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Australia’s checklist for the India ODI series: Fitness of returning seamers, utility of second spinner, bowling combination and adaptability of batsmen

Mitchell Starc walked in gingerly during Australia’s practice session at the PCA Stadium in Mohali. Then, with a six-seven pace run-up, he bowled at a single stump. Closely monitored by the support staff, he bowled for an hour, before the physio instructed him to take a breather. The most important bowler for his country in the 50-over format, the fifth highest-ever wicket-taker in World Cups (49 at 14 in 18 games), the left-arm quick had missed the South Africa series due to groin injury, and is woefully shot of ODI game-time this year, having featured in only three outings this year.

Though it is vital for him to get some valuable match practice before the World Cup, so that he could regain his pace and rhythm, Australia are not hurrying him into the fold. Later, captain Pat Cummins would rule his premier bowler out of the first game on Friday. “Starcy is not available.” Given the way Starc was struggling in his follow-through, it would be highly unlikely that he will play any of three games.

Not just Starc, he would miss the services of all-rounder Glenn Maxwell and left-arm spinner Ashton Agar, both on paternity duty, and would join only before the second match in Indore. It means Cummins would have to juggle with the combination of the side, in a series where they would look to finalise their ideal eleven for the World Cup. Cummins elaborated: “We want to strike a balance (between winning and not over-staining). We want to get used to these conditions, and hopefully win some games. But we also don’t want to get to that first game of the World Cup and already be cooked.”

Australia Australian captain Pat Cummins and the coaching staff inspect the pitch during the team’s practice session at PCA Stadium in Mohali. Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh

A few different combinations would be tried. “No doubt we’ll be trying a few different combinations, a few different players will get a chance but ideally we’d like to structure up pretty closely to how we’ll play in the World Cup,” he said.

Among his priorities would be the order of the batting line-up, as in sorting out the best position for each batsman, whether to play a second specialist spinner or not, and for Cummins, how to use the bowlers here. “It might be a bit different to say South Africa or Australia. Hopefully we get some answers over the next few games,” he added.

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However, the good news for them is that Cummins, who has recovered from a wrist injury, and Steve Smith, who has taken cortisone injection for his left-wrist problem, has recovered and are fit to play in the series. Cummins has not played an ODI this year, while Smith has featured in just three. “My wrist is all healed now. I am 100 percent fit,” said Cummins, who confirmed that Smith would play in Mohali.

Smith, who played with the injury throughout the Ashes, batted for almost two hours on Wednesday evening. The most he faced was the 19-year-old left-arm spinner Emanjot Singh Chahal, who later told this paper. “I bowled to him for almost one hour. He was either using his steps (feet) or was sweeping,” he said.

Australia Steven Smith during a practice session on Wednesday. Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh

Reuniting with Smith would be his trusted partner in Tests, Marnus Labuschagne, who has made the best use of his break as a concussion substitute in the series against South Africa, He grasped the opportunity by scoring 283 runs at 70.75, the series top-scorer. “Marnus is always ringing in my head. He was fantastic. He was our best batter in South Africa. Not only batting wise, his intent was excellent. I am sure he will get his chance in three games and push for his spot,” said Cummins.

The series would be an audition for the pace-bowling all-rounders too. Australia would be one of the few sides that would have

seven or eight bowling options in their playing eleven. Some of them—Mitchell Marsh, Camron Green and Marcus Stoinis—were bowling in tandem in the nets under the scorching Mohali sun. Sean Abbott, who split his webbing in Johannesburg, is another pace-bowling all-round option. “You need five bowlers, so the more all-rounders you have you can really bolster your batting.

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Their presence lends flexibility, which could be valuable in India. They could pack an extra batsman or bowler, they bat deep, and they could afford one of their mainstay bowlers enduring a bad day. “It gives us the option to pick four bowlers or three,”said Cummins.

The captain extolled Marsh, who is enjoying the best phase of his career, with runs and wickets across formats, apart from his leadership skills. “He has been great. We saw in the T20 series in South Africa, he started off with a bang. The ODIs were a bit disappointing, but a lot of good stuff as well. We were impressed as to how he was around the boys and looked calm on the field. If I am not then he will be there to step right in,” said Cummins, before a series that is the final step before the big leap into the World Cup.

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The all-rounders are complemented by leg-spinner Adam Zampa, who has emerged as one of the most feared spinners in white-ball cricket. Cummins backed him to come good, though the 31-year-old has had a middling outing in South Africa. He hinted that he would bowl in the death overs too. “If you pick four frontline bowlers, they have to be ready to bowl in all phases. Zamps (Adam Zampa) is not only good in keeping the run rate down but can also pick a couple of wickets in death overs, which could be hard on pace bowlers. So I won’t be surprised if we keep his 2, 3 or 4 overs up our sleeves,” Cummins said.

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