Usman Khawaja and Aaron Finch have put their stamp on Australia’s opening partnership, leading coach Justin Langer to suggest Matt Renshaw‘s quickest path back into the Test team may be in the middle order.
Opening stands of 142 and 87 were the bulwark of the team’s batting in each innings, wasted in the first but built upon to history-making effect in the second. While the pairing of Finch with Khawaja was partly based on conditions and also on Renshaw’s concussion in the team’s only warm-up game, leaving him short of match practice, Langer admitted their chemistry could not be ignored in terms of long-term thinking.
This means Renshaw may be looked at as a middle-order option in the second Test in Abu Dhabi. Australia have some questions to ask of their batting after the first-innings collapse and also the less fruitful returns of Shaun and Mitchell Marsh and the debutant Marnus Labuschagne, beaten by spin on the front foot in the first innings and on the back foot in the second.
“One thing I know in great teams is not just preparation and good spirit, but one of the main building blocks is a really strong opening partnership,” Langer said. “So for the guys to get a 140-run opening partnership and an 87 or 86 run partnership … that’s huge for our team. It’s a great effort by both of them and you’re always looking.
“Whenever you’re building a team, you’re always looking for the opening partnership and they’ve certainly both put their best foot forward and they’ve obviously got a good chemistry to have two great partnerships. The job if you’re not in the team is to work really hard and make a lot of runs to force yourself in, to be so good that you can’t be ignored. That’s how it has always been in Australian cricket, and that’s how it has got to be. And that’s the same with Matt or any of the players who aren’t in the XI for this game.”
There had been strong suspicions that Renshaw had fallen behind others on an attitude basis, but Langer insisted that his omission was as much to do with a lack of batting in matches in recent weeks as anything else. “The reality is his numbers have been brilliant since he was dropped last time. He went away and scored a lot of runs. He got runs in Shield cricket, one of the best hundreds I’ve seen in a long time in Shield cricket at the Gabba in a pink-ball game [against] Western Australia last year,” Langer said. “He’s a very, very good young player. Unfortunately, like fast bowlers, he hadn’t had time in the middle and you never bring a ruckman back if they haven’t got much time in the middle.
“You never bring fast bowlers back, well, it’s hard to, and it’s the same with Matt. The only thing that played against him this game and not his ability, not his work ethic, he’s done all the things so well over the last six months. And everything he has done absolutely to the letter. Unfortunately, he got three injuries with his broken finger, his hamstring and then concussion, so he has batted in the middle in the last three months for probably an hour and it’s really hard to come into these conditions when you haven’t got match fitness.
“People could argue with that and that’s fine, but my view on the world is that there’s nothing like match practice and he just hadn’t had any. He’s a terrific young player, really good in the group. I admire the way he has gone about it, he had a smile on his face the whole time and there’s plenty of future for Matt Renshaw. Whether it comes in opening or batting No. 3 or … it could come anywhere. He’s a good player. I’ve always said if you open you can bat anywhere in the order. Time will tell.”
Another question for Australia after their Dubai exertions is how to handle the spearhead Mitchell Starc, who slogged through 42.2 overs in enervating heat and battled severe cramps at the end of day one. Alongside the absent Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, Starc is considered one of Australia’s most precious resources, and at very least his training will be kept to a minimum over the next four days ahead of the second Test, starting in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
“Starcy bowled a lot of overs first innings, we certainly understand that and it’s always the million-dollar question what do we do with the fast bowlers,” Langer said. “Because if we want to have our fast bowlers particularly in Australia or, going forward, to England next year, like the opening partnership, the top three is incredibly important to Australia being successful. We’ll manage it. It’s the start of the season and hopefully, we’ll manage them well throughout the summer.”
The physical and emotional toil had an enormous payoff for Australia in the shape of a draw from nowhere, and Langer balanced his concerns about the well-being of his players with unbridled enthusiasm about what had just taken place. “I said to Travis Head actually when he missed out on the T20 side. At the end of this second Test you’ll be coming and giving me a hug,” he said. “And Finchy said it to me today as well because Test cricket is so tiring.
“Physically and mentally it’s so draining. So we’re going to have to work softly to really recharge our batteries as much as we can over the next few days to start again in four days’ time. But that’s all part of the back-to-back Test matches, especially with our young guys. “I’ll tell you what I do know after today – anyone who tells me Test cricket is dead, they’re crazy. That is Test cricket, that’s awesome, isn’t it? That’s what we love. For cricket tragics, we love that. That’s awesome, down to the end, all nervous, I love that.”