Labuschagne succeeds where Bancroft failed – in proving domestic form actually matters

Labuschagne succeeds where Bancroft failed – in proving domestic form actually matters

Cameron Bancroft. Picture from Youtube, with thanks.

Cameron Bancroft’s return to the Australia fold lasted all of two Tests before he was jettisoned ahead of the third match of the Specsavers Ashes series at Headingley on Thursday morning. 

The opener had not featured for his country since the ban for his role in the ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town in 2018, but forced his way back into the thinking to partner David Warner at the start of the Ashes series. 

He did so by scoring runs in the Specsavers County Championship for Durham. It was a bold move to join the Division Two side and eyebrows were raised even further when the 26-year-old was appointed captain of the north east team. 

But it was a move that paid off spectacularly. Bancroft scored good, hard-fought runs and plenty of them. 

He scored two hundreds and three fifties – including battling knocks of 77 and 92 not out against a Lancashire attack including James Anderson at Sedbergh – on his way to an average of 45.37. 

All of this made him a dream candidate for Australia, who had question marks over who would partner Warner, and they opted for Bancroft. 

But his displays in the first two Tests at Edgbaston and Lord’s prompted Australia to drop the right-hander and replace him with Marcus Harris. 

Bancroft’s scores were not good – eight, seven, 13 and 16 – and his performances arguably even worse. His technique looked shaky and he appeared to have no real scoring outlet. 

It therefore raises an interesting question as to just how important domestic form is. And England and Australia appear to have differing views on that. 

England’s Test selections over the last couple of years have shown little regard for County Championship performances, opting instead for players they believe in and, most notably, those who have performed in white-ball cricket. 

Jos Buttler’s recall to the Test arena last summer came off the back of an exceptional Indian Premier League. He had played no red-ball cricket for his county Lancashire, but England backed him to convert his form to the longer format. 

A similar selection was made ahead of the Ashes as Jason Roy was picked to open the batting because of his outstanding performances at the top of the one-day order, including helping England to World Cup glory. 

But Roy had not played any first-class cricket since the back end of the 2018 Championship season and boasts a modest average of 37.49. 

He has so far failed to convert his form, leading to questions over his suitability to open the batting. When his fitness also came into question – he had to pass a concussion test ahead of the Headingley Test – his Surrey team-mate Ollie Pope was the man called in as cover. 

Pope, who played two Tests for England before being swiftly dropped last summer, timed his run perfectly, notching an unbeaten 221 against Hampshire at the Oval. But as he sat somewhere within the bowels of Headingley as Roy was deemed fit to play, the likes of Dom Sibley, Sam Northeast and Gary Ballance might have been feeling a little miffed. 

Those three top the scoring charts in Division One – Ballance having scored five centuries and Sibley and Northeast three apiece – but were overlooked in favour of Pope who has played just two Championship matches after dislocating his shoulder in April. 

Such players could be justified in wondering what more they can do than score runs in what is supposed to be the proving ground for Test cricketers. Those who have grafted away all season and are nudging the 1000 run for the season mark are still deemed unworthy of a chance. 

In the bowling department, Jofra Archer was such a certainty to come into the Ashes frame after qualifying to play for England and enjoying a phenomenally successful World Cup, despite the fact he too had not played a first-class game all season.

Australia’s approach has been slightly different. Marnus Labuschagne was part of Australia’s set-up but knew he was one of those who would be under threat when Warner and Steve Smith returned from their ball-tampering bans. 

But his stint at Glamorgan in Division Two was exceptional. He was the fastest batsmen in either division to reach 1000 runs for the season by a distance, racking up 1114 with five centuries and five half-centuries before the inevitable Ashes call-up came.

Labuschagne was not selected for the first two Tests, but when Smith’s concussion opened the door, there was only was man who was ever going to walk through it. He had earned his spot. 

And to this point he has succeeded where Bancroft failed, proving that his form has counted for something with back-to-back half-centuries in his two Ashes innings so far and looking as assured as any batsmen on either side. 

Likewise Peter Siddle, a regular face on the county circuit, had turned out again for Essex this season, bowling with great distinction, familiarising himself once more with English conditions and so placed himself at the front of the queue – ultimately getting the nod for the first two Ashes Tests. 

Matthew Wade was selected off the back of a mountain of domestic Sheffield Shield runs in Australia, as was Marcus Harris. The tourists did not favour those – such as Aaron Finch or keeper Alex Carey – who had delivered in white-ball cricket. 

It is not to say one method is better than another. England’s lack of so-called ‘proper’ red-ball players is a jibe often aimed their way, but Australia’s top order have endured similar struggles in this series, Smith aside. 

But it may be something for the England set-up and indeed England-qualified players to think about down the line. What value do the selectors place in the traditional proving ground that is county cricket?

Rory Burns achieved his place thanks to the mountain of runs he scored last season, which allowed him to be the man to replace Alastair Cook after his retirement. 

Burns has looked more at home in this series than anyone else for England, but his inclusion has proven the exception rather than the rule in recent times. 

The desire for England to play ‘positive’, ‘aggressive’ cricket has tempted them to look beyond the numbers, beyond those who come through the county grind and beyond those who would traditionally have been shoo-ins for a Test call. 

A new coach after Trevor Bayliss’ departure may herald a change of thinking again. But it will be interesting to see if there is any increased reward for County Championship form. 

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