How do you replace a cricketer as irreplaceable as Mitchell Starc?
The Australian quick suffered a damaged tendon on his bowling hand during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa, ruling him out of next week’s match in Sydney.
Starc is now racing against the clock to recover before February’s Test tour of India.
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“From the scans the other day, the tendon’s basically gone from the top of the finger, so I can’t straighten it or any of that,” Starc told reporters on Thursday afternoon.
“I’m getting another scan in Sydney and seeing a finger specialist to work through all that. Obviously, India is coming up, so we’ll see what time frames are up after we work through those discussions next week.
“Hopefully, it fits in somewhere at the front end of the tour.”
Australian all-rounder Cameron Green joined Starc in the casualty ward on Tuesday after South African paceman Anrich Nortje struck him on the gloves. Blood immediately started pouring from his index finger, with scans later revealing a small fracture that ruled him out of the SCG Test.
Suddenly, two gaping holes had formed in the Test XI. Australia’s impressive bowling stocks means replacing Starc is relatively straightforward, but the loss of Green creates a more intriguing selection dilemma.
Should Australia bring in a like-for-like replacement for the 23-year-old, or select a fifth bowling option and slide wicketkeeper Alex Carey up to No. 6?
Ahead of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, it could be in Australia’s best interest to give their second tweaker some Test exposure in Sydney, which is traditionally considered a spin-friendly wicket.
“It’s probably going to be the wicket in Australia that closest resembles India even if it doesn’t spin big,” Australian captain Pat Cummins told reporters on Thursday.
“It might give us a chance to have a look at one or two players that will be on the Indian tour ahead of that.
“But the first priority is of course to win the Test match.”
Speaking to CODE Sports this week, SCG curator Adam Lewis hinted that picking a second spinner to the side would benefit the hosts.
“If it has to be two quickies and two spinners because that’s what the surface suggests is the right way to go, just do it,” Australian legend Allan Border told foxsports.com.au.
“It’s a bit like Warne and MacGill. We have two very, very high quality, one exceptional, leg-spinners, but they very rarely played together. That was a bit of a shame when I look back on it now.
“Ideally you would have one spinning in and one spinning away. That would be the ideal scenario.”
Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell would typically be the next all-rounders in line for selection, but both are unavailable due to injury. It means several bolters and forgotten stars are in contention for a Test call-up.
Michael Neser appears to be the leading candidate to replace Green for the New Year’s Test against South Africa, slotting in at No. 7 or No. 8 and serving as an all-rounder.
The Queenslander is more than capable of contributing runs in the middle order, averaging 42.66 with the bat in the Sheffield Shield this summer. He has two first-class centuries to his name, most recently a career-best 136 against New South Wales at Drummoyne Oval in October.
But of course, Neser is first and foremost an excellent seam bowler. He is currently the third-highest wicket-taker in the Sheffield Shield with 24 scalps at 14.50, including astonishing match figures of 9-70 against Victoria last month.
The 32-year-old has already played two Tests for Australia, both being pink-ball fixtures at Adelaide Oval. In the recent day-night Test against the West Indies, Neser impressed with match figures of 5-56 from 22.5 overs.
“He’s a must,” former Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin said on Fox Cricket.
“He could cover No. 7 … you could move (Carey) up to No. 6 for a one-off Test match.
“He’s a big chance to play the Sydney Test.”
Brett Lee continued: “He’ll do well on the Sydney wickets. He’s definitely on my team.”
‘The Wild Thing’ could finally be unleashed in Sydney next week.
West Australian seamer Lance Morris was rushed into the Australian Test squad ahead of the pink-ball fixture in Adelaide as injury cover for Mitchell Starc, serving as the left-armer’s like-for-like replacement.
With Starc set to miss the Sydney Test, Morris is firmly in contention to receive a coveted baggy green at the SCG.
“There’s clearly a role there for (Morris) if Mitchell Starc was to go down,” Australian coach Andrew McDonald told SEN on Wednesday.
“So he may be looking like he’ll get an opportunity in Sydney based on the balance of that attack.”
Morris, capable of bowling faster than 150km/h, is currently the leading wicket-taker in the Sheffield Shield with 27 wickets at 18.40 in five matches. The 24-year-old claimed career-best match figures of 9-82 against New South Wales in October, which caught the attention of national selectors.
The SCG Test will be dead rubber against a depleted South African batting attack, ideal circumstances for Morris to have his first taste of Test cricket.
“It’s the perfect opportunity to pick that young quickie and just see what he’s got,” Border said.
“But it all comes down to that final make-up. It you’re going to play two spinners, you probably can’t play (Morris).”
After missing three consecutive Tests due to a minor side strain, Hazlewood has declared himself available for the New Year’s Test if required.
“I’ve got a few more overs to bowl during this game in the nets, I had a good hit out two days ago” Hazlewood told SEN on Thursday.
“All the signs are good and I feel ready and fit.
“I haven’t had a chat to them, but before this game I had a good chat with them over a few days and it ended up being my call for the game, so I feel in a good position.”
If fully fit, Hazlewood’s return seems inevitable given Starc is unavailable, but depending on team balance, the 31-year-old could once again find himself in a two-way battle with Victorian hero Scott Boland for the No. 11 spot.
Boland, who has played three Tests in as many weeks, could be rotated out of the Sydney Test starting XI amid workload concerns, but at some stage national selectors will need to decide whether he has leapfrogged Hazlewood in the pecking order.
“The coupons that Hazlewood has built up over many years has given him the slight edge over Scotty Boland, who has hit the ground running,” Border said.
“Josh has done enough for me to, when he’s fully fit, come back into the side.”
The smokey for a Test debut, Aaron Hardie could slide into the Australian starting XI for the Sydney Test as a like-for-like replacement for Cameron Green.
The West Australian is a Green replica; a solid middle-order batter that bowls steady fast-medium seamers. Bringing in Hardie would be particularly advantageous considering Australia wouldn’t have to alter the team balance.
Hardie scored a century in last summer’s Sheffield Shield final, plundering an unbeaten 174 to ensure Western Australia won its first title in 23 years.
The 23-year-old averages 44.57 with the bat in first-class cricket, while also claiming 41 wickets at 30.80 in 19 Sheffield Shield matches. Handy numbers.
“Aaron Hardie, he’s behind Cameron Green as an all-rounder, but I’ve watched him for some time. I think he’s an outstanding talent,” former Australian spinner Kerry O’Keeffe told Fox Cricket on Wednesday morning.
“He bats like Cameron Green, very strong down the ground. He bowls quality outswing. He’s in their sights, I’m pretty sure.”
However, a recent dip in form could deter national selectors from calling up Hardie for the third and final South Africa Test. He has averaged 26.83 with the bat in the Sheffield Shield this summer, taking just seven wickets in five matches.
The incumbent second spinner, Mitchell Swepson’s name pops up every summer ahead of the New Year’s Test.
The late Shane Warne called for the Queenslander to make his Test debut in the 2020 Sydney Test against New Zealand, but national selectors played it safe and stuck with three pacemen.
After five years hopping in and out of the Australian squad, Swepson finally made his Test debut during this year’s tour of Pakistan. However, the leg-spinner struggled on the lifeless subcontinent pitches, finishing the series with bowling figures of 2-266.
Swepson redeemed himself in Sri Lanka, taking seven wickets in Galle to help Australia retain the Warne–Muralitharan Trophy on foreign soil. But the 29-year-old hasn’t been bashing down the door for a recall since, taking 12 wickets in the Sheffield Shield at 39.66 this season.
Considering how effective finger spin was when Australia toured India in 2017, national selectors may turn their attention elsewhere.
Ashton Agar played the most recent of his four Test matches in 2017, but the West Australian is on the verge of making his long-awaited return next week.
If Australia decides to pick two spinners for the SCG Test against South Africa, Agar is potentially at the top of the pecking order.
Firstly, the 29-year-old is a verified all-rounder – he averages 28.38 with the bat in first-class cricket with three centuries to his name. Every Australian cricket fan remembers the 98 he scored batting at No. 11 on Test debut at Trent Bridge in 2013.
Agar could comfortably bat at No. 7 if required, plugging the hole left by Green.
Secondly, Agar spins the ball away from right-handed batters, unlike Nathan Lyon who turns it from left to right. Having the two tweakers bowling in tandem means the outside edge is constantly under threat, regardless of who’s batting.
Steve O’Keefe’s 12-wicket haul in Pune might be all the motivation national selectors need to give Agar, another left-arm orthodox spinner, a ticket to India next month.
Another bolter for Sydney, Todd Murphy will be in discussion for a national call-up ahead of the third and final Test against South Africa.
Earlier this year during a tour of Sri Lanka, Murphy took 4-52 from 19 overs while representing Australia A in just his third first-class match.
The Victorian has been widely touted as Nathan Lyon’s eventual replacement in the Test side, with opponents and teammates singing his praises all summer.
“He’s as good an off-spinner I’ve seen since Nathan Lyon,” former Australian spinner Steve O’Keefe told foxsports.com.au.
“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.
“Every year he just seems to get a little bit better.”
Murphy has snared 14 wickets at 17.71 in the Sheffield Shield this season, taking seven scalps against New South Wales to help Victoria clinch a remarkable victory at Junction Oval earlier this month.
The 22-year-old also claimed 3-27 against the West Indies in last month’s Prime Minister’s XI match at Canberra’s Manuka Oval.
“Todd Murphy is the second-best spinner in the country,” former Australian spinner Kerry O‘Keeffe told Fox Cricket.
“I still think (Swepson) lacks precision, and going to India, you’ve got to take a precise spinner. Todd Murphy’s a precise spinner, I think he’s ahead of (Swepson) in my mind.”
However, Australian coach Andrew McDonald hinted that if a second tweaker was brought into the squad, it probably wouldn’t be another off-spinner.
“We always look to complement the attack, so it won‘t necessarily be the next best spinner,” McDonald told SEN on Wednesday.
“A second spin role is also there to make sure you‘ve got balance within the attack.”
He’s only played one first-class match in the last three years, but the lure of rushing Adam Zampa into the Test side is undeniably tempting.
The leg-spinner has been superb in Australia’s one-day side over the last couple of years, and he recently signalled his ambitions to play Test cricket.
“I feel like my game has evolved enough in the last few years. It’s just about seeing the workloads and how my body will cope really,” Zampa told Fox Cricket in November.
“I’d love to throw my hat in the ring.”
Zampa made his long-awaited return to the Sheffield Shield earlier this month, taking 3-57 against Victoria at Junction Oval.
His consistency has come leaps and bounds since he burst onto the scene a decade ago, and Border is eager to see the New South Welshman ply his trade in Australian whites.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Zampa,” Border said.
“I know he hasn’t played any red-ball cricket, which would be a bit of an odd selection.
“There’s something about Zampa, the way he’s developed over the last couple of seasons. He’s landing the ball well and his varieties are very, very good.”
Originally published as Eight contenders to fill two voids: Bolters and forgotten stars in the mix for Sydney Test call-up