After two heavy Test defeats to South Africa in November – which followed on from an unprecedented whitewash loss in Sri Lanka – the Australian team was at a low ebb of mid-1980s proportions.
Selectors lost patience with Mitch Marsh after the 177-run loss in the first Test in Perth, then Peter Nevill, Adam Voges and Joe Burns felt the axe after the demoralising innings defeat in Hobart, where debuts for Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie fell flat.
Facing a rebuild, Australia’s transformation in the six weeks since the start of the third Test against the Proteas has been nothing short of remarkable.
Four wins on the trot – a seven-wicket victory over South Africa in Adelaide and a comprehensive 3-0 cleansweep of Pakistan – has restored the baggy green to its familiar place near the top of Test cricket’s apex.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 7, 2017
International rookies Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb have made sensational starts to their Test careers, while senior players Steve Smith, David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Josh Hazlewood repeatedly stood up to be counted.
After a nervy 39-run first-Test win in Brisbane, the Aussies scored a thrilling innings victory in a rain-hammered Boxing Day Test, and bid adieu to the whites for the summer with an emphatic 220-run success at the SCG.
There were some disappointments during the recent revival, including Matthew Wade’s failure to nail down the wicketkeeping spot after receiving a recall at Nevill’s expense, Nic Maddinson’s underwhelming three-match tenure in the troublesome No.6 spot, and question marks over Nathan Lyon’s status as Australia’s best spin option (despite some bright moments).
But there’s no question Australia are better placed for their daunting Test series assignment against India – starting in Pune on February 23 – than they appeared in mid-November.
AUSTRALIA’S STUDS & DUDS OF 2016-17 TEST SUMMER
Despite averaging a palatable 42, it was a disappointing series with the bat against South Africa by Smith’s lofty standards, with a high-score of just 59 in six innings. But the skipper topped the aggregates during the Pakistan series with 441 at the whopping average of 110.25, including 130 and 63 in the opening clash, and a sparkling 165* at the MCG.
His tactics were put under the microscope on a few occasions, but Smith’s tenacity and ability to lead from the front mark him as a special captain. Smith’s recent heroics put him in exalted company, averaging more than 60 after 50 Tests.
He was also brilliant in the field, as usual.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 5, 2017
— FOX SPORTS Cricket (@FOXCricketLive) January 6, 2017
Warner finished the least productive calendar year of his Test career with a flourish. After 97 in the first Test against South Africa, he failed to reach 50 in his next seven stays at the crease – before going on a record-breaking rampage.
The blockbusting opener scored 144 off 143 balls against Pakistan in Melbourne, before becoming the first player to score a century in the opening session of a Test in Australia, blasting 113 off 95 balls to kick off the New Year’s Test. Warner then scored the second-fastest half-century of all time in the hosts’ second innings (23 balls).
A freakish, unique talent, who has an average of 49.16 (including 18 centuries) with a strike-rate of almost 80 after 60 Tests.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 3, 2017
Far from entrenched in the Australian line-up and coming off a poor tour of Sri Lanka that saw him dropped for the third Test, Khawaja responded brilliantly at home this summer. He produced an innings of at least 63 in each of the six Tests, blasting 145 in the third-Test turnaround against South Africa, scoring 97 twice and finishing with an unbeaten 79 at the SCG.
Khawaja will be determined to produce in both innings of a Test at some stage – he had a score of 13 or less in each of the five Tests he batted twice in – but the 30-year-old, who has played just 23 Tests since debuting in 2011, is gradually establishing himself as the answer at first drop.
— BT Sport Cricket (@btsportcricket) January 6, 2017
Hazlewood’s consistency, maturity and durability were a feature of Australia’s Test summer, taking on a huge workload but staying very tight and regularly taking wickets. The tall 25-year-old took 32 scalps in six Tests, failing to take at least two wickets in just one of Australia’s 11 innings in the field. His 6/89 against South Africa was about the only highlight of the Hobart debacle.
Boasting 109 wickets at 24.78 after 26 Tests, Hazlewood looks destined to form a long-running combination with Mitchell Starc to rival the famed Lillee-Thompson and McGrath-Gillespie fast-bowling duos.
— HT Sports (@HTSportsNews) December 28, 2016
Slater and Taylor, Hayden and Langer…Warner and Renshaw? Thrust into the Test team after just 17 first-class appearances, the 20-year-old Renshaw staked a big claim to become the brilliant Warner’s long-term partner at the top of the order.
The tyro made 10 and 34* on debut against the Proteas, before posting 71 against Pakistan at the Gabba. A couple of failures in his two subsequent innings were swept away by his stunning 184 at the SCG, joining the likes of legends Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Doug Walters, Clem Hill and the late Phil Hughes as just the eighth Australian to score a century before his 21st birthday.
There will be a school of thought suggesting Shaun Marsh – injured in the first Test of the summer – should come back into the contentious slot for the India tour, but Renshaw has the chops to develop into the foil for Warner that Australia has been searching for since Chris Rogers retired.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 3, 2017
Usurping the struggling Adam Voges in the No.5 spot, the 25-year-old Handscomb has made every post a winner to average a Bradman-like 99.75 after four Tests. He has not been dismissed for less than his debut score of 54 – finishing not out three times in seven innings – and notched superb centuries against Pakistan in the first and third Tests.
With Australia’s middle order battling, Handscomb has sealed his spot in the line-up for at the least the upcoming series in India – though that trip shapes as a far sterner test of his qualities.
— Macquarie Cricket (@MRNCricket) December 29, 2016
Debuting at 35 in 2015, Voges enjoyed a charmed first year in the Test side that included double-centuries against West Indies and New Zealand. But a disastrous tour of Sri Lanka (118 runs at 19.67), followed by three straight scores of 2 or less against South Africa, spelled curtains for the veteran’s brief tenure in the international limelight.
Australia’s best gloveman fell victim to the selectors’ justifiable desire to have a keeper who makes big runs, in the vein of predecessors Adam Gilchrist and Brad Haddin. A stoic 60* in the Perth Test was his first Test knock over 32 in 11 innings, and scores of 3 and 6 in Hobart saw Nevill make way for Matthew Wade.
Peter Nevill clean and all class behind the stumps tonight. Showing why he’s clearly country’s best gloveman. Has to go to India. #BBL06
— Ben Waterworth (@bjwaterworth) January 7, 2017
Boasting two centuries and three 50s in 12 Tests during 2012-13, Wade squandered his recall with disappointing displays with the bat that compounded his errors behind the stumps. The big-hitting 29-year-old scored 7, 1*, 9 and 29 after replacing Nevill for the third Test against South Africa, and Australia’s wicket-keeping picture appears murkier than at any stage since Haddin’s retirement.
— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) January 5, 2017
Burns was dumped during the Sri Lanka series but earned a reprieve when Shaun Marsh broke down with injury in the first Test against the Proteas. A return of 1 and 0 in Hobart gave Renshaw his chance and knocked Burns way down the pecking order.
Marsh was persevered with for two years as Australia’s answer to the No.6 all-rounder role, but his inadequate batting led to his demise after the opening Test of the summer in Perth. A regular standout in the limited-overs forms of the game, Marsh has managed just two half-centuries in 19 Tests and averages 23.18 – not enough to justify a place in the squad despite some excellent bowling displays.
@CricketAus Mitch Marsh test no.6? You’re having a laugh. He can’t bat, can’t bowl. Pull your heads in, no.6 is a specialist batsman’s role.
— Simon Julian (@turtlemagic1) November 4, 2016
Callum Ferguson and Nic Maddinson
Helping Marsh’s cause moving forward, however, was the failures of Callum Ferguson and Nic Maddinson in his place. The 32-year-old Ferguson’s long-awaited chance in the Test arena saw him score 3 and 1 in Hobart, and the former ODI squad regular now seems destined to join the annals of cricket’s ‘one-Test wonders’ club. Ferguson’s replacement, the 25-year-old Maddinson, made 0, 1, 4 and 22 with the bat and bowled just six overs in total during three matches, before being dumped in favour of Hilton Cartwright.
Australia v Pakistan 2nd Test: Nic Maddinson in danger of losing spot for Sydney after… https://t.co/QDWXiiSh1J
— CJ Henderson (@SportsHubOz) December 29, 2016
BEST OF THE VISITORS
Quinton de Kock: Arguably the best keeper-batsman in the world, de Kock scored 281 runs at a series-high 56.20, including a century and two 50s.
Faf du Plessis: The ball-tampering controversy was the lowlight of the tour for the Proteas, but du Plessis’ captaincy was otherwise superb and he starred with 206 runs at 51.50, including 118* in Adelaide.
JP Duminy: Seemingly on the scrapheap, the 32-year-old’s magnificent 141 turned the Perth Test in the tourists’ favour. He failed to produce thereafter, but the veteran all-rounder’s WACA heroics were a career highlight.
Kagiso Rabada: Stepped up after Steyn was forced out with injury to lead South Africa’s pace barrage, taking 15 wickets at 22.40. Rabada’s rise was headlined by his man-of-the-match display in Perth, taking 5/92 in the fourth innings.
Rabada emerges as leader of the pack with Steyn cut down: Kagiso Rabada’s man-of-the-match performance in South… https://t.co/Na46JmslpL
— Perth Daily News (@PerthDailyNews) November 7, 2016
Azhar Ali: Pakistan’s most consistent performer with the bat, Azhar Ali scored 406 runs at 81.20, second only to Steve Smith in the series – including a brilliant 205 not out in the Boxing Day Test.
Youis Khan: It wasn’t his most productive series, but the 39-year-old legend’s 175* in Sydney saw him become the first player ever to score a century in all 11 countries that play Test cricket. He averages 53.06 after 115 Test matches.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) January 5, 2017
Asad Shafiq: Arguably the highlight of Pakistan’s fruitless tour Down Under, Asad Shafiq’s sensational 137 garnered man-of-the-match honours in a losing effort at the Gabba. Chasing a record 490 for victory in the fourth innings, he led a lower order fight-back that fell a mere 40 runs short. Also made a half-century in Melbourne.