Spare a thought for Joe, burned

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Shaun Marsh deserves this Test selection. Those are words that have not always been true. At his lowest, at home to India in 2011-12, Marsh was to Test batting what Eric Moussambani was to Olympic swimming. Yet chances kept coming, and now, at 33, Marsh is repaying that faith. When he replaced the injured Usman Khawaja last summer, he made 182 in Hobart. His next Test innings was 130 when recalled in Colombo. Then came a Sheffield Shield ton this week.

So yes, Marsh has earned his opportunity this time. He is David Warner’s incumbent Test opening partner, and has given the selectors no reason to drop him. At the WACA next week, Marsh will face South Africa in what will be his first Test at his home ground since that miserable 2011-12 summer.

And when he does, spare a thought for Joe Burns.

In Australia’s last Test before the tour of Sri Lanka, Burns was Man of the Match, his 170 and 65 in Christchurch having helped secure Australia a series win over New Zealand and the No.1 Test ranking. And he was coming off a home season in which he scored two Test hundreds and averaged 45.70, a very encouraging return in his first summer as a Test opener.

But on a selection whim, Burns was axed in Sri Lanka, one of two men – along with Khawaja – who paid the price for Australia’s collective poor batting in the first two Tests. They were, in Khawaja’s words, “scapegoats”.

At this point, let’s revisit the comments made by chairman of selectors Rod Marsh after Sri Lanka’s win in the first Test in Pallekele. “What else can we do really?” Marsh said. “We send them off to India, we send them to other parts of the world where the ball turns, we played Australia A series in India last year and they batted well against good spin bowling.”

That statement is worth dissecting.

Who is the “they” of whom Marsh is speaking? Indeed there was an Australia A tour of India last year, during which two “Tests” were played. Burns and Khawaja were the only two batsmen from that series who also played in the Tests against Sri Lanka. So they must be the “they”. Did “they” indeed bat well against good spin bowling? Khawaja batted four times and failed to score a fifty. Burns played just one game and batted only once in it, for 8. He barely had a chance.

Perhaps Marsh was referring to the one-day portion of that tour, in which both men scored more freely. But since when has 50-over white-ball cricket been relevant to picking a Test side? It is a game of different tempo, different fields, different attacks. Completely different.

A Sheffield Shield century this week was not enough for Joe Burns to be named in the Test squad © Getty Images

In any case, consider the one-day game in which both Burns and Khawaja scored hundreds in Chennai. ESPNcricinfo’s Alagappan Muthu was at the match, and described the situation thus: “An India A bowling attack which relied on medium pace and non-turning spinners proved incredibly appetising, and the two batsmen were ravenous”. Hardly valuable preparation for a Test series against Rangana Herath and co.

It is true that there were Australia A batsmen who performed strongly in the “Tests” against India A. Cameron Bancroft scored Australia’s only century, a fine innings of 150, and was one of five men to also post fifties: Callum Ferguson, Marcus Stoinis, Travis Head and Peter Handscomb were the others. But none of those batsmen were in the Test squad in Sri Lanka. If they were the “they” of whom Marsh spoke, then “they” were irrelevant.

In fact, Burns embarked on the Sri Lankan tour with just a single first-class match in Asia to his name: the game against India A in which he scored 8 in the first innings and did not bat in the second. Before he was a scapegoat he was a lamb to the slaughter. Still, he warmed up for the Test series with 72 against a Sri Lanka XI in Colombo, and then made 29 in the second innings of the first Test in Pallekele, which earned praise from Rod Marsh.

“I thought Joe Burns played really well in that second innings after perhaps not looking too sound in the first innings,” Marsh said after the first Test. “He went to plan B and he looked really good until he didn’t hit one.” But in Galle, Burns fell in the first over of both innings – first against pace, then against spin – and was dumped. Could his second-innings method of dismissal – driving Herath in the air to cover – have cost him his place?

That would seem especially harsh given the batsmen were told by captain Steven Smith and coach Darren Lehmann not to waste time in their chase of 413. “On a Galle wicket that was spinning quite a bit, the skipper and the coach asked the batting group to be a lot more proactive with the way we went about things,” Adam Voges recently said of that innings. With those words ringing in his ears, Burns went hard from the first over.

In the same innings Khawaja shouldered arms first ball and was bowled, failing to pick a Dilruwan Perera arm ball. Khawaja has now been given quite a few chances in first-class cricket in Asia, including two Tests in Sri Lanka in 2011, yet has passed 50 just once from 15 innings. Burns has just the one fifty, too, but from only six innings. And four of those were in the recent Sri Lankan Tests.

But on very scant evidence, Burns was viewed as expendable in Asian conditions. And thanks to Shaun Marsh’s Colombo century, he remains expendable at home. Like Marsh, Burns made a Shield century this week. Unlike Marsh, he will be playing a Shield game again next week. And probably for most of the summer. Khawaja, meanwhile, is back in the Test team.

Yes, spare a thought for Joe Burns, the real scapegoat.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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