Injuries toll mounts, death overs disaster and more - Australia's takeaways from South Africa

Travis Head receives treatment after a blow on the hand
September 18, 2023

Australia's series defeat against South Africa has exposed a few areas of concern heading into the ODI World Cup. While they were missing a number of key players, the injury toll, the manner of the defeats after holding a 2-0 lead, and the form of some key players is hard to ignore despite the series being treated as a warm-up. Here are the major takeaways as they head to India.

Australia's injury list lengthens

Australia entered the five-match series missing Pat Cummins (wrist fracture), Steven Smith (wrist tendon), Mitchell Starc (groin soreness) and Glenn Maxwell (ankle) but were buoyed by the opportunity to test their bench strength before those players returned. All of those players still need to get up to match fitness and intensity in India ahead of the World Cup but Australia's leave South Africa with more injury issues.

Travis Head has a fractured hand and is in severe doubt for the World Cup as coach Andrew McDonald confirmed after the final ODI that he is unlikely to be available for the first half of the tournament and the selectors have to decide whether to carry him in the squad or not. Sean Abbott has split the webbing in his hand and will be monitored in India.

Ashton Agar played just one game in South Africa coming off a calf tear. It was planned that he would play more but he experienced soreness and missed the second and third matches of the series before heading home for the birth of his child and he won't play in the series in India starting on Friday.

Nathan Ellis (adductor) and Spencer Johnson (hamstring) aren't in the World Cup 15-man squad at the moment but both are key back-up fast bowling options and both leave South Africa with niggles. Australia has five more matches before the World Cup to get players up and running but they also have to factor in nine World Cup pool games in eight cities over the course of only a month in the tournament proper. It is a heavy workload for even a fully fit squad.

Dismal death bowling

Australia's death bowling was woeful in the last three games of the series and it is a major concern heading to the World Cup. Cummins and Starc were missing, while Mitchell Marsh was unavailable to bowl and Cameron Green missed two of the last three games due to concussion. All of those issues meant Marsh was limited in his options.

Agar's absence was also keenly felt. While he does not bowl at the death, his middle-over skills can help build more pressure on opposition teams heading into the death overs. But even the experience trio of Josh Hazlewood, Adam Zampa and Marcus Stoinis were mauled by South Africa's middle-order in the death overs.

They gave up 96 runs in the final 10 overs in Potchefstroom, 173 at Centurion and 113 at Johannesburg. It would be easy to write it off as confirmation of Cummins and Starc's importance to the side but that would blindly ignore the form of Hazlewood and Zampa.

Both returned career-worst ODI figures in the series. Hazlewood did so twice in back-to-back games. Australia's catching was to blame in the final game with Zampa and Green both executing well only for three key opportunities to be grassed. But execution was the issue in the other games and Australia's death bowling since the last ODI World Cup is not a strength. They are equal second-last for economy rate in the death overs over the last four years among the World Cup qualifiers, ahead of only New Zealand.

Middle-order malaise

There was a stark contrast between the quality of the two middle-orders in the series and this is not a new problem for Australia. The absence of Smith and Maxwell meant that there was a need to experiment and Green's concussion in game one did not help their cause in terms of bedding down roles ahead of the World Cup.

The middle and lower-order capitulated in every game barring the Marnus Labuschagne-Agar partnership in game one after the top-order collapsed, and the collapses came against both spin and pace. In Potchefstroom, they were 140 for 1 and were bowled out 227. Even in the game two win in Bloemfontein Australia were 343 for 3 with 43 balls to go and lost 5 for 49.

Even more troubling are the overall returns of Australia's middle-order batters in the last four years. Only Pakistan, Netherlands and Afghanistan have lower averages in the middle-order, and only Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have a lower strike-rate of the teams with better averages.

Two of Australia's major middle-order pillars in that time have been Alex Carey and Stoinis and both have been short on runs. Carey did find some form with an outstanding 99 in a losing cause at Centurion but his next highest score in the series was 12. He has averaged 30.64 at a strike-rate of only 86.75 since the last World Cup where he was one of Australia's best players. Stoinis' returns with the bat have been bleak in the same period, even dating back prior to the 2019 World Cup. He has not made an ODI half-century in his last 31 ODI innings dating back to March 2019, and has averaged just 16.37.

Stoinis has bowled well in ODIs this year, particularly with the new ball but it has reached a point now where if he is not available to bowl due to needing to be rested, as was the case in two of the five games in this series, he is not in Australia's best XI. Marnus Labuschagne was not in World Cup calculations ahead of the series but he has been Australia's most prolific ODI middle-order player over the last four years. He enhanced his reputation with 80 not out and 124 in the first two games of the series and could well force his way into the final World Cup squad with Head's untimely injury.

But there is a lack of firepower if Smith, Labuschagne and Carey occupy three spots from No.3-7 when compared with what South Africa's middle-order of Rassie van der Dussen, Aiden Markram, Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller delivered in this series.

Structure of the best XI now in a state of flux

Australia wanted to have three combinations that could all be used during the World Cup. One option was to play with eight batters, including four allrounders, and three specialist bowlers. The other two options were using seven batters and four bowlers, alternating between playing two quicks and two spinners or three quicks and one spinner.

But the cumulative effect of all the issues leaves holes in all three combinations. Agar's fitness and absence in the lead-up to the World Cup means playing two spinners might not be an option. Even if he is fit, it would mean leaving out one of captain Cummins or Hazlewood if Starc is locked in as the first-choice quick.

Playing three quicks would be a risk on certain surfaces in India, and that risk is compounded if neither Maxwell or Head are fit to play and able to contribute their off-spin. Playing eight batters and four all-rounders does strengthen the batting in theory. But the form of the middle order is still a concern, and it leaves Australia exposed with the ball at the death, like they were in South Africa.

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