Not since 2006 had Australia played three spinners in a Test match. Incidentally, that happened in Bangladesh as well with Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill and Dan Cullen forming a triumvirate of spinners on a sluggish Chittagong wicket. History repeated itself at the same ground eleven years later as the visitors opted for a three-pong spin attack comprising Nathan Lyon, Steven O’Keefe and Ashton Agar.
Pat Cummins donned the role of the lone seamer and to his credit, he bowled his heart out. Before the Indian series, Cummins hadn’t played First-class cricket since 2011. All of a sudden he is leading the Aussie pace attack on a sub-continental wicket with little in it for the pacers.
Lyon opened the bowling with Cummins and despite the surface offering little turn, Lyon bowled with guile and consistency to send back the top four, all leg before wicket with the score just 85. It seemed to be Australia’s day when Agar had Shakib-al-Hasan playing a false stroke to leave the hosts at 117/5.
But this Bangladesh unit is quite different to the one Australia had played several years back. They had gone in with eight batsmen and in the company of Mushfiqur Rahim, Sabbir Rahman sizzled.
Australia were left clueless as Sabbir, who looked circumspect at the start, began bludgeoning boundaries easily and rotated the strike with alarming regularity. Despite both teams going in with just one pace bowler, the pitch had barely taken turn right from the morning.
As Nathan Lyon said after the day’s play, “I think the wicket’s going to deteriorate, yeah for sure, but I think I might have spun one ball out of 28 overs today. There’s not much spin there at the moment so it’s a good challenge for us spinners to challenge the batters and challenge their defence on a wicket like this.”
In hindsight, Australia should have opted for another pace bowler. Steven O’Keefe and Ashton Agar, despite his big scalp of the day, were at best average and barely tested the Bangladesh batsmen. Cummins, on the other hand, bowled his heart out, generated bounce off a dead wicket and struck the right lines with regularity.
Australia might have felt that the dibbly-dobbly seam bowling of Hilton Cartwright was sufficient for them on this pitch. After all, in the last Test, they barely had to use their second seamer. But in all fairness, this wicket was quite different to that in the previous Test.
It is to Lyon’s credit that he extracted every bit out of this surface and bowled with venom to claim a five-wicket haul. If not for Lyon, Bangladesh might well have ended day 1 on an ominous note.
That said, the game is by no means in the balance. Australia have to bat second and the pitch, as Lyon stated, is bound to deteriorate. Bangladesh are already heading towards a pretty good first innings total courtesy Mushfiqur Rahim and if they get anywhere close to 350, Australia will have a hard time.
Australia’s biggest weapon could and should have been pace against this Bangladesh line-up. After all, their biggest strength is their fast bowling unit and although they conditions do scream out for more than one spinner, a third one was unnecessary. Steven O’Keefe barely threatened the batsmen with his innocuous left-arm spin and with Glenn Maxwell also available, it was a completely uncharacteristic decision.
That they decided to replace Josh Hazlewood with Steven O’Keefe was an indication that Australia were expecting only spinners to play a part in this series. But to dump a large chunk of responsibility on Pat Cummins, who is known to be injury prone, was a bizarre call.
Cummins was struggling by the end of the day with the hot and sapping conditions at Chittagong playing a part. He still continued to clock 135kmph and above but the initial threat had vanished with fatigue playing a part. He sorely missed a partner at the other end who could use the new ball and Cartwright in his very first over proved that he is no magician.
Australia hadn’t opened the bowling with a spin bowler in the first innings of a Test since 1938 when Bill O’Reilly took the new ball against England in Nottingham. Lyon, however, looked least perturbed by the history and did extremely well. In fact, his sharp spell allowed Australia an early advantage despite them having messed up the bowling attack.
“As I said before, that was the hardest conditions I’ve ever had. The wicket’s not really doing much, there’s not much spin, there’s no bounce. So to challenge the Bangladesh batters as much as we could, I thought it was a pretty good day to be honest”, Lyon revealed post the day’s play.
The Test could still swing Australia’s way if they manage to get rid of Mushfiqur Rahim early on day 2 before he inflicts further damage. But with Cummins’ looking a tad weary, Australia will be worried about their bowling combinations. They should be.