Defeat to Bangladesh was painful but hardly Australian cricket’s lowest ebb
Let’s start by clarifying what Australia’s loss to Bangladesh is not. Firstly, it is no disgrace. There is a reason why they have knocked off England, Sri Lanka and now Australia inside 10 months: this is a considerably improved team. They did a tremendous amount right, winning it every bit as much as Australia contributed to own their demise when placed under that intense pressure. Bangladesh earned this triumph.
To point to their ninth-placed ranking to suggest otherwise misunderstands the rolling four-year rating cycle, eternally limited by what it cannot measure – rapid improvement just like Bangladesh’s.
And ignore headlines about remuneration. Sure, the hosts are paid a pittance. Governance structures here, as far as they relate to player hip-pocket returns, are far from healthy. But it is a false equivalency to conclude that Steve Smith’s touring party are inherently more capable because they are banking big salaries.
What this is is a bog-standard subcontinental performance compared to what Australian cricket teams routinely produce at home. Another painful setback; one consistent with history and form. But Australian cricket’s lowest ebb? Hardly.
Now that’s out of the way, what this actually offers is confirmation this inexperienced side are not world beaters and that the India tour was all good and well, but only as a launching point. “I don’t know if we’re better than that at the moment,” Steve Smith said of that prospect of dropping to sixth in those aforementioned rankings – for what little they are worth – in the event of a series whitewash.
Most urgent is redressing batting collapses in this part of the world that continue to plague more meaningful progress. At Dhaka, a fatal stumble of six wickets for 41 runs came at the moment their chase looked just about licked, alongside four-wicket slumps for 33 and 42 in the first dig.
Of course, all international batsmen log untold hours simulating what they might expect. But what cannot be replicated, until the time comes, is the pressure that infuses a mindset once one of these tremors begin. For too long the moment that it enters the Australian psyche they might have a problem, they invariably end up with a serious one. Particularly in Asia. That improvement has to be driven above the shoulders, not below.
One man who showed he has learned how to the quell chaos is David Warner, who has turned to meditation in an effort to calm himself more broadly. “He adapted beautifully,” said Smith of his deputy. “He never let the bowler settle on a good length which is important in these conditions. The way he played with positive intent helped his defence as well.” In short, he ignored where he was batting and cracked on as he would at home. The neither-here-nor-there Warner from Sri Lanka was long gone in the breakthrough innings. Specifically, when the heat was on, he did not get beaten on the inside edge as so often brought his downfall last year.
By contrast, Matthew Wade was out in single digits twice that very way. The incumbent wicketkeeper-batsman is reeling, and there’s no avoiding it anymore. He has never been the most elegant gloveman, but the 30 byes he conceded – however brutal the track and how hard he worked in the horrible humidity – came at the worst possible time.
More to the point, in the modern game consistent runs need to come from No7, and with one half-century in nine Tests since his recall, they aren’t being delivered by Wade. With the urgency of victory in Chittagong, it could be now that he becomes too high a risk to carry.
A left-of-centre option is trusting Peter Handscomb to take over. With ample experience at first class level, he said after the Darwin practice match ahead of this tour he would be available to keep if the circumstances and team balance permitted. Maybe now they do.
Smith was forthright in acknowledging the options available for the second Test, and this is one. Especially if trying to find room for Hilton Cartwright, the West Australian who earned his baggy green in January before completing a bumper 2016-17 domestic season.
The other two alternatives for culling, for different reasons, seem unpalatable. In Usman Khawaja’s case, despite a pair of calamitous dismissals and adding only two runs for his return to the team, the opportunity-cost of shattering his confidence through omission is too much when he will be a necessary member of the Ashes team.
As for Glenn Maxwell, in both innings he looked well in control with solid starts until his disappointing final moments. But he does not look out of his depth, and that still matters plenty.
The puzzle is also shaped by the arrival of Steve O’Keefe, in transit as the Test was decided. Smith said “if the wicket suits” he is comfortable playing three frontline spinners in Chittagong for the first time since Australia played at the same ground in 2006. After the mayhem local tweakers engineered this week, a dust bowl is a lock-in – and in turn O’Keefe. What a week for the discard-cum-inclusion.
Following his emphatic man-of-the-match performance, Shakib Al Hasan put it bluntly: “After this Test match, they’ll show a lot more respect.” The SOS for SOK signals a quick change of thinking from the team hierarchy, suggesting they concur. While there was no shame in losing the opener, there’s no excuse not to do whatever it takes from here. Beginning at the selection table.
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