Midway through the opening day in Sydney, the availability of Australia’s players who were not needed for the final Test was confirmed for the Big Bash League. Aaron Finch will be turning out for Melbourne Renegades on Monday, Mitchell Marsh for Perth Scorchers on Saturday, and Peter Siddle for Adelaide Strikers on Sunday.
Siddle has been superfluous to requirements throughout this series – there’s no breaking up the New South Wales attack at the moment, although their returns are becoming a topic of debate – but Finch and Marsh were the two casualties of the Melbourne defeat, which left the Border-Gavaskar trophy in India’s hands. Their Test careers are now hanging by a thread, partly through their own returns but also partly because of the schedule ahead of them.
For Marsh it was one Test back and then dropped. His part with the ball had ticked a box, 26 tight overs to help the frontline pacemen, but two awful shots against Ravindra Jadeja left him with an average of 25.39 from 31 Tests – and 7.50 from his last five – to almost make the selectors’ decision for them.
A 31-match Test career is a decent sample size, and it is now fair to ponder whether his chance will come again. His returns with the bat when brought in during the 2017-18 Ashes, and his 96 early in the South Africa series, offered promise of a breakthrough but the drop-off has been dramatic. Australia are not flush with options, as the recall for Marnus Labuschagne has shown, but they could be forced to explore other routes if they want a seam-bowling allrounder in the future.
Finch’s tale is a somewhat different, and he feels a bit hard done by. He is a middle-order batsman who was made into an opener on the back of white-ball runs. He started well on the slower, lower pitches in the UAE, but has found life much tougher on home soil against India’s finest-ever pace attack – although it’s worth noting his best performance came on the spiciest pitch of the series, in Perth. There is no disgrace in being undone by this collection of India seamers, but now he finds himself on the outer.
Like Marsh, the manner of his dismissals in Melbourne did not look good: clipping a catch to midwicket then a one-day style steer to slip, but he could have been given a chance in the middle order. Peter Handscomb is a highly rated player of spin, yet one match ago he wasn’t deemed worthy of a place in the XI. Handscomb, who smashed some BBL runs after being left out, now has the chance to prove all those plaudits right after India selected Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, but Finch has a right to ponder whether that was his chance.
His Victoria and Australia team-mate, Glenn Maxwell, went public with such a thought on Thursday. “I hope that doesn’t finish Finch off as a Test cricketer and hopefully next time he gets an opportunity, he can bat in a position that I think – and a lot of Australia thinks – he’s more accustomed to,” he said.
“He was probably a victim of his own success in the UAE. Having batted so well as an opener there, it probably drove the Australia selectors and coaches to put him up there, and I suppose that was fair enough. Hopefully at some stage he gets an opportunity to bat in the middle order and show the class he does have.”
Now both Finch and Marsh are sent into that mid-season spiral that is Australian cricket: no first-class cricket to re-state their case. Finch, for certain, will play the ODIs against India later this month, and Marsh may well earn a spot, but it is difficult to see how either can now feature in the Tests against Sri Lanka (although Handscomb’s swift return shows how quickly things can change) and it would suggest they are a long shot for the Ashes.
Depending on the dates of the Australia’s away-from-home one-day series against India in February and Pakistan from late March, there could be precious little chance for either to play red-ball cricket before the England series. “Runs are runs,” has been the refrain from those trying to impress the selectors at this time of the year – there is not much more they can say – but not all runs are made equal.
Before this Test, Tim Paine spoke of the challenge of balancing the present and future with selections, not least because of the impending return of Steven Smith and David Warner. There is a sense decisions are being made with them in mind already, but it leaves Australia straining for stability. They have a batting line-up for this match that few could have imagined a week ago, let alone a year, and they already have a huge task ahead of them if they are to salvage the series.