The Australian bowlers produced the performance of a lifetime to help the side take a 1-0 lead in the series, but still under scrutiny is the batting, which could see radical changes come Boxing Day despite the favourable result.
Not in his wildest dreams would Justin Langer have envisioned Joe Burns outscoring the entire Indian batting unit when he laid his faith and trust on the Queenslander on the eve of the first Test. Langer’s decision to select Burns to open ahead of Marcus Harris on the back of scores of 7, 29, 0, 10, 11, 4, 0, 0 and 1 was received with outrage, furore and ‘angry reacts’, so it was of little surprise that the Western Australian gave his pupil one of the tightest hugs ever after the right-hander smashed Umesh Yadav for six to drag Australia over the line. Burns’ 51* bodes well for him, on a personal note, heading into the final three Tests, but equally it has now given the selectors and the management one of the biggest selection headaches in recent memory.
David Warner is expected to recover from his groin injury in time for the Boxing Day Test, meaning he will come directly into the side, but who he will or should replace is still up for debate. Young Will Pucovski could also likely be fit and available for the second Test, which would mean that Australia, for the second Test, would have to leave out two of Wade, Burns, Head, Green and Pucovski - five men who have their own reasons to stake a claim to be in the starting XI. In the assumption Warner ‘will’ be fit, we look at the options Australia have at their disposal.
Option 1: Chuck out Cameron Green, stick with Burns and push Wade back into the middle-order
This is one of those ‘hard but easy’ decisions. Green is the latest sensation in the country, but dropping him would make a lot of incumbents happy. Should Australia drop Green, they would be able to field the same top six they did in the summer of 2019/20, in which they remained unbeaten - Warner, Burns, Labuschagne, Smith, Wade and Head.
But given Green is an all-rounder - a genuine wicket-taking threat with the ball; not just a filler bowler - and given the management have zeroed in on him as their next big project, it is unlikely that he will miss out. Not utilizing an all-rounder at the MCG - a historically flat wicket which is usually a graveyard for bowlers - would also be silly on Australia’s part. Add to that Green is no Hilton Cartwright to be handed the ‘one and done’ treatment.
Likelihood of Australia opting for this option: Very, very unlikely
Option 2: Drop Joe Burns, open with Warner and Wade
Despite Burns boosting his confidence with a vital fifty in the second innings, there is every chance that he could sit out the Boxing Day Test. For there is a reason why the management preferred to open with Wade even ahead of other specialist options - they value his leadership as much as his runs.
Wade’s numbers since his return to the Test side as a specialist batsman last year are at best decent - 599 runs; 35 average; 2 centuries - but his seniority and presence adds an added layer to the side that is irreplaceable. Time and again he’s shown his penchant to score doughty and gritty runs and although he did not quite click with the bat in the first Test, he looked like a man who belonged in the side.
Likelihood of Australia opting for this option: Possible, but unlikely
Option 3: Open with Warner and Burns; choose between Wade and Head
Had Warner not strained his groin in the second ODI, the management would most likely have landed in this option. All four of Langer, Warner, Tim Paine and Trevor Hohns have been vocal about how Burns and Warner thrive off each other’s presence, and given the duo are statistically the most successful opening pair in Australia in the past 15 years, the management’s affinity towards fielding them together is understandable. With Burns now adding a score under his name, it gives the selectors all the more incentive to put him alongside Warner up top at the Mighty G, despite the impending threat of Pucovski, and the excellence of both Matthew Wade and Travis Head.
Likelihood of Australia opting for this option: Very high
But who amongst Head and Wade should/will make way?
One presumes it will ultimately come down to this battle for the final vacant spot: Matthew Wade vs Travis Head. Not long ago it looked like these two would carry the Australian middle-lower-order until at least Ashes 2021/22, but the meteoric rise of Cameron Green has changed the landscape of the Australian Top 6. We’ve already looked at Wade’s case above, so let’s come to Head.
Although the South Australian skipper did little to bolster his chances via a soft dismissal in the first Test, he has been Australia’s crisis man of sorts ever since making his Test debut. In his 18-Test career he averages 40, and this rises to 49 at home. Both his Test hundreds have come with Australia under the pump - A 160 with Australia reeling at 28/3 against Sri Lanka, and a 114 with them 216/4 versus the Kiwis - and a multitude of fifties and forties have served as fine rescue jobs. He also has a 171* and a 151 to his name in the Shield this season, making him, on current form, the second most prolific middle-order bat behind only Labuschagne. Thus will dropping him for the Boxing Day Test - at a venue where he scored a century last year - be a grave injustice? Absolutely. It will be.
So who will, or should, Australia drop? They might as well flip a coin: it is that tight. There are no just outcomes. The ideal case scenario for the duo would be Warner suffering a setback, but such an outcome will not really aid the team’s case.
Between Head’s unappreciated brilliance and Wade’s unmatched presence, the selectors have a huge call to make. Guess we can consider ourselves lucky to not be in their shoes at this moment in time.
Final option: Dropping both Burns and Wade and opening with Warner-Pucovski
Like Green, Pucovski too has been Australia’s darling for a while now, so let us not rule him out yet. He has, after all, busted the Shield open with two double-centuries in three digs and was in line to debut in Adelaide prior to suffering his nth concussion in the first warm-up game. Despite not being an incumbent, he probably already has a better claim to be the second opener ahead of both Wade and Burns, albeit due to different reasons.
But unlucky and unfair as it sounds, the youngster looks certain to miss out on a maiden Baggy Green cap. Both Langer and Paine have openly expressed their love for stability and incumbency and there is a reason for it - fielding Pucovski will mean that the Top 6 will comprise two fresh faces, giving India the slightest of edge in terms of experience, even in the absence of Kohli.
Perhaps should the Aussies wrap up the series at the SCG, we might see Pucovski make his debut in the final Test at the Gabba. But as things stand, he is behind all three of Warner, Burns and Wade in the pecking order.
Likelihood of Australia opting for this option: Very, very unlikely