It may have been the one of the most irrelevant series of international cricket for the Australian team in quite some time, but the recent 3-match T20 series between Australia (or Australia A if you will) and Sri Lanka has provided plenty of cannon fodder for critics like me. The series ended up in a 2-1 win for Sri Lanka, who won on the last ball of the match in both of the first two contests. Australia reclaimed some semblance of respectability in the final match with an easy win, however it was the selectors and coaches who made themselves look like fools rather than the players. Adam Zampa, one of the leading limited overs spinners in world cricket was curiously dropped for the second match, as spin was treated with general disdain in the Australian camp.
Zampa’s limited overs stats make for some nice reading. A leg-spinner who can also bat a bit, Zampa has played 48 List A matches and 60 T20 matches, 32 of them for Australia. His economy rate of 6.93 in T20 matches makes him an elite T20 bowler, and he also has a respectable economy rate of 5.28 in List A matches. He also takes at least 1 wicket a match, taking 74 wickets in his 60 T20 matches and and 71 wickets in his 48 List A matches. His international record, while small in scope, is as impressive. So it was mystifying when Zampa was dropped for the second match of the recent T20 series. Zampa took 2/26 off 4 overs in the first match, the pick of the Aussie bowlers, yet was despicably dropped for the second match of the series. The explanation given was that it was too wet for a spinner to grip the ball, yet the Sri Lankan spinners seemed to have no trouble gripping the ball. As a friend rightfully pointed out, this is like the archaic heuristics lambasted in Moneyball, where players are picked on superficial qualities rather that on any statistical evidence. It was one of the most absurd decisions by Australian cricket selectors and Australia paid the price, losing the match. Zampa was rightfully reinstated for the third match of the series and took 3/25 off 4 overs, including the dismissal of Asela Gunaratane who had steered Sri Lanka to victory in the first two matches. Australia won the third match of the series with ease.
The dropping of Zampa seems to be indicative of a wider problem though. The Australian selectors and coaches do not treat spin bowling with its due respect. Not only was Zampa mistreated, but so were Ashton Turner and Travis Head, as well as Glenn Maxwell during the recent ODI series against Pakistan. In the first match of the T20 series, Australia’s spinners took 4/38 off 6 overs (economy rate of 6.3), while the pacemen took 1/130 off 14 overs (economy rate of 9.3). After the great success of spin bowling in the first match, Australia dropped Zampa and proceeded to go with pace for 18 overs of the match. Part-time spinner Ashton Turner took 1/15 off 2 overs, while the pace cohort took 7/159 off their 18 overs (economy rate of 8.8). In the third match, Australia’s spinners 4/56 off 8 overs (economy rate of 7.0) while the pacemen took 4/80 off 10 overs (economy rate of 8.0). Although only a very small sample size, spin bowling was as successful at pace bowling yet was underused. Other peculariaties in Australia’s tactics include ignoring Travis Head as a bowling option. He only bowled 2 overs in the series, yet was frequently used in the ODI series against Pakistan. Head’s bowling in the ODI series came at the expense of Glenn Maxwell, who did not bowl a single over during the series despite being a handy option (45 wickets @ 38.15, economy rate of 5.52). It’s quite confusing when Head is seen as a superior bowling option to Maxwell in the ODI series, yet Head is then disregarded as a T20 bowling option.
Ultimately, it appears to be case of a lack of respect given to spin bowling in Australian cricket. Spin bowling is a powerful tool in the limited overs format of the game, as it can help clog up the run rate when used well and put pressure on the batting team. This is not a new problem as well with Ronan O’Connell having similar criticisms last year. Hopefully Australian can learn from their mistakes and start to give spin bowling the respect it deserves, but I won’t be holding my breath.