Ashton Agar is guaranteed a spot on next month’s tour of India, but Australia are no certainty to play two frontline spinners throughout the four-Test series.
Agar endured a difficult return to Test cricket after five years out in Sydney, bowling 22 wicketless overs as Australia failed in their bid to force a win against South Africa.
Captain Pat Cummins insisted afterwards on Sunday that the match was not an audition for India, particularly given the surface did not break up as expected after lengthy rain delays.
Australia will name their squad for the tour this week, with Agar expected to be one of four spinners alongside Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy and Mitchell Swepson or Adam Zampa.
“I’m sure Ash will be there,” Cummins said. “This wicket was a bit different to India. It wasn’t spinning out of the middle of the wicket.
“Indian wickets sometimes really break up, even from the middle of the wicket. And left-arm orthodox becomes really effective against right-handed batters.
“It was 800 runs (for the game) and three wickets for spin for the game (in Sydney). It wasn’t easy but I thought he bowled really well.”
Agar’s selection in Sydney indicated he had become the country’s second spinner ahead of Swepson, who debuted in Pakistan last year. Australia played two spinners throughout their 2017 series loss in India, with Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon each taking 19 wickets.
But the emergence of Travis Head alongside Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne could change that thinking. Cummins admitted he had under-bowled Head at the SCG, with the offspinner Australia’s most threatening at times.
Australia played three pacemen throughout their last series win in India in 2004, with a heavy reliance on reverse swing.
“Each game in India we might need to chop up differently. Maybe one game it is three quicks, another it is one quick,” Cummins said.
Cameron Green will be crucial to that as pace-bowling backup, with both he and Mitchell Starc hopeful to be back from fractured fingers by the second Test in Delhi.
Australia are adamant they have the best possible build up to the four-Test series starting on February 9 in Nagpur, after a 1-0 series win in Pakistan last year and 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka.
“We’re as good a chance as we’re ever going to be,” Cummins said. “No-one’s going over there blind … having the experience in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year has put us in really good stead.
“It’s been another fantastic summer. This bowling attack, weathering the storm at the Gabba, then the MCG and then coming here (to the SCG), it’s different again.
“The way our batting group have stood up has been fantastic. Other than this game in the shortened time frame, we’ve been able to get 20 wickets each Test match in different circumstances. I feel like we’re adapting really well.”
Cummins has also discouraged Cricket Australia from reimagining the Sydney Test as a pink-ball fixture despite bad light contributing to the draw against South Africa.
A day-and-a-half’s worth of play was lost to wet weather and bad light at the SCG and Australia ran out of time on Sunday to bowl the Proteas out twice, despite looking on top for most of the match.
The delays led SCG Trust chair Tony Shepherd to suggest reconfiguring the annual SCG fixture as a day-night pink-ball Test could be a way to avoid future stoppages. Shepherd also floated the possibility of simply substituting red balls for pink in a daytime Test if bad light made playing with the red ball untenable.
Cummins admitted the prospect of missing cricket was never ideal, but said it was not as simple as switching to a pink-ball contest.
“Pink ball is a huge change. It’s not like for like,” he told reporters. “I think here at the SCG it would be hard to play a pink ball just with how abrasive the wicket is.
“It moves really differently to the red ball. Personally, I would still like it to be a red ball. We don’t like missing overs. Maybe, if there is any chance of missing overs late, start earlier.”
Visiting Proteas captain Dean Elgar also urged caution.
“I think it’s taking the mickey a bit if you start with a red one and you change to a pink one,” he said. “Test cricket is known for the red ball. That’s why you grow up playing Test cricket, you want to play with the red ball. I still think authenticity and the uniqueness around the format needs to be respected.”
Elgar said playing on through darkness was not the answer, either.
“There were times (at the SCG) when honestly we couldn’t see the ball. That’s not over-exaggerating,” he said. “Player safety for me is important. Imagine what happens, a guy gets hit at gully on the head and it’s dark, it’s raining. Common sense needs to take over.”