Aaron Finch is itching to get out. More or less his final commitment after two weeks of hotel quarantine in Sydney following the IPL is to preview Australia’s ODI series against India via Zoom, the only means by which he has been able to plan for the contest with team-mates and coaches.
In a way, the conclusion of quarantine so close to the start of cricketing hostilities between Australia and India is an apt reminder of the unprecedented circumstances for the summer, played out against the backdrop of Covid-19 and all its associated health and biosecurity measures. But if Finch is impatient for a few more freedoms, he is also hopeful that the national selectors will be similarly eager to get the 22-year-old Will Pucovski into their Test team this season.
Much of the debate around Pucovski’s chances of usurping Joe Burns has fallen into the question of team chemistry and balance. That has ranged from head coach Justin Langer and David Warner’s thinly veiled preference for Burns to the trenchant views of Ian and Greg Chappell, insisting that Pucovski be hurled in to face Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami with the new ball. Finch, though, has one of the more valuable perspectives, having been tried and failed as a mature-age Test opener in 2018-19. Finch was handed over his Test debut during the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai in October 2018 while Warner was serving a ball-tampering ban, but was quickly discarded after just five matches, where he averaged 27.80 with a highest score of 62.
In an ESPNcricinfo interview this week, Finch suggested that he wished he had got that chance at the age of 25 rather than 32, the better to learn from it and return a better player. Speaking in the context of Pucovski, Finch went further, saying it was impossible to know how you would handle the most pressing challenge in the game until you experienced it; so the sooner, the better.
“When you have your first chance at 32 and you miss that trick, there’s probably not a huge amount of scope to get back into that side,” Finch said. “So I would’ve loved to have that opportunity at 25 because I think the lessons that I learned from that were crucial in my development – not just as a player but as a person [too].
“I think when you’re talking about young guys – especially hugely talented guys like Will – there’s going to be ups and downs in their careers no doubt. So I think being exposed to the highest level early on, I think that might seem tough at the time if things don’t go well straightaway. But the lessons that you learn from that, the way that you approach the game – the way you approach it mentally probably more than anything – I think is some really valuable lessons, and something that can’t really be taught.
“You can speak to everybody about how to go about it [and] how you’re going to feel, but until you walk out and mark centre or bowl your first ball [or] first over in Test cricket, you don’t really understand what your reaction to it is going to be.”
Timely education applies as much to life as it does to cricket, epitomised by how the Australian team’s understanding of the issues around this year’s Black Lives Matter movement has been greatly enhanced in recent weeks. Their decision to form a Barefoot Circle in acknowledgement of Aboriginal Australia and racial injustice prior to Friday’s opening game against India is a signifier of the way in which Finch and others have progressed from his clumsy construction in England a few months back that “education around it is more important than the protest”.
“We sat down and discussed it as a group,” Finch said. “A lot of people have had some input into it and we think it’s the right way to connect with our Indigenous people. There’s obviously zero tolerance to racism in our sport, in our society, or there should be anyway. So I think this is a way we can connect with our Indigenous people that have faced a lot of adversity for a long time – for generations – so this is our way of supporting that cause.
“I think it’s about education – not just for me but for our group. The more that we can educate ourselves and educate each other, I think we can go on a journey of learning a lot more about the injustices over the last 230-odd years in Australia, and I suppose to raise some awareness of issues that might not be as commonly known.”
Individually, Finch has been able to use his quarantine time to recalibrate his batting also, aided by the presence of two trusted mentors in the form of Andrew McDonald and Ricky Ponting. Their training sessions have ensured that Finch, after an underwhelming IPL, will enter the ODI series with a tightened game for the 50-over format, the better to build innings of substance after some months of more combustible T20 thinking.
“T20 cricket can be really difficult when you’re not quite at your very best, when you’re trying to be really aggressive at the start of an innings, take risks early in the game,” Finch said. “I think that’s a time when if it’s not going 100%, you can get into a pretty bad run quite quickly. But just a few balance things – head position in my stance and small things like that. I sometimes can forget about it when you’re focusing just on T20.
“You can tend to get a bit one-paced with your training and almost focus on power-hitting rather than a few minor technical things that can help you out. It hasn’t been anything huge, it’s just a few steps that I generally go to when things haven’t been as smooth as I would’ve liked.”
Australia’s balance has been altered slightly through the availability of Steven Smith – after concussion kept him out of the England series – and the absence of Mitchell Marsh due to an ankle injury which had ruled him out of the IPL. This will leave allrounder duties primarily with Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell, though Marnus Labuschagne can be expected to chime in with a few overs also. Whoever comprises the fifth bowler, Finch counselled too that his top-line bowlers would be handled carefully for reasons of mental health as much as workloads.
“Since the last World Cup, we’ve probably a bit more clear in how we want to structure up our team, and that’s with a couple of allrounders in there to take the load of that fifth bowler generally,” he said. “Obviously, that’ll change depending on conditions and whether you’re in the UK or India or South Africa. That’s always a floating plan of what we have. In terms of the rotation of the bowlers, I think it’s going to come down to how they’re feeling personally, whether it’s mentally or physically.
“Guys are at totally different points in their preparations and workloads. Some guys are coming off quite a decent [Sheffield] Shield start to the season, some are coming off T20s.
“So it’ll just be about managing that. We know in the current environment with guys being away from so long – away from families and in hubs and bubbles and things like that [and] quarantine – it’s really important to look after people’s mental health as much as anything. Whether you give them a week off or a couple of days just to get home and get in their own bed is going to be crucial.”
Match Preview – ENG Women vs IND Women, India Women tour of England 2021, Only Test
First Test encounter for seven years sets the scene for multi-format series
They call it the seven-year itch and after so long in the Test match wilderness, India are ready for a change of scene which they and their opponents, England, hope will be anything but dull or scratchy. So rare are women’s Tests that there is a sense of pressure to provide excitement, not least to a live TV audience, as well as to fans who are just beginning to whet their appetites for witnessing the action in person as pandemic-enforced restrictions slowly ease.
But more pressing for two professional sports teams is the will to win. England haven’t done so at home to India in eight completed Test matches while India are playing just their second Test since their last meeting in the format in 2014, having also played and beaten South Africa later the same year. In fact, India are on a three-match winning streak in Tests – if you can call it a streak given that that streak begins in 2006 – and victory in Bristol would pull them clear of Australia to a women’s record number of Test victories on the trot.
News that this match will be played on a pitch used for the men’s T20 Blast last Friday may boost hopes of a result but it doesn’t exactly buy in to the hype surrounding this match, which has been considerable given that the men’s WTC final between India and New Zealand starts on Friday. At least an otherwise iffy weather forecast is clear for the first day of the Women’s Test, offering them a prime chance to turn heads and perhaps even seduce a wider audience.
It also sets the stage for more to come with the Test forming the first part of a multi-format series incuding three ODIs and three T20Is.
In the spotlight
England (possible): 1 Tammy Beaumont, 2 Lauren Winfield-Hill, 3 Heather Knight (capt), 4 Amy Jones, 5 Nat Sciver, 6 Sophia Dunkley, 7 Fran Wilson/Georgia Elwiss, 8 Katherine Brunt, 9 Anya Shrubsole, 10 Sophie Ecclestone, 11 Emily Arlott/Kate Cross
India (possible): 1 Smriti Mandhana, 2 Jemimah Rodrigues/Priya Punia, 3 Punam Raut, 4 Mithali Raj (capt), 5 Harmanpreet Kaur, 6 Deepti Sharma, 7 Taniya Bhatia (wk), 8 Jhulan Goswami, 9 Shikha Pandey, 10 Poonam Yadav/Ekta Bisht, 11 Arundhati Reddy/Pooja Vastrakar
Pitch and conditions
The match will be played on a pitch used for Gloucestershire’s T20 Blast match against Sussex last Friday, which Knight branded “not ideal” and tried in vain to have changed. The weather could well play a big part with warmth and bright sunshine forecast for the opening day, followed by a high chance of rain, particularly on Thursday and Saturday.
Stats and trivia
“You obviously want to be entertaining and want to put on a show, and show off the best of your skills and the best of women’s cricket, but our job first and foremost is to try and win and be successful. That’s at the forefront of our mind, and if we can do both at the same time, even better.”
Heather Knight on winning vs playing pretty
“You ask any modern-day cricketer, they still want to play the longer format because they eventually know that the format tests the skill of a player.”
Mithali Raj on players’ love of Test cricket
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo
The Hundred 2021 – Kagiso Rabada set to pull out of deal to play in the Hundred
South Africa fast bowler becomes latest international player to withdraw
Rabada, the South Africa fast bowler who had signed for Manchester Originals, is currently involved in a Test series in the Caribbean. The team is then scheduled to play six limited-overs matches (three T20Is and three ODIs) in Ireland in a tour that finishes on July 25, the same day as Manchester Originals’ first home fixture.
While he would then potentially have a few weeks before his next assignment, it is understood Rabada is opting for a break instead of appearing in the Hundred, for which he had been drafted in the £100,000 (US$140,000) bracket.
An ECB spokesperson said: “We are thrilled to welcome a player of the quality of Lockie Ferguson to The Hundred. It’s sad news that Kagiso will not take part this year but the schedule and challenges around international travel due to Covid remain an issue for some overseas players.”
The tournament has had some encouraging news, though. While the new government timetable for the lifting of Covid-related restrictions is a blow to the county game – it means that the T20 Blast programme will not offer its usual financial windfall – it might work to the advantage of the Hundred. The tournament starts on July 21, just two days after the anticipated release of restrictions on July 19.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
Eng vs Ind women’s Test
Surface for clash between England and India previously used for Gloucestershire T20 fixture
Knight revealed on the eve of the match at Bristol’s County Ground that the pitch had been used for Gloucestershire’s T20 Blast fixture against Sussex last Friday and described the situation as “not ideal”.
“We’d much prefer to be on a fresh one but it is what it is,” Knight said. “We found out last week, which obviously we tried to get changed, but it was a little bit too late for that to happen.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s not ideal, we’d much rather be on a fresh one, but we don’t know how it’s going to play yet. It still could play very well. Generally, at Bristol you look at the deck, sometimes it looks not great but actually plays brilliantly. So yeah, look, it’s not ideal but it is what it is and we’re obviously going to have to perform as best we can on the wicket we’re given.”
The provision of a used pitch at Taunton for the 2019 Women’s Ashes Test sparked controversy. On that occasion the same surface had been used during the men’s World Cup nearly six weeks prior. As it turned out, the pitch offered little assistance to anyone and the match ended in a draw allowing Australia to retain the Ashes.
“We don’t know how it’s going to play necessarily,” Knight said. “Obviously slightly different with it being used but we’re confident we’ve got the squad and the XI that we’re going to pick to win this Test match.
“At Taunton there was a lot of talk about the pitch and it didn’t actually do too much so I guess we’re going to have to wait and see and see how it plays.
“It’s not something that we can change now. There’s no point looking too much into how it will play, we’ll obviously try to adapt as much as we can to the situation and how the wicket plays. We’ve got to go out there now and get our heads round playing on the pitch we’ve been given.”
Unlike the Ashes, where the Test is the middle game in a multi-format series, this match kicks off India’s tour which also includes three ODIs and two T20Is. Each white-ball game is worth two points for a win while four points are up for grabs for victory in the Test with two each for a draw and one each for no result.
Women’s Tests are a rarity and, as much as the players say they enjoy them, they are almost universal in stating their understanding that the shorter formats are the way forward for growing the game.
Even so, there is a sense of pressure to make each Test entertaining, something that Knight feels differs from the expectation on her male counterparts.
“You obviously want to be entertaining and want to put on a show and show off the best of your skills and the best of women’s cricket,” she said. “But our job first and foremost is to try and win and be successful. That’s at the forefront of our mind, and if we can do both at the same time, even better.
“I think often in women’s cricket, when we’re playing Test matches, we’re judged slightly to a different standard than the men’s game is. I think there’s games that you look at in isolation, a Test matches in the men’s game, that if it was a women’s game it would get looked at differently and judged on a different pedestal and saying it was attritional cricket or whatever, which I hope doesn’t happen this week.
“As a group of players we want to be successful, we want to win, and obviously if we can entertain whilst that goes on, that’s even better. We certainly don’t want to be known as a boring side and have a draw but our first port of call is to win games of cricket and that’s what we’ll be looking to do this week.”
Knight will be playing 100th match as England captain and her eighth Test match, with a proud record in the format including a highest score of 157 in the 2013 Ashes draw at Wormsley, her second Test appearance. More recently she scored 62 and 79 not out against Australia in 2017, which also ended in a draw.
“I’m desperate to be successful in Test match cricket because it doesn’t come around very often,” Knight said. “I’ve had a little bit of success and will be desperate to have more.
“For me personally, it’d be about my mental approach, being able to deal with the things that red-ball cricket throws at you, being able to concentrate for longer and being really tight, and also taking those opportunities to score that you get given.”
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo
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