No middle ground: Australia’s hunt for a winning combo

With up to ten T20 matches against the West Indies and Bangladesh remaining before this year’s T20 World Cup, Australia need to settle on the men they hope can secure the one global title that still eludes them.

The Aussies have no shortage of quality options at the top of the order but have so far failed to find a consistent combination in the middle order. And with seven top players not in the touring party to the Caribbean that flies out on Monday, finding a settled line-up is not getting any easier.

In 36 matches across the past three years, Australia have already used a whopping 18 different players in positions five, six or seven. Only eight of those have had three or more innings.

Since the start of June 2018, Australia’s middle order batters – defined here as positions five, six and seven – are ranked eighth for strike rate, 11th for balls per boundary and ninth for strike rate in the death overs (overs 16-20) among the ICC’s top 12 teams.

The openers are expected to do most of the heavy lifting in a T20 innings and that has been the case for Australia in recent history. In the past three years, Australia’s top four has primarily consisted of Aaron Finch, David Warner, Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell, with Matthew Wade filling with Warner absent from the T20 side since last November.

As a result of the strength of the top four, Australia’s positions five and below have faced on average just a tick over 31 balls per innings.

Only India, Pakistan and England have middle and lower orders that have faced fewer balls than Australia’s.

Australian legend Ricky Ponting says the selectors should look to specialist middle order batters despite the difficulty of finding the right candidates.

“The spot I think they’ve always been worried about is that finishing role, and one of the reasons for that is that all of our best batsmen bat in the top four in the Big Bash, so you’ve actually got no one that’s consistently batting in that area,” Ponting told cricket.com.au recently.

“It’s a very specialist position to be able to go in with three of four overs to go, with 50 runs needed, and be able to do it.”

Numbers reveal that the best middle order players don’t all follow the same approach to an innings.

For example, Kieron Pollard and Nicolas Pooran face a high number of dot balls but make up for it with more sixes and fours to give them absurd strike rates.

Against New Zealand in late 2020, Pollard came in 4-58 and even though he soaked up 15 dot balls (40.5% of his innings), managed to finish on 75 off 37 thanks to eight sixes and four fours at a strike rate of 202.70.

Ross Taylor and Ben Stokes face few dot balls, but can also up the ante if needed.

Against South Africa in early 2020, England were flying at 3-90 in the 10th over when Stokes began his innings. The allrounder kept the momentum of the innings going with only six dot balls (20%) and finished with 47 off 30 balls (strike rate of 156.70) as England reached 200.

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One thing these middle order stars all have in common are the impressive minimums they reach across some key statistics; a strike rate of at least 125, a boundary every six balls and the ability to lift the strike rate at the death to at least 150.

Pandya powers his way into the 90s again

“(MS) Dhoni has been in that one spot his whole career and no wonder he’s so good at it,” said Ponting.

“Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard are similar – these guys continually win games of cricket for their country and in the IPL, they’re used to going in batting at those spots.

“That’s what we’ve got to find.”

The standout from an analysis of innings commenced at numbers five, six or seven since June 1, 2018, is Marcus Stoinis.

Stoinis is one of the players who opted out of the Windies and Bangladesh tours, having been in near constant bio-secure bubbles since his return to Australia’s T20 middle order on their white-ball tour of England in September 2020.

Since then, his dot ball percentage is low and his strike rate in the last five overs of 165.50 puts him up there with the best in the world.

Stoinis’s 33 off 19 against India in 2018, 35 off 26 against England in 2020 and 78 off 37 against New Zealand last February have been some of his most impressive performances in Australia’s middle order.

An opener with the Melbourne Stars in the KFC BBL, his progression as a middle order maestro has been aided by his time in the IPL, where he’s become a fixture in the Ponting-coached Delhi Capitals’ middle order. In the 2020 IPL, played in the UAE last October, he scored three half-centuries and in the 2021 edition in India, his tournament strike rate was 144.90 before it was suspended amid COVID-19 breaches of the tournament’s bio-secure bubble.

Ashton Agar, Mitch Marsh and Alex Carey have all been tried for mixed returns, while Moises Henriques was a surprise with his performances against India in late 2020.

“Moises is a tremendous cricketer with loads of experience and is a great person to have around the group,” Australia’s national selector Trevor Hohns said of Henriques’ return to the squad last October.

In that series, Henriques batted every innings at No.5 and scored 30 off 20, 26 off 18 and five not out off two balls.

Some familiar names crop up when we look at the best of the middle order in the BBL.

Australia and Scorchers allrounder Mitch Marsh was brilliant in BBL10, hitting three half-centuries and a 49 not out in the Challenger final against Brisbane.

One of his many highlights of the tournament was a blazing 57 not out from only 27 balls against the eventual champions, the Sydney Sixers.

He came in at the start of the 15th over and slammed seven fours and two sixes to launch Perth to a winning total.

Marsh monsters Sixers in unbeaten half-century

And Dan Christian’s remarkable consistency has seen him rewarded with a spot in Australia’s winter touring squad despite being 38 years of age.

“(Christian) is someone who’s so dynamic, and we saw the impact he had especially towards the business end of the Big Bash last year – he came in and had a high strike-rate from ball one,” Australia captain Aaron Finch said on Friday.

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“He’s explosive with the bat, he’s got tricks with the ball, he’s experienced, he doesn’t get fazed and he’s a brilliant fielder.

“Dan’s a super player, an unbelievable competitor and a great person to have around the group. I’m really excited to have him back in.”

Christian’s coach at the Sixers Greg Shipperd explained why the allrounder should be a contender for the ‘finisher’ role in Australia’s T20 team.

“He can provide that calming balance or that exemplary performance that he did for the Sixers on four or five occasions last season,” Shipperd said.

“I would be pushing and promoting him competing strongly for one of those positions (at the World Cup).”

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Perth Scorchers’ Ashton Turner is another to benefit from the withdrawals having been a late addition to the Aussie squad for the winter tours, but earned his spot with a sensational summer.

Although he had a horror BBL in 2019-20, Turner returned to form for the Scorchers last summer in BBL10 and excelled as a ‘specialist’ No.6 batter to boast a death strike rate of exactly 200.

Turner has only had three hits in Australia’s T20 middle order in the past three years and as a result has struggled to find consistency at international level.

“There’s not many guys in the Australian squad batting at six in the Big Bash,” Turner said in January when he was selected for Australia’s T20 squad to travel to New Zealand.

“That’s probably my point of difference at the moment.

“It’s not an easy role but I think the more exposure I can get to batting in that position, the better I’m going to get at it.”

Looking more left-field, Hilton Cartwright flourished for the Melbourne Stars when he was dropped down the order in BBL10 and ended with one of the lowest dot ball rates and one of the highest strike rates from all middle order batters.

Jordan Silk and Jonathan Wells have made their names as consistent middle order batters in the BBL and both have remarkably similar records over the past two seasons.

If we look at Australia’s squad as a whole, we get a great look at some of the strengths of particular members.

For example, across international cricket, BBL and IPL in the past three years, Henriques has a middle-overs strike rate of 153.80, bettered only by Wade’s 161.50 from the current Australian squad.

While Henriques is a genuine option for Australia’s middle order there’s a lot more uncertainty about Wade’s position.

He’s been Australia’s wicketkeeper in their past nine T20 internationals since Alex Carey was dropped in September 2020, and he’s batted in the top three in all bar one of those matches.

Wade is definitely a top order bat in T20s, as his half-centuries against India in December and his BBL hundred with the Hobart Hurricanes attest.

Over his career, his T20 strike rate in the top order (positions 1-4) is 141.4. In the middle order it’s 110.9.

Wade’s opportunities have come with Warner missing for each of Australia’s past nine matches in this format.

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Warner will be absent from the West Indies and Bangladesh tours, but if he were to return for the T20 World Cup it would either force Wade down the order, where he’s been far less effective, or out of the playing XI entirely.

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If Wade drops out, who wears the gloves, and what position they occupy in the batting line-up, becomes a whole new problem for Australia to try and solve across the next 10 matches.

Around the world, Henriques and Wade stack up very well in the middle overs. Lendl Simmons (strike rate of 180), Glenn Phillips (171.10) and Martin Guptill (161.90) are the world leaders in this period of the innings.

Regular openers Aaron Finch (218.8), D’Arcy Short (190.7) and Josh Philippe (183.3) have massive death over strike rates. After all, once these men reach the death, they’ve had 15 overs to get their eye in.

To see where these numbers sit in comparison with the world’s best, AB de Villiers’ strike rate in the last five overs (since June 2018) is 236.5 and Andre Russell’s is 221.

Two other men who aren’t in the squad for the West Indies, but might consider themselves a chance of making the T20 World Cup squad, are Marnus Labuschagne and Josh Inglis.

Labuschagne missed out on the tour due to “logistical complexities” having already made his way to England to represent Glamorgan inn England’s T20 competition.

“With Covid, the amount of quarantine that is needed for me to play in those games is almost 38 days,” Labuschagne said recently. “I would love to be playing in the World Cup in a few months. I don’t know if it is a realistic goal from the selectors, but it is a realistic goal from my perspective.”

Inglis enjoyed a superb summer for both Western Australia and the Perth Scorchers and has found a big fan in Ponting.

“They have tried a few blokes (as T20 wicketkeeper) … Josh Inglis’ name could be thrown into the ring as well,” Ponting told cricket.com.au in May. “I really liked what I saw from him batting in the middle order in last summer’s BBL.

“He plays spin really well and you think about where the World Cup is going to be (in India or the UAE), he could be a name that could come up (for selection).”

Labuschagne is enjoying a career-best year in the game’s shortest format, firstly in his stint with the Brisbane Heat following the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and now with Glamorgan.

Before this year he’d never made more than 30 in a T20 innings; in 2021 he’s already clocked up seven 30+ scores.

However, all these great scores have come as an opener, at No.3 or No.4, in a similar role to what Steve Smith plays for the national team. Labuschagne has not played at all in the middle order this year.

Inglis has had a great start to his stint with Leicestershire in England, hitting an unbeaten 103 along with 82 off 49 balls in a losing cause.

While these fantastic knocks have come as an opener, he batted a majority of BBL10 at No.4 and below, so he’s got some crucial experience further down the order.

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