Peter Handscomb was dropped before Christmas from the Australian test team. Ostensibly this was because of his less than stellar performance in the first two tests of the Border-Gavaskar trophy. For most, the explanation of this lack of runs came down to a simple, but erroneous explanation: Handscomb’s technique is not transferable to test level cricket.
Chief amongst the protagonists of this message was Shane Warne. He was joined by Michael Vaughan, some articles, and much of social media. It was almost uniformly an assessment that Handscomb’s over-reliance on backfoot play gave him an insurmountable vulnerability to full bowling.
And to be sure that was matched by the statistics. Handscomb’s average against full balls (26) is much lower than that against short-pitched bowling (128) (per Cricviz). He is unequivocally more likely to get out that way because of the way he sets up deep in the crease, bat raised like a baseballer ready to slug some dingers.
But does that mean the technique is incapable of transferring to the highest level?
If you take his actual performance at test level there’s nothing to suggest his technique will not transfer. In 15 tests he averages 39 with 2 tons, and one of the very best 72 not outs you will ever see (to save match on a dustbowl in India). This average is currently higher than everyone in the top 6 that isn’t Usman Khawaja, as well as other ‘contenders’ like Joe Burns and Matt Renshaw.
Handscomb is successful because of the quality of his eye, as demonstrated by his average of 94 against balls in the usually corridor of confusion outside off stump (per Cricviz).
Critics argue that most of those runs came against Pakistan, against whom he averages 116 and scored both those tons. They suggest that ‘good sides’ like South Africa and India worked out that bowling full to him was the way to go. And this is backed by his statistics in which he is vastly more likely to get out to a full ball than a short one.
This is a take of limited usefulness. Handscomb averages 24 and 26 against India and South Africa. Of the players to have played both teams in both countries, this compares to Shaun Marsh (23 and 28), Mitch Marsh (20 and 20), Usman Khawaja (26 and 34) and Matt Renshaw (29 and 19). Safe to say when you play the best and you’re not the best you don’t do so good.
Technical weakness abounds in the Australian line-up. The thump of Aaron Finch’s left leg straight down the wicket, and the consequential over-balanced head makes him susceptible to the in-swinging ball. Marcus Harris doesn’t actually step back when he plays short-pitched bowling, so he often gets hit in the head, or gets caught on the hook because he doesn’t have enough time to play the ball. Shaun Marsh fishes for almost anything that pitches on leg and moves across him. Travis Head tends to reach for wide drives that he is incapable of playing ‘down’. Mitch Marsh’s hands are so hard and his footwork so cumbersome that anything that moves is gobbled up by the slips via the edge of his bat.
So why is Handscomb the focal point of these technical complaints? In short it’s because he bats differently. If he took a traditional stance most people wouldn’t be analysing his technique. They’d talk about temperament, talent and all the other things we lay at the feet of the other five batsmen in the side.
Having a different technique shouldn’t be relevant. Steve Smith’s willingness to basically stand on off stump and caress anything aimed at the poles through mid-wicket would normally be chastised in the hands of a lesser player. Handscomb’s similarly unusual technique is fine if it works, and then a cause of consternation if it doesn’t. It reflects the inherent conservatism of cricket watchers that tends to demand people adhere to a set of technical norms that have little or no empirical basis.
Complain all you want about the results. There’s no doubt that Handscomb didn’t score enough runs in the first two tests of this summer. As I watch Australia collapse again at the MCG amongst a bunch of middling scores from our top six, there’s little doubt that he was not alone in this problem. But making it about his technique only reflects a cognitive laziness that sees difference as inherently worse. The cricket community can and should do better.