needed.
With memories of the bat-dominated Test against New Zealand two summers earlier burned deep into the memory of Australia skipper Steve Smith and WACA curator Matt Page, a decision on whether a change is made to the team that won the first two Tests will come at Thursday's coin toss.
But Smith said on Wednesday that if seam bowling allrounder Mitchell Marsh is added to the XI in place of batter Peter Handscomb – to provide additional firepower with the ball – that call will represent a judgement on the WACA pitch conditions and not Handscomb’s indifferent batting form.
Smith was seen casting a close eye over pitch preparation during Australia’s main pre-Test training session at the WACA on Tuesday, and revisited the well grassed strip on Wednesday morning to find the surface softer than he envisaged.
"Probably not as hard as I would have liked it to be a day out, but 24 hours can change a wicket and we’ll have another look in the morning," Smith said.
"Hopefully, it’s a bit harder and faster but I don’t really know that much about the wickets, I’m pretty useless at judging them.
"We'll have another look in the morning and see what I and the selectors think is best for this Test match."
Page conceded that, after a burst of scorching summer weather early this week, a couple of cooler days (including some morning rain on Tuesday) has proved problematic to his plans for rolling out a hard, fast WACA strip for the venue’s final Ashes Test.
He claimed the pitch for the third Test, with Australia holding a formidable 2-0 lead in the five-match series, is likely to resemble the surface for last summer’s South Africa Test which the Proteas won by 177 runs despite losing their strike bowler Dale Steyn to injury on the second day.
Second innings centuries to Dean Elgar and JP Duminy propelled the tourists to a total of 8(dec)-540 as Australia’s five-faceted bowling attack – that included allrounder Marsh – was proved impotent on a benign batting surface.
However, it's the spectre of the 2015-16 Test against the Black Caps – which yielded almost 1,700 runs, more than 200 boundaries but just 28 wickets – that makes Smith feel that an extra bowler is vital and keeps Page (who is about to take over as curator at the MCG) awake at night.
"It was so evenly paced - really slow, and once you got in it was almost impossible to get out," Smith recalled of that 2015 pitch that Mitchell Johnson cited as a key factor in his retirement from Test cricket at game’s end.
"You had to really make some bad mistakes as a batsman if you wanted to get out on that wicket.
"Let’s hope it’s not like that for this wicket.
"I think he (Page) is leaving a lot more grass on it than he probably previously has to try and get that pace in the wicket, so hopefully there is a bit of pace and bounce and carry in this wicket."
Asked if there was anything peculiar about the preparation of that pitch for the Test against NZ, in which David Warner’s first innings high score of 253 was overtaken by the Black Caps’ Ross Taylor with 290, Page visibly flinched at the mention of the drawn match.
"Thanks for bringing that up, I still have nightmares about that Test," he said.
"There’s always pressure here to produce pace and bounce.
"(This pitch) is totally different.
"A bit more grass on it, we expect to see a bit more pace in there but I guess we won’t get a true gauge until that first ball is bowled.
"We’re probably expecting something similar to South Africa last year, and being that the (Ashes) Test is in December we would expect a little bit more pace in it.
"The first couple of days of preparation were nice and warm for us, which was ideal.
"It’s cooled off for us in the last couple of days which has not been great for what we’re trying to achieve, but we’ve tinkered with a few things on it and hopefully we’ll see it (the ball) go through okay.
"The hotter it is, the harder we can get that surface.
"It just bakes off nicely and helps the ball go through.
"We haven’t got that so we deal with it and make the best of what we’ve got."
Given that Test eve in Perth dawned sunny but cool, with regular banks of cloud passing above the WACA Ground, that vulcanizing process won’t have taken place and both teams will wait until match morning to finalise their starting line-ups.
But Smith was at pains to point out that if another slowish pitch awaits, the likely inclusion of Marsh won’t signal a loss of faith in Handscomb who entered Test cricket a year ago with a blaze of runs and the promise of a lengthy tenure.
"If we do go down the route of Pete missing out, it’s unlucky and the message to him is purely - from my point of view and from the selectors, speaking to them - is that it’s for the extra bowling option," Smith said.
"It’s nothing to do with the batting, as such.
"If he misses out, we still see a very bright future for Pete.
"He’s come in, I think he’s averaging 47 in Test cricket against a whole heap of different nations in different conditions so he can certainly play the game and if he is to miss out there’s no reason why he won’t be back in the team soon."
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21