It’s not exactly a quandary because Australia had long signed off on a second specialist spinner. But at Eden Gardens — South Africa were reduced to a trainwreck by Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm turn-as-you-like bowling here 10 days ago — Australia’s spin attack needs to be a two-pronged success to advance. To be fair to Adam Zampa, it’s been a good month or so carving a space for himself with his gritty leg-breaks and googlies. But if there’s one side capable of doing a number on him, it’s South Africa.
An economy of 6.09 in 17 matches against South Africa should raise eyebrows to begin with. Break it down further to strike rates and the aggregate of South Africa specialist batters against Zampa in 2023 — 145 for Quinton de Kock, 131 for Rassie van der Dussen, 130 for Heinrich Klaasen, and 125 for David Miller — means Australia suddenly don’t look so assured on their one-spinner policy. Further limitations in the form of better strike rates in the second innings at a venue where spinners have performed better under lights leave Australia somewhat exposed should they end up bowling first.
Enter Glenn Maxwell and his gentle off-breaks. He has bowled in seven matches so far, completing nine overs or more in four of them. The results have been inconsistent but the most promising one incidentally came against South Africa when he was summoned, admittedly as a gamble, as they were racing towards a solid opening partnership that ultimately yielded 108 runs.
Only, Maxwell’s loopy deliveries are not that gentle after all. In an innings that featured 26 boundaries and eight sixes, Maxwell didn’t concede a single boundary. Add to that the dismissals of Temba Bavuma and De Kock and Australia got more than the relief they were looking for though their bowling bombed as a whole.
South Africa are historically better at playing pace. But this has been a different World Cup where, led by De Kock, a conscious effort to play spin better reaped fruit till Jadeja happened to them at Eden Gardens. The approach, naturally, is more cautious towards spin now. “I don’t think there’s an insecurity or anything like that within our spin play as a team,” said Bavuma when asked about their long training session against spinners on Tuesday. “We know we’ve played spin quite well from whatever angle you look at it statistically or whatever. So, I think it’s just the guys covering their bases.”
While South Africa won’t want to repeat their mistakes, Australia must find a loose end in an otherwise tightly bound batting unit. Maxwell could well be the clue. Most of his bowling has come at home and in India, where Australia have relied on him as the change spinner. A strike rate of 27.4 from that perspective is more than any touring side would have settled for. More telling is an IPL career that has fetched only 31 wickets, although 19 of them are top-order batters. Maxwell clearly knows a thing or two about breaking top-order partnerships in India.
Where Australia need to be careful though is in not using Maxwell as a reactive measure but that will also depend on how the initial overs pan out. As a bowling unit, South Africa look better balanced if Bavuma walks the talk and goes with Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi, who, though he didn’t have a great day against India, adds an element of mystery because left-arm wrist spin can be construed as a rarity. Batters tread more cautiously against it. For Australia to display similar depth and bite, albeit in more conventional forms of spin, Maxwell may again need to assume a bigger role.