MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – The sight of Steve Smith and David Warner facing a pace barrage in a nets session last week may have been bittersweet for fans of Australian cricket nursing grave concerns about the nation’s batting ahead of the upcoming India test series.
Taking guard against the team’s frontline quicks, Smith and Warner’s easy reunion with their old cohort will have eased some fears that the duo might struggle to reintegrate after their long bans for ball-tampering expire at the end of March.
Little can be done in the short term, however, and former captain Smith and his vice captain Warner’s absence will be felt keenly around the country’s stadiums throughout the summer.
The pair have papered over the cracks of Australian batting for years, islands of stability amid churning seas.
Statistically they remain standouts, with Smith’s stratospheric batting average of 61.37 and Warner’s 48.20 well above that of number three Usman Khawaja (43.83), the current side’s most proficient batsman.
Warner was a rock at the top of the order and no home summer passed without the pugnacious lefthander smashing at least one century since his 2011 debut.
While he struggled in the subcontinent, Warner averages 49.50 against India at home with four centuries in eight matches.
Smith’s batting reached another level after succeeding Michael Clarke as captain in 2015. He notched his 23rd test century against England at last year’s Boxing Day test in Melbourne.
Smith has averaged 84.05 against India and a whopping 128.16 on home pitches, including a century in each of the four tests of the last 2014/15 series.
Virat Kohli’s India will be thrilled they can play no part in the four-test series starting in Adelaide on Thursday.
Finding replacements for the duo has been a thankless task for selectors, who were hoping candidates would be banging down their doors with a slew of runs in the Sheffield Shield.
The 14-man squad announced two weeks ago was dismissed by local media as the worst collection of Australian batsmen in history.
For the first home summer in decades, Australia will not be led by a run-machine in the mould of Smith, Clarke or Ricky Ponting but by wicketkeeper Tim Paine, who has played only 15 previous tests.
Paine’s average of 38.25 is nonetheless superior to preferred all-rounder and likely number six Mitchell Marsh, named one of Australia’s two vice-captains in September despite averaging 26.08 with the bat in his 30 tests.
The problems begin at the top, however, where one-day specialist Aaron Finch will line up for just his third test after debuting in the 1-0 series defeat to Pakistan in October.
At the other end will be a rookie in Marcus Harris, the uncapped lefthander seemingly picked on the strength of an unbeaten 250 for Victoria in October rather than for his career first class average of 35.49.
The lottery continues with 35-year-old number four Shaun Marsh, whose last 10 innings away to Pakistan and South Africa have featured a top score of 26.
The number five slot will be a toss-up between Peter Handscomb, who was dropped for the Pakistan tests, and two-test lefthander Travis Head, whose high regard from selectors outstrips his humble numbers in Shield cricket.
For a nation that once boasted a batting production line the envy of the world, Australia’s reduced circumstances are almost unfathomable for past generations.
“Smith and Warner are the only two (batsmen) capable of playing 100 tests ability-wise,” said former test wicketkeeper and selector Rod Marsh.
“That didn’t used to be the case.”