Spin or substance: Should Australia play two tweakers at the SCG? – Sydney Morning Herald

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Statistics show the SCG has become more of a spinner’s graveyard in recent years at Test level but former Australian tweaker Steve O’Keefe is hopeful that Mitch Swepson is handed a debut next week alongside Nathan Lyon against England in Sydney.
Swepson, the 28-year-old Queensland leg-spinner, was given a ringing endorsement by Australian chairman of selectors George Bailey on Thursday but will only partner Lyon at the SCG in the fourth Ashes Test if conditions suit.
With just under a week to go before the New Year’s Test on January 5, Australia don’t have a clear picture yet as to what sort of pitch will be dished up but should it resemble the typical dry SCG deck of years gone by, Swepson’s chances of becoming Australian Test player No.464 will certainly increase.
With all-rounder Cameron Green developing into a useful option with the ball this series, Australia may be tempted to pick just two frontline pacemen, plus Lyon and Swepson, like they often did around the turn of the century in Sydney.
Every year the two-spinner debate rages heading into the Sydney Test. However, Australia has only picked two frontline spinners in the same XI on two occasions in the past 15 years.
That occurred when O’Keefe partnered Lyon against the West Indies in 2016 and against Pakistan the following year.
Mitch Swepson bowls on Thursday at the MCG. Credit:Getty
Before that, you have to go back to Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill in 2006 against South Africa in Ricky Ponting’s 100th Test.
Warne (64 wickets at 28.12) and Macgill (53 at 24.47) have the most wickets of any Australian spin bowlers in Tests at the SCG.
Lyon has played 10 matches at the SCG since 2012 but averages 40.94 per wicket, above his career average in Australia of 32.33. After picking up 10 wickets against New Zealand in 2019 – his only two five-wicket hauls from 10 Tests at the SCG – Lyon returned figures of 2-201 against India earlier this year from 77 draining overs.
O’Keefe has taken seven wickets in two SCG Tests at 23.71 on his home track.
But gone are the days of the SCG being a spinner’s paradise and a fifth-day haven for tweakers, and the Australia selectors will be acutely aware of that when they discuss whether Swepson should play.
Stephen O’Keefe bowls in the nets ahead of Australia’s Test against the West Indies in 2016. Credit:AP
“We’d love nothing more than for him to get an opportunity, but it will be conditions-dependent,” Bailey said.
From 1991 to 2000 at the SCG, Australian spinners averaged 31.73. From 2001 to 2010, that figure was almost identical at 31.65.
But in the past 11 calendar years (2011 to 2021), Australian spinners have taken 47 wickets at 44.95 at the famous ground.
Meanwhile, the increase in averages extends to visiting bowlers as well. From 2001 to 2010, overseas spinners averaged 44.69 but in the period of 2011 to 2021, that figure rose significantly to 56.28.
Since the turn of the century, Anil Kumble (20) has the most wickets of any overseas bowler at the SCG, ahead of Danish Kaneria and Ravi Ashwin.
The same increase applies when analysing the percentage of wickets taken by Australian spinners at the SCG. From 2000 to 2010, Australian spinners took 37 per cent of their team’s wickets at the SCG, compared to 26 per cent in the last 11 years.
In the Warne and MacGill era, spinners regularly took 50 per cent or more of Australia’s wickets at the SCG, particularly late in the match when big cracks began to open up.
“I think [the reason for the increase in averages] is down to different pitch conditions,” O’Keefe said. “They are now wanting to leave more grass on the wicket, and or square, to make the wicket block look better on TV, which has suited fast bowling.”
O’Keefe believes Swepson, who took 32 wickets at 23.4 in last year’s Sheffield Shield season, should play at the SCG, meaning Australia would need to omit one of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood or Scott Boland.
“I think he’s put in so much hard work,” O’Keefe said. “The tours I went on he was always there as the project player. When you watched him play last year [in the Sheffield Shield] he went to another level. He wanted the ball in his hand, bowled more consistently, bowled big-turning leg breaks and took lots of wickets.
“When you think about the tours they’ve got coming up, you want to get game time into him at some stage. When he goes over to these sub-continental tours, you don’t want to throw him into the fire. I think he’ll relish it.
“We used to talk about my shitty straight left-arm breaks as the next best option, but we’ve actually got some genuine depth and genuine spin bowlers, which has taken a bit of time. Nathan Lyon and Mitch Swepson are right at the top of the tree.”
Former Australia captain Mark Taylor has suggested that picking Swepson is the way to go, with tours to the sub-continent on the horizon.
“They need to find a suitable replacement in years to come for Nathan Lyon,” Taylor told Wide World of Sports. “Maybe that is Mitch Swepson and maybe they even give Swepson the next Test.”
However, O’Keefe has a sneaking suspicion the SCG pitch may be a little different this time.
“The last pitch for the Sheffield Shield game against Victoria was perfect wicket and the best I’ve seen it,” O’Keefe said. “I’d personally leave thick grass on it and dry the wicket out. Thatchy grass is the key.”
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