One win hasn’t made a summer for Australian cricket. Nor has it entirely saved the players or the administration of the national team.
A gamble on youth has bought some time, though, after a seven-wicket win over South Africa. After conceding the three-Test series with an innings defeat in the second Test in Hobart, skipper Steve Smith openly spoke about being humiliated and embarrassed by Australia’s batting collapses in the first two Tests and questioned the heat-of-the-contest commitment in the team.
Head coach Darren Lehmann conceded that only Smith, vice-captain David Warner and new-ball pair Mitch Starc and Josh Hazlewood were guaranteed of selection for the third Test.
Chief selector Rod Marsh stood down and a make-shift selection panel made five changes for the third match in Adelaide, including three new batsmen in the top six. The priority was to avoid a 3-0 series sweep on home soil.
Two of the new batsmen – 20-year-old opener Matt Renshaw and No. 5 Peter Handscomb – were at the crease when Australia won the third test late Sunday.
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Renshaw showed signs that he’s prepared to dig in – seeing off the new pink ball in 12 overs under lights before stumps on the opening night after South Africa’s declaration, and then facing 137 balls in almost three hours Sunday as Australia chased down 127. Handscomb posted a half century in his debut innings, then returned to hit the winning single. Nic Maddinson batted at No. 6 in his debut and was out for a duck from 12 balls.
“I thought we responded really well,” said Smith, who was out for 40, two runs shy of victory. “We had three batters in the top six who had no scars or anything like that so they were able to come in and play their natural game, which was nice. I thought we adapted really well.”
Usman Khawaja, a stylish lefthander of undoubted talent, has been in and out of the Australian lineup since 2011. He secured his spot with a grinding 145 that spanned the first three days of the third Test, the only century for Australia in the series.
“It shows a lot about his character and what he’s willing to do,” Smith said. “He played beautifully out there for seven hours to wear them down and score a big hundred. I guess that’s the sort of template we’re looking for in our top six batters.”
David Warner, 30, was the oldest player in the squad, making it Australia’s youngest Test lineup in 30 years.
Critics were lining up urging changes in the team management after the second Test, with calls for Lehmann, Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland and high-performance manager Pat Howard to stand down. Criticism has died down this week.
Whether credit for the change in the team’s fortunes lay with the five changes, the day-night format, the pink ball, or the dead-rubber nature of the match, Lehmann said it was the team’s response that mattered most.
“The players have copped a lot over the last few weeks and they’ve responded really well,” Lehmann said. “Obviously a change of players as well – you feel sad for the blokes who missed out in this Test match, but the guys who came in did a really good job.”
Smith was unbeaten in his first 11 Tests as captain and the Australians were ranked No. 1 in February. Then came the 3-0 whitewash in Sri Lanka in July and August, and losses in Perth and Hobart against a South Africa lineup missing regular skipper A.B. de Villiers and pace spearhead Dale Steyn.
The Australians will now play three limited-overs internationals against New Zealand then host Pakistan in a three-Test series which starts Dec. 15 with a day-night match in Brisbane. After that comes a searching a four-Test tour of India.
Smith said the new players added energy to the team, from the first training session. And Lehmann said it was reasonable for the selectors to go down the path of developing youth.
“That’s not putting a line through those players who missed out,” he said. “But the results dictate that as well. We’d been playing ok before the Sri Lankan series, obviously we were No.1, but we had to inject some new players – players who can grow and play for 10 years.
“Probably that’s the challenge for the selection group. And then (for) the players to grow out on the ground as well.”