Why Joe Burns was the true 'scapegoat' in the Australian Test team
Joe Burns has had a tough time proving himself to the Aussie selectors, who seem adamant in selecting below par squads for their nation. Just a month back, they made a controversial decision to send a completely second string of pacers to South Africa for an ODI series and returned home at the receiving end of a 5-0 whitewash.
Now, the same team is visiting their shores and the selectors seem to have taken a cue from a tour of Sri Lanka, in totally contrasting conditions, and picked a squad based on that.
How else do they explain the exclusion of Joe Burns from their Test squad for the series against South Africa?
Burns’ claim to a place
In the last Test match Australia played before their wretched tour of the Island Nation, Joe Burns put the Kiwi attack to the sword and scored 170 and 65 at Christchurch to emerge as the Man of the Match. That's not his only claim, though.
He had an impressive Test summer at home after debuting against the visiting Indians. Though his first Test did not scream ‘terrific opener’, he scored twin half-centuries in the second and in the third.
Against the Kiwis he scored 71 and 129, notching up his first Test hundred. Another spectacular 128 followed against the West Indies in Melbourne and Australia seemed to have found an answer to their search for a partner to Warner at the top. Burns was aggressive and calm at the same time. He had a wide array of strokes, yet complemented Warner's explosiveness perfectly.
After the brilliant Christchurch Test, where he hammered a Kiwi attack consisting of five frontline pace bowlers in Southee, Boult, Wagner, Henry and Anderson, Burns had a poor Sri Lankan tour, as did most of his colleagues.
He still had a Test average of 41.52 after 12 Tests with 3 hundreds and 4 half-centuries. In fact, in the past year, he is the fifth highest scoring opener in World Cricket. Only Alastair Cook, David Warner, Tom Latham and Martin Guptill have scored more runs, all of them taking at least a match more than Burns.
In 10 Tests during this period, Burns has averaged 42.70 and scored 726 runs. He has also scored the second most number of centuries as an opener during this period, with Warner topping this category.
Marsh’s run of form
Shaun Marsh, at 33, has started repaying some of the faith the selectors placed in him in his 20s. When replacing the injured Usman Khawaja at Hobart, Marsh made a terrific 182. He followed that up with a 130 in Colombo, which stood out like a shining gem.
Marsh furthered his claim for a place in the Test squad with a Sheffield Shield hundred last week and thus his place was guaranteed. It may have been harsh on Burns but Marsh deserves to be in the squad. But should that mean Burns needed to be omitted?
The Sri Lankan tour
We now go to the tragical Sri Lankan tour to find answers to the mystery.
Selector Rod Marsh spoke about sending the Australia A players to sub-continental conditions to acclimatize them before this tour. Yet, Burns, one among them, got only a single chance to bat in that A team tour and scored just 8.
In fact, it was his only innings in the sub-continent, before the Sri Lankan series. Yet he managed a 72 in the warm-up game before a string of low scores in the two Tests - 3, 29, 0 and 2.
Khawaja not the "scapegoat"
His team-mate, Usman Khawaja, criticised the selectors last week for dropping him and Burns from the third Test of the Sri Lankan series. After all, they weren't the only two who were not scoring runs against the Lankan spinners.
"It's a pretty big decision after just two Test matches," Khawaja had told the Sydney Morning Herald. "It was disappointing that Joe Burns and I were sort of the scapegoats for not performing. I just thought that I'd only played two Test matches in the subcontinent and I got dropped. I wasn't the only person who wasn't scoring runs."
Khawaja is right. But interestingly, unlike Burns, he is still in the Test squad for the South African home summer. Although, he spoke about being the "scapegoat" his record in sub-continental conditions isn't worth mentioning.
Add to that the fact that he has had enough time to play on those kinds of surfaces after 15 innings in Asia with country and club. He was also touring Sri Lanka a second time after he made the squad in 2011. In 15 innings, he has passed 50 only two times.
While Khawaja is lucky to be in that Test squad ahead of Burns, it may not last long if Burns continues to amass runs in the Sheffield Shield. After all, the fickle selectors have shown a tendency to chop and change quite often.
Burns had ticked all the right boxes in his time as Warner's partner. But now, it maybe Shaun Marsh's chance and if he grabs it, after umpteen tries, Burns could be running out of chances. He may not slot into a middle-order packed with Smith, Khawaja, Mitch Marsh and keeper Nevill. His only chance has to be as an opener and it will come only if Marsh or Khawaja fail in this series.
There is nothing he could have done, though. He had the runs, averages, and hundreds to show for. It is just that someone else scored at the appropriate time. He isn't one to back away from a challenge though and we might well see Joe Burns back in the mix, sooner rather than later.