Impact of Australia’s fill-in four has exposed England’s lack of creative thinking – and a broken system

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An extended Test series is not merely a clash between the best XIs from each country. It is also something broader: a clash of systems.

Not recognising as much was, perhaps, Australia’s great mistake against India last year. Australia picked the same bowling attack each Test, rendering their pace bowlers exhausted long before India’s extraordinary heist on the final day at the Gabba. Through circumstances as much as design, India were forced to field 20 players throughout the series. The manner in which they combined to author victory was a testament to the robustness of India’s talent-production.

A year after being toppled by India’s fill-in players, the quality of Australia’s replacements has been crucial in their dominance over England in the Ashes. Compared to just three across the four Tests against India last year, Australia have already used six fast bowlers this home summer. The three quick bowlers who have appeared after not starting the series in Brisbane – Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson and Scott Boland – have now taken a combined 18 wickets at 15.4 apiece. In Sydney, Usman Khawaja, the first addition to Australia’s top six this series, has made twin centuries.

None of the quartet went to the UAE for the T20 World Cup. Instead, they enjoyed an extended, and fruitful period of first-class cricket in the Sheffield Shield. Before taking five wickets in the Adelaide Test, Richardson had taken 23 in four Shield matches for Western Australia this season. Boland’s remarkable start to his Test career – he has now taken 11 wickets at 8.7 each – has merely been a continuation of his brilliant Shield form, when he has taken 15 wickets in two games for Victoria. After not playing a Test since the 2019 Ashes, Khawaja prepared for Sydney by scoring two centuries for Queensland in the early Shield skirmishes.

Australian cricket has often been infatuated with youth. “Talent is like fruit – if you don’t pick it when it’s ripe, it’s likely to go off,” Greg Chappell, Australia’s long-time national talent manager, famously declared, warning that promising players suffer if left in domestic cricket for too long. But three-quarters of the quartet are into their 30s, highlighting the virtues of picking experienced players in command of their own games.

Partly by luck, and partly by design, the quartet have also been picked at the venues that suit them best: horses-for-courses, Australian style. Richardson’s whippy bowling and fondness for the pink ball was seen as ideally-suited to the day-night Test in Adelaide. Neser was also picked for the second Test, where he performed solidly in place of Pat Cummins, but then omitted in Melbourne, where his domestic record is notably less good. In place of him and Richardson, the local boy Boland was brought in, took 6-7 and then retained his place. Khawaja’s selection owed to Travis Head getting Covid-19, but Sydney – his old home ground and where he made 171 against England four years ago – was tailor-made for him.

The phenomenal impact of the fill-in four also reflects how Australian domestic cricket has equipped them to make the step up to Test cricket. Like the County Championship, the Sheffield Shield has been pushed away from the heart of the domestic summer by an abundance of lucrative short-format cricket. But with talent condensed among only six teams, and matches played on pitches that go a long way to resembling those found in the Test game, the type of cricket in the Sheffield Shield still looks a lot like Test cricket. This all explains why Sheffield Shield performances are a better predictor of how someone will perform in Test cricket than Championship performances, rendering the job of Test selection simpler for Australia. 

England being well-defeated this Ashes series has hardly been unexpected. The surprise has been less the disparity between the sides than who has been responsible for them. And so Australia have not only emphatically retained the urn, the sterling contributions of their stand-ins – even if Khawaja is surely too good to remain in this category – have provided deeper vindication of the Australian system. 

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