Australia’s captain Steven Smith is leaning towards including the rejuvenated allrounder Mitchell Marsh for the final Ashes Test at the WACA Ground, but has also spoken sympathetically of the extensive scrutiny and pressure faced by Peter Handscomb due to the unorthodoxy of his batting methods.
Marsh and Handscomb find themselves vying for the final berth in Australia’s team, the former after spending six months remodelling himself as a Test batsman and the latter amid a drop-off in form that has coincided with unrelenting examination of his technique by the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, plus the morass of commentators following every ball of this series.
Given a WACA Ground surface that is softer and therefore likely to be slower than he would prefer, Smith said the on-duty selectors Greg Chappell and Darren Lehmann – the team performance manager Pat Howard is also in town – were favouring the inclusion of a fifth bowler in the shape of Marsh. However they will take a final look at the pitch on match morning before making their decision.
“If we do go down that route it’s purely for the reasons we need an extra bowler, nothing to do with anyone’s batting,” Smith said in Perth. “The stats suggest over the last couple of years the bowlers have had a pretty big workload out on this wicket. We’re probably leaning down that way at the moment but again it will depend on what we think the wicket’s like tomorrow. If it is going to be hard and fast and bouncy that might again change our thinking.
“It’s not as hard as I would like it to be a day out. Twenty four hours can change a wicket. We’ll have another look in the morning. It’s a bit harder and faster. I don’t really know that much about the wicket, I’m pretty useless at judging them. We’ll have another look at the morning and see what I and the selectors think is best for this Test match.”
The WACA’s curator Matthew Page has said the pitch has not baked as hard as he wanted due to cooler than expected weather, and temperatures for the Test are expected to stay in the temperate mid-20s. That all points towards the return of Marsh, who not only has the all-round abilities but also the advantage of local knowledge, as the captain of Western Australia.
“I think he’s tightened his defence quite a lot,” Smith said. “I know speaking to him when he was back in the team a little while ago we spoke about softening your hands up in defence. Those good length balls, not going so hard at them. I’ve seen that watching him the last couple of days in the nets and watching some of the live feed of the Shield games in defence he has softened his hands up, he’s still putting away the bad ball.
“He hits the ball as hard as anyone I’ve seen. He’s a strong lad. To have that positive intent, cash in on loose bowling but good balls you’re allowed to defend them. It was about finding that defence that worked for him. He’s tightened up a lot in defence which helps him.
“It has been a wicket for a long time that is very different to the wickets around the country. It has always had that bit of extra bounce and while the pace hasn’t been there in the past couple of years, it still has extra bounce. For guys coming from the eastern States they find it tough to start on and get used to. That is why the WA guys have had success here. They have played here a lot and understand what the wicket does and can deal with the pace and bounce. They are more comfortable with it.”
As for Handscomb, Smith said he had himself experienced the fishbowl of a home summer when countless pundits are questioning the unorthodox technique of a young batsman. After struggling in 2010-11, Smith was dropped and then polished his game, before returning in 2013 and beginning to groove a method that began to settle with a century at the Perth Ashes Test of that year. He sees Handscomb making a similar journey.
“Everyone’s got their opinions and in the end it’s about you being comfortable with your game and playing the way you need to play, and figuring it out on the go as well,” Smith said. “You figure things out in the middle, how guys are bowling at you, the best way to approach different things on each day and I think Pete’s a guy who’s very happy with the way he plays and understands his game.
“Sometimes you have to make little changes for each set of conditions and that’s just part of experience and playing for a while. You learn to deal with these kinds of things. Pete’s a smart guy and he’ll figure those things out for sure.
“If we go down the route of Pete missing out it’s unlucky. The message to him is purely, from my point of view and the selectors speaking to them, it is for that extra bowling option. It’s nothing to do with his batting as such, it’ll be unlucky if he misses out. We still see a very bright future for Pete. He’s come in, averaging 47 in Test cricket. Against a whole heap of different nations in different conditions. He can certainly play the game, if he is to miss out there’s no reason why he won’t be back in the team soon.”
Ahead of a match where Australia can regain the Ashes with victory, Smith was unsurprisingly stern in warning his team against getting too confident. “Look, we’re in a really good position obviously at two-nil up and we’re playing at a ground that we’ve traditionally played pretty good cricket at,” he said. “We’re obviously confident going into this week but having said that England are a very good side and there’s no doubt they’re going to come back really hard this week.
“For us, the message I’ve said to the boys is don’t get complacent. Keep playing really good hard, aggressive cricket, and doing the basics really well and if we do that on this wicket then hopefully we’ll get the result we’re after at the end of this week.”