Saturday, 24 December 2011

A good year to be an Australian debutant

When Ed Cowan makes his Test debut in the Boxing Day Test, he will nudge the number of Australians handed their baggy green cap up to ten in 2011- more than any year since 1977. Then the selectors could blame the chaos caused by World Series Cricket; now it is the fallout to Ashes defeat.

Of those that have already debuted in 2011, four can be sure of joining Cowan in the final eleven at the MCG. David Warner carried his bat for 123* in Australia’s recent defeat to New Zealand and, though he has only played two Tests, there are legitimate hopes he can transfer his stunning Twenty20 form into the Test game. To become anything close to an Australian Sehwag, Warner will need to cope with the swinging ball, but he managed rather well against the Kiwis. The well-directed short ball will also be a challenge: Phil Hughes, remember, scored two hundreds in his second Test until found out by this.

Shaun Marsh looked a Test match natural in compiling 141 on debut in Sri Lanka: so compelling was his knock that Ricky Ponting was promptly moved away from number three, and the spot given to Marsh. Injuries mean he has only received two more caps, but given the solidity and range of shots Marsh has displayed, as well as a phlegmatic temperament, expect him to finish his career, like his father Geoff, with over 50 appearances.

Two new bowlers will also appear on Boxing Day. James Pattinson younger brother of England’s Darren, picked up 14 wickets in two Tests against New Zealand, pitching the ball up and consistently swinging the ball late. The off-spinner Nathan Lyon has been quietly successful: with his cool temperament, control and subtle variations, he enjoys more job security than any Australian spinner since Warne. This might not be saying much, but 22 wickets at less than 25 is a hugely impressive return from his first seven Tests.

Yet the most memorable Australian debut of 2011 was from a man who won’t play at the MCG. Pat Cummins’ first Test was as remarkable as they come, combining a haul of 6/79 with a calm 13* to take Australia to a two-wicket win in South Africa. Only 18, Cummins is clearly a cricketer of rare promise, combining pace and swing with a dangerous bouncer that, unlike many young quick bowlers, he doesn’t overuse. Mickey Arthur has already compared Cummins to Dale Steyn, and the new Australian coach will be frustrated Cummins will miss the India Tests through injury. That a man with only one Test appearance is regarded as a substantial loss is an indication both of Cummins’ progress and the current state of the Australian side.

Rather inevitably, the positive impressions have not extended to all Australia’s Test debutants this year. With an excellent first-class record, Usman Khawaja was much-hyped before his Test debut and, somewhat bizarrely, earned a standing ovation for his assured 37 against England in January. He has a solid technique but, like a young Mark Ramprakash, his Test batting is characterised by passivity: when scoring 7 off 51 balls against New Zealand, Khawaja appeared strokeless. He also shares a propensity for middling scores with the young Ramprakash: seven of Khawaja’s nine Test dismissals have been between 12 and 38.

Whereas Khawaja’s problems seem about self-belief, Australia’s other three Test debutants of 2011 lack the requisite class. The left-arm spinner Michael Beer has slipped back into obscurity since taking 1-112 against England at Sydney: a first-class average of 45 suggests he should remain there. Trent Copeland, better described as a medium-pacer than a fast bowler, performed well enough when injuries earned him three caps in Sri Lanka. But for all his parsimony – his economy rate in those Tests was 2.1 – Copeland lacks penetration, as three wickets in his last four first-class matches reveals. Finally, the left-arm quick Mitchell Starc is not yet 22, but didn’t look Test ready in his two games against New Zealand.

Giving Test caps away is a precarious business. As such, the Australian selectors, so derided for their haphazard selections in the Ashes, deserve credit: realistically, five of this year’s debutants could be prominent members of their 2013 Ashes side. Australia should certainly be encouraged by the displays of their debutants; it is their senior players who should concern them.