It’s a year, give or take a week, since Australia’s selectors decided their Test team would benefit from having a seam-bowling all-rounder rather than a specialist number-six batter and, accordingly, installed Mitchell Marsh at Peter Handscomb’s expense.
The fact that decision has been summarily reversed for the opening Test of the subsequent summer reflects a seismic shift in circumstance more so than flagrant vacillating by those charged with nominating the nation’s best XI.
When Marsh was reinstated for the third Ashes Test against England last December, having recovered from the shoulder surgery that had curtailed his contributions as a bowler, the men’s team was flying.
Up 2-0 in a five-match series against the old enemy, the panel’s sole concern was the form of Handscomb who had averaged less than 20 in his first three innings of the campaign but, more worryingly, had been pinned on the crease by England’s seamers each time.
With other top-order angst eased by the presence of success of new opening pair David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, as well as solidity provided by Steve Smith, Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja, the younger Marsh’s all-round skills were seen as a priority rather than a luxury.
Even though his then Test batting average of 21.74 from 21 matches was demonstrably inferior to Handscomb’s 47.35 from nine fewer appearances.
A year on, and while the Adelaide Oval setting is largely the same as when Handscomb was unseated, the landscape upon which Australia embarks for their Domain Series challenge against the world’s best Test team has changed to the point of being almost unrecognisable.
Smith, Warner and Bancroft all suspended, coach Darren Lehmann also a casualty of the ball-tampering episode, and winless from their past five Test starts (with an average losing margin of almost 400 runs), Australia must embrace austerity as well as humility.
With no scope for luxuries, Marsh – whose Test average had risen to 26.08 courtesy of his dual Ashes hundreds, that were followed by 11 scores below 50 – has been told to return to Sheffield Shield competition to build a more compelling case.
Despite him being named as one of the Test team’s two vice-captains (with seamer Josh Hazlewood) less than three months ago.
It’s acknowledgement from selectors that if there is a place for the seam-bowling all-rounder for which Australian cricket has so hopefully searched since Keith Miller’s final Test more than 60 years ago, that place is not Adelaide Oval in the match starting tomorrow.
Where the pitch has proved among the most testing in the country for batters trying to combat the seaming ball, and their opponent senses they might never find better prospects of securing a breakthrough series win on Australia’s turf.
Consequently, Australia has opted for batting credentials at the expense of bowling options, while reserving the right to revisit last year’s template as the summer unfolds.
“We know he (Marsh) is good enough to be a genuine all-rounder at Test level, but he probably just hasn’t put it together consistently enough,” Australia captain Tim Paine said in confirming Australia’s starting XI today.
“So we're taking the opportunity to send him back to play a Shield game (against Victoria at the MCG) to get more cricket under his belt.
“We’ve got full faith in him being a Test all-rounder and, as this series wears on and we get to places where the wicket might be a bit flatter and conditions might be a little warmer and our bowlers a bit tired, then the all-rounder position becomes important.”
The danger inherent in that decision is – given the potency of India’s top-order batting and the forecast for scorchingly hot (39C) weather in Adelaide on the opening day – that the hosts’ absence of an extra bowling option might return to haunt them.
However, the recent history of first-class cricket at Adelaide Oval (both red and pink ball) indicates that bowlers are more likely to dictate terms, so the decision to include Handscomb ahead of Marsh is driven by the belief that four specialist bowlers will suffice.
“The wicket over the last few years here has given enough throughout the game (to not need an all-rounder),” Paine said.
“We've obviously got a lot of confidence in Nathan Lyon bowling a lot of overs if we need to.
“He bowled a mountain of overs in the UAE (against Pakistan last October) and our quicks are fresh, so we can cover that.
“And Travis Head bowls some handy off-spinners, so we have options there.
“Our three quicks (Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins) go in really fresh, so we've got confidence in them, particularly at the start of the series.
“It's probably unlikely that we'll use the three quicks as much as we will in this game throughout the whole series as it wears on.
“But this being the first Test, we think they'll do the job.”
India are also mulling the need for an all-rounder in their starting XI to be finalised tomorrow morning, although they too are denied the luxury of a seamer who bats in the top six through altogether different circumstances.
Hardik Pandya, who has admirably filled that daunting dual role until sidelined with a back injury last September, will likely be replaced by fellow all-rounder Hanuma Vihari (who bowls off-spin) or specialist batter, Rohit Sharma.
India captain Virat Kohli confirmed that the availability of a seamer who can hold down a batting berth in the middle-order remains the holy grail for Test teams worldwide.
But one that the tourists are forced to continue without, as they search for the Test series win in Australia that has eluded them since the first India touring team reached these shores in 1947.
“Every side would obviously like to have a fast-bowling all-rounder, which we do not have right now with Hardik injured,” Kohli said today.
“It’s a great luxury to have for any side, but we do not so we’ll have to go in with the best combination possible for us.
“The workload on the guys who will play in the absence of the all-rounder will be high, but that’s something that has already been discussed - that they should look forward to that, and not think of that as a burden and something that’s going to be tough.
“Because at international level, things are going to be tough.
“We’ll just have to embrace that and make something out of the resources we have at present.
“Losing Hardik is obviously a bit of an issue, but I don’t see it as a major issue because in Australia you still have to bowl really well to contain batsmen which is always a challenge.”
Consensus being, if that containment can’t be achieved by front-line bowlers then it’s hardly a role that can handed to an all-rounder.
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: First Test, Adelaide Oval
Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar