Struggles expose Aussies’ Starc reality; is the test gun pointed at the axe? Discussion points

Australia’s focus is quickly shifting to the red ball after its limited-overs games against Sri Lanka on Saturday morning (AEST) came to a close with a consoling win in the fifth ODI.

Preparing for the series of two tests, which starts on Wednesday, will now be the priority, but the three T20s and five ODIs have provided some early insights into how Australia has qualified for World Cups in successive years.

Here we take a look at the Talking Points after Australia’s white ball games against Sri Lanka.

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FINCH FAR RETURN AT WORST TIME POSSIBLE

The main talking point en route to the Australian tour of Sri Lanka was Aaron Finch and he still has what it takes to open the battle in international cricket.

Some of the criticism may have been premature given his track record, but the numbers were genuinely worrying.

Nevertheless, no one should be surprised that the veteran regained form in Sri Lanka and, crucially, some are running the white ball games.

He averaged 57.00 in the T20s and struck with an impressive 156.16, putting him on par with the mighty Marcus Stoinis.

With Australia’s T20 World Cup title defense just around the corner in October, the game’s shortest form is most pressing for Finch.

The opener seemed to stay more still at the crease while the bowler was delivering the ball, having engaged in too many preemptive moves during his form failure.

Technical flaws remain an ongoing problem with Finch’s front leg, but improvements were evident for much of the tour.

That said, a disappointing end to the ODI series has left some discussion about Finch’s future going on for weeks and months to come.

Aaron Finch’s tour ended on a sour note.Source: AFP

If you’re as good as your last performance, Finch, who finishes the tour with back-to-back ducks, will take him back to where he started.

Of course, that’s just a tired and inaccurate cliche – Finch is definitely in a better place now than he was a month ago.

But a couple of ducks at the end of a series opens the door to selection discussions, providing a disturbing reminder of the game’s fickle nature.

IS MARNUS REALLY A LOCK?

While Marnus Labuschagne’s talent is undeniable, the numbers are a little less convincing.

He has played in all eight Australian ODIs this year, going past 30 runs just once, scoring 59 against Pakistan in March.

Since then, his scores have been 4, 24, 18, 29, 14 and 31.

There is a clear and distinct pattern: Labuschagne can grind out a start and get into his turns, but lacks third gear, especially against spin bowling.

Against a spin-heavy attack in Sri Lanka alone, he scored a 23.30 average and struck at just 65.90.

Mitch Marsh was the only Australian to score more than 50 runs with a lower strike rate.

Labuschagne’s ODI average has now fallen to 33.85 after 21 matches, while his average in Asia – where the 2023 ODI World Championship will be held – is 30.30.

Australia’s T20 No.3 Marsh has only played three ODIs in Asia but has averaged 32.61 in the shortest format on the continent. He also led Australia to World T20 glory in the UAE last year.

The talent of Marnus Labuschagne is undeniable, but the numbers are a little less convincing.Source: AFP

Marsh was also guilty of wasting starts in Sri Lanka, but he has the ability to bat at a measured pace, or start firing early in his innings if necessary, while also offering a backup tempo option.

Australia will also have the free time to choose Steve Smith, who can offer a similar role to Labuschagne, and who was part of a winning combination with Marsh.

Meanwhile, Travis Head impressed in the mid-range with his unbeaten 70 off 65 in the third ODI and will be firmly in the mix for a recall when fit.

It’s also often overlooked that Marcus Stoinis (if fit) and Glenn Maxwell can offer more nuanced hitting approaches in the midrange around keeper Alex Carey, as well as sheer power when called up.

Everything can change with one big score, but the brutal truth is that by mid-2022 it’s hard to see how Labuschagne makes Australia’s number 3, number 3, better or more balanced by being picked over one of those names.

AUSSI SPIDER DEPTH A GREAT CARE

With two World Cups coming up within the next two years, Australia hopes it will not find itself in a position where Adam Zampa or Ashton Agar will no longer be available.

Zampa missed the Sri Lanka tour on paternity leave, while Agar went down with a side sprain midway through the series and is now also doubtful for the Test series.

In their place came debutant Matthew Kuhnemann, while Mitchell Swepson played one match and all-rounder Glenn Maxwell did a lot of heavy lifting over the T20s and ODIs.

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There were a number of reasons why Australia lost the ODI series 3-2, and being outclassed on the spin front is one of them.

This should not be seen as a knock on Kuhnemann, who was basically a fourth tier spinner a month ago but now has four games to his name.

His return of six wickets at 31.83 is not to be trifled with, but it was favorable conditions that the Sri Lankans made the most of.

Of Australia’s five spinners (two above the minimum) in the two series, Kuhnemann’s average was the lowest. Maxwell and Agar averaged in their 1940s, Swepson averaged 58.00 while Labuschagne averaged 65.00.

In comparison, spinners Wanindu Hasaranga, teenager Dunith Wellalage, and Dhananjaya de Silva were all averaging less than 25.

Needless to say, Australia wants to welcome Zampa as soon as possible and have Agar available again as its backup or spin partner.

NO STRONG, NO GLORY

Australia was not only outclassed on the spin front, but suffered in the ODI portion of the tour without Mitchell Starc.

The Allan Border medalist only played the first T20, starring 3-26 before having to sit out the rest of the white games as he recovered from a finger injury.

While spin was the dominant force, Pat Cummins impressed in the ODIs with eight wickets of 17.75 and economy of 4.46.

His fast bending partner Josh Hazlewood, meanwhile, was frugal at 4.68 but struggled to strike just as often with just four wickets at 51.00.

Mitchell Starc was missed by Australia.Source: AFP

While there is certainly value in Hazlewood’s line and length, there is a sense that bowling in Australia lacked an edge for most of the ODI series Starc could have delivered.

Australia struggled for early wickets in each of the first three games with no Starc present to take the new ball, failing to knock out the hosts in each of those outings.

Starc hasn’t played an ODI since mid-2021, but in that series against the West Indies he went on a riot for 11 wickets in just three games.

It’s true there’s an element of unfamiliarity with Starc, who isn’t one of Australia’s most consistent performers, but it seems likely the tourists would have posed a greater threat with the left-armed ball to their side, especially considering the way he started the tour.

WORLD CUP WORRY

Between now and the T20 World Cup, and even more so before the 2023 ODI World Cup, a pile of white ball cricket lies ahead for Australia.

Nevertheless, the Sri Lanka tour has given us a small, early insight into where Australia stands for both tournaments.

In the 20-over arena, Australia has the tools to defend its title, but is unlikely to go in as a clear favorite at this point.

Other teams will rightly feel there is a weakness in facing spin, while Australia regularly doesn’t put in big, imposing totals like England do.

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Whether Finch has turned a corner well is the other big question moving forward.

Australia’s bowling stock was exhausted for much of the tour, which played a part in the momentum shifting to Sri Lanka the longer it went on.

When you’re back at full throttle, there’s no reason to doubt that the Cummins, Starc, Zampa and Hazlewood or Agar combination can get the job done again.

However, should injuries strike, there are legitimate concerns about the depth of the Australian squad.

There’s a lot more time to prepare for the ODI World Cup in India, but again, Australia’s opponents will find themselves in spinning conditions for the weight of what we saw in Sri Lanka.

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