The New Year’s Test against South Africa will serve as “good preparation” for Australia ahead of next month’s Border-Gavaskar Trophy, with the SCG’s dry pitch allowing Pat Cummins and his teammates to finetune their skills before travelling to India.
Australia has already claimed an unassailable 2-0 in the three-match series against South Africa, making the final Test in Sydney a dead rubber. However, if the hosts whitewash South Africa at the SCG, Australia would almost certainly secure a spot in this year‘s World Test Championship final at The Oval.
Meanwhile, the SCG pitch closely resembles what Australia can expect to encounter in India next month, with a lack of moisture in the surface suggesting it could provide turn for the spinners. Australia has no warm-up matches in the subcontinent before the first Test against India in Nagpur, which gets underway on Thursday, January 9.
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South Africa captain Dean Elgar acknowledged the Proteas were considering two spinners for the New Year’s Test, meaning Australia’s batters can expect to face more spin bowling at the SCG this week.
Cummins believes this week’s Sydney Test will assist the team’s preparations ahead of the gruelling India tour, arguably his biggest challenge as national captain to date. Australia has not won a Test series in India since 2004.
“I don’t think it’s the WACA type pace bowling friendly wicket out there,” Cummins told reporters on Tuesday morning.
“They’ve taken a bit more grass of it. It looks a bit more like an SCG wicket of 15-20 years ago.
“It’s a huge connection to India. I think with fast bowling, reverse swing is going to come into it, which we can expect in India.
“We’ll probably get more spin overs here. Our batters are obviously going to face more spin here as well. It’s a really good connection. Even personally captaining here might be different to the last few Test matches. It’s good preparation for India.”
Cummins did not reveal the starting XI for the series finale against South Africa but hinted Australia could select two strike spinners on home soil for the first time in six years. Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe bowled in tandem during the 2017 New Year’s Test against Pakistan, which Australia won by 220 runs.
West Australian spinner Ashton Agar is expected to partner with Lyon at the SCG this week, giving the 29-year-old some valuable Test experience before the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The most recent of Agar’s four Tests came in 2017, with the left-hander rarely playing Sheffield Shield cricket over the past few summers due to international white-ball commitments.
While Lyon turns the ball into right-handed batters, Agar offers variation by spinning it away from the outside edge. O’Keefe, who has a similar bowling style to Agar, famously took 12 wickets in Pune six years ago to help Australia clinch its only Test victory in India since 2004.
Sydney’s rain could tempt national selectors to omit Agar, with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting showers for the first four days of the New Year’s fixture, but Cummins brushed aside weather concerns.
“In the last couple of years, the weather hasn’t played ball with the forecast,” Cummins said.
“Last year day four was meant to be washed out, we were umming-and-ahhing about whether to declare and then had a full day’s play. It factors in a little. Even day one we are hoping the rain will be late in the evening after we get a day’s play in.”
Australia’s quicks have also been practising their reverse swing ahead of the SCG Test, with Cummins and uncapped paceman Lance Morris training with an old ball on Monday afternoon.
Morris, capable of bowling faster than 150km/h, was getting the worn Kookaburra to move away from the left-handed Travis Head in the nets, covering the ball’s shiny side with his hands during his run-up.
“You can’t see the shine on it, can you?” Morris asked Head after beating his outside edge for the umpteenth time.
Morris consulted Cummins and Australian coach Andrew McDonald about his release point between deliveries, discussing his arm’s movement before and after release when attempting reverse swing, which could be a dangerous weapon in India.
“It’s something that does take a little bit of practice,” Cummins said.
“Obviously Mitchell Starc’s really good, it’s quite natural for his action. For me and Josh (Hazlewood), it takes slightly different mechanics.”
Australian Test players not involved in the Big Bash League final will take part in a three-day training camp in Sydney before flying to India, mimicking the side’s preparation ahead of last year’s successful tour of Pakistan.
“We’re going to go to India about a week out from the first game,” McDonald told reporters earlier this week.
“We didn’t want to press for too much longer, in terms of the preparation.
“But we would prefer a centre wicket in India to go through some scenario training, and we feel as though with this experienced group also that have been there before, that they won’t need as long to adapt to the conditions.
“We can be creative in our own conditions. We’ve done it before with the Pakistan build-up in Melbourne. Dusting up wickets. Fit for purpose. Working with the local groundsmen who really help us in and around the country. We feel as though we can get as close to that as possible without necessarily having a practice game.
“We feel as though seven days is ample time to get ready and to make sure we maintain freshness throughout the whole four Test match series. We had some success doing that, going to Pakistan. We had a shortened period on the ground there.”
The third Test between Australia and South Africa gets underway at the SCG on Wednesday morning, with the first ball scheduled for 10.30am AEDT.
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