Delhi: Travis Head was picked for his bowling as part of an extraordinary selection gamble that will see Australia field three frontline spinners for just the third time since the turn of the millennium.
Slammed back home after the bombshell axing of Head last week, selectors on Friday took to the front foot to explain the rationale for their bold moves in the second Test. At stumps on the first day, India were 0/21 in reply to Australia’s 263.
Matthew Kuhnemann has been thrust into the spotlight in India.Credit:Getty Images
Head’s part-time off-spin played a prominent role in his immediate recall at the expense of Matthew Renshaw, while Queensland bolter Matthew Kuhnemann became Australia’s second spin debutant in as many games after being rushed into the XI.
A left-arm finger-spinner who does not command a regular place in his state XI, Kuhnemann was not named in Australia’s original 18-man touring party but suddenly finds himself thrown into the fray – and taking the new ball – for arguably the team’s most important game since the 2019 Ashes.
It is the first time Australia have picked three specialist slow bowlers since Nathan Lyon, Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe formed a spin triumvirate in the Chittagong Test against Bangladesh in 2017.
The previous occasion was also at the same venue in 2006 – a game made famous by Jason Gillespie’s storied 201 not out – when Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill were joined by South Australia one-Test wonder Dan Cullen.
Injuries to Cameron Green and Mitchell Starc forced selectors into naming a side that has skipper Pat Cummins as the sole frontline quick.
It is a massive risk for Australia, but Green’s unavailability has severely impacted the balance of the side with no recognised seamer in the top six.
Head will be Australia’s fourth spin option and the third off-spinner in the side, behind Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy. Ashton Agar’s Test future is now under a big cloud, having been leapfrogged by Murphy and Kuhnemann in the past six weeks.
It is a rapid rise for the 26-year-old Kuhnemann, who has taken 35 wickets at 35 in 13 first-class games.
Head’s omission last week created much debate back home as he had been in career-best form, and his immediate recall is likely to be a significant talking point as well. He made 12 before being caught behind cutting.
“Team selection here was driven by two factors – the conditions and the personnel available,” selector Tony Dodemaide said before play.
“The key things, Greeny didn’t quite make it. Starcy isn’t quite 100 per cent as well and the other thing driving the key point between Renners and Heady was really we thought we were short of fifth bowling support in Nagpur.
“So we feel as Heady even though he’s an off-spinner that goes the same way that he’s a more robust option for a fifth as a chop out as required.”
Head’s form in the nets had been a concern but Renshaw did himself no favours with twin failures, though Dodemaide said he had not been dropped for those performances.
“Renners is really stiff. There’s no slight on him. He’s very much a valued player in our team planning moving forward,” Dodemaide said.
“The key thing where we see the difference this time around is that Heady does offer quite a valuable option as a fifth bowler and that’s where we felt we were stretched in parts of the game in Nagpur and that fifth bowling option is something that we would value, albeit another spinner. But we expect spin to dominate in any case.”
The Australians believe the parched pitch at Arun Jaitley Stadium, which has been used for games this season, will play low and slow and offer plenty of turn as the tracks in the nets.
“From what we understand this pitch has been used three times already this year and there’s already substantial cracking in the areas where most of the game is going to be played,” Dodemaide said.
“That’s the reason for going for the three spin, the fifth bowler is important too.”
Green is still being troubled by a middle finger injury on his right hand. He is yet to face fast bowling and started catching a cricket ball only this week. With nearly two weeks to the third Test, Green is expected to be available for the third Test starting March 1.
“Cam’s been going through his return to play stuff,” Dodemaide said. “He hasn’t really completed all of what he was intended to do. He still hasn’t faced quick bowlers, he hasn’t done a lot of catching as well.
“He’s trained for quite some time. But there’s just enough reaction and discomfort there that it’s just not ready. So hence we fully expect he will be online for the third Test.”
Starc cast doubt over himself earlier this week when he revealed he was not as advanced as he would like in his recovery from a tendon injury to the middle finger of his bowling hand.
“Certainly if he was 100 per cent we would have had a serious conversation about the bowling structure, about two (quicks) and two (spinners) as opposed to one (quick) and three (spinners),” Dodemaide said.
“Certainly, it’s great balance if you’ve got that seam bowling without shortening the batting with Greeny being available. That’s not the case, and we deal with what you’ve got.”
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