James Faulkner and Australia's continued obsession with him
“I want to try and play as many games for my country as I can and perform as well as I can in tight situations.”
These were the words of Australian all-rounder James Faulkner in an interview with ESPNCricinfo during IPL 2016. A handy seam bowler and gritty lower-order batsman, Faulkner had made his mark as a steely finisher and fabulous death bowler in limited-overs cricket. He had a wide array of slower balls and cutters courtesy his aspirations to become a leg-spinner during his childhood. The variations included the back-of-the-hand slower delivery, a skill very difficult to master, which made him a constant threat in the death overs.
But more than his bowling, it was his fiery batting and six-hitting ability at the death that earned him a reputation in cricketing circles. His mere name evokes memories of the Mohali ODI where he crunched 30 runs, including four majestic sixes, off Ishant Sharma to steal a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Australia needed 44 to win from three overs in that unforgettable ODI when Faulkner decided to go hammer and tongs. Ishant was the target and the all-rounder nailed some exquisite slogs to take 30 runs off the over and effectively seal Australia's win. He finished with 64 off 29 balls to take the Aussies home in a heist remembered till this day for the sheer grittiness he displayed at the fag end of the innings.
His maiden ODI hundred, second quickest by an Australian, also came in India, at Bengaluru, in November 2013.
Those kinds of knocks were instrumental in Faulkner’s rise in the Australian setup. He was more of a cameo batsman than a bowler and Australia could afford one such player at no.7 or no.8 given that they had Shane Watson and Glenn Maxwell as well, to share bowling duties.
But Faulkner's downfall came as quickly as his rise. His back-of-the-hand slower balls became too mainstream and his steely tenacity at the death simply vanished. Injuries were another concern, with the Tasmanian unfit most of the time. Ever since then, he has been a liability in the Australian setup and his continued selection despite mediocre performances defies logic.
He was reinstated for the Indian ODI series after Australia had dropped him rather unceremoniously for Marcus Stoinis and Moises Henriques ahead of the Champions Trophy.
“They said the pace had dropped down a little bit maybe. I bowl a lot of variations, so it’s a tough one. I have been battling, probably the last 18 months, just physically with my knee and the state that it has been in. It is as good as it’s been at the moment, so I’m pretty happy,” Faulkner had said following of exclusion from the Champions Trophy squad ahead of the first ODI against India in Chennai as reported by The Australian.
In 2016, during India’s tour of Australia, Faulkner appeared a shadow of his confidence-oozing former self. The zip had disappeared from his run-up and his confidence had sapped, revealed by the manner in which his slower balls were going awry. Virat Kohli’s clever taunt when Faulkner tried to sledge him - "I have smashed you enough in my life. Go and bowl” - further dented his waning confidence.
Even as a batsman, Faulkner looked completely lost, with the magical 'finisher's touch’ no longer working in his favour. However, he himself attributed that to a lack of opportunities. “I tend to look at it as if I am batting down at 6, 7 or 8, I am not getting to bat a majority of times in many games. If you look at how many balls I have faced in the last 12 months, it's not many,” he had revealed in a chat with ESPNCricinfo.
His IPL form also went downhill as he churned out a slew of pathetic performances for his franchise. He picked up just two wickets in the 2016 season and six in the 2017 season, with his average soaring to 83.5 and 43.0 respectively.
Since the 2015 World Cup final in Australia/New Zealand where he was the Man of the Match, Faulkner hasn't produced the kind of performances in ODIs that inspire confidence. Although he is Australia's fourth highest wicket-taker in the format (since the 2015 World Cup), it is only due to the sheer number of opportunities he has received, over some of his compatriots.
His 36 wickets have come in 24 matches, at an average of 30.83 and an economy above 5.5. While those aren't appalling numbers, it is his batting failures that are worrisome. In the same time period, Faulkner has made just 206 runs at an average of 20.60 despite batting in 18 of the 24 games he featured in.
In this same time frame, the likes of John Hastings, Mitchell Marsh and Marcus Stoinis have put in better performances, both with the bat and the ball, yet only one of these three find themselves in the ODI setup. In fact, Hastings was Australia's second highest wicket-taker, behind Adam Zampa, in 2016, in ODIs, with 29 scalps at 24.13. Hastings has also averaged 37.80 with the bat since the World Cup which makes his exclusion at the expense of Faulkner all the more baffling.
One reason the Aussies preferred Faulkner over some of the better bowlers in their domestic circuit was his match-winning ability with the bat. But without his contributions with the willow, Faulkner appears a deer playing amongst a pride of lions.
Australia surely have better pace bowlers than the 27-year-old in the country. Even the discarded Mitchell Marsh has better numbers than the Tasmanian with the ball. For a country that has a rich history of producing seam bowling all-rounders ranging from the immaculate Keith Miller and Jack Gregory to the gritty Steve Waugh and the flamboyant Shane Watson, Faulkner is ordinary at best.
Australia's continued obsession with him is bizarre given that they have considerable options with the ball in limited-overs cricket. In fact, they have tried as many as 11 fast bowlers/fast-bowling all-rounders in ODI cricket since Faulkner's debut in 2013 and quite a few of them have put in numbers worth a second glance.
The only explanation for Faulkner's inclusion for the ODI series in India, which admittedly transcends the permissible limits of absurdity, is that he could have helped them prepare for Kuldeep Yadav, since the Tasmanian once used to bowl chinaman leg-spinners in the backyard to his dad. But even that has been thrown out of the window with Kuldeep picking up a hat-trick in the second ODI at Eden Gardens.