Unresolved as they are, the internal grumbles and logistical queries surrounding this Sydney Test have ceased. Come Thursday morning, it will be in the Harbour City where the show will go on between Australia and India – a captivating show at that. But this off-field noise has instead been replaced by another confusing poser: is he good to go?
The subject of that question is Will Pucovski. The will he, won’t he debate that has cloaked his Test debut has been running for two years, and is coming to a head again with the 22-year-old Victorian readmitted to the Australian squad.
To recap for the uninitiated, this is one special kid; a right-handed prodigy with an organised technique and a thirst for big runs and big tons. The complication is that the very sound head he has on his shoulders keeps getting hit. He has been concussed nine times since the age of 15. Not always while batting, but often enough for it to be an issue, including four weeks ago in a warm-up game for the touring Indians. That this followed consecutive double centuries to start his Sheffield Shield season was just his luck.
So, is he good to go? Justin Langer says yes. There are a “few boxes” for him to tick in the nets, and the balance of the team still might mean selectors leave him out when they name their final XI, but the Australian coach insists the medical hurdles have all been cleared. And not just stringent protocols that relate to concussion either, but verification from what he described as an “independent” neurologist. “That would be very heartening for him, his family and everyone involved in it,” Langer said. “There’s no reason Will can’t be selected now.”
Of course, that two neurologists have been consulted to begin with is reason enough to prompt a degree of anxiety. Nevertheless, Langer is upbeat. “It’s not necessarily going to have any long-term impact on him,” he declared of the formal assessments. “When you have the medical expertise backing him up, so he’s got evidence that he doesn’t have to worry too much long term, he is going to have to deal with it if things happen but that happens in the game of cricket. So, of course, it is nice to hear the medical experts but for me, it is even more heartening to hear from Will himself because he’s the one who has to do it.”
What’s certain is that Puvocski is going to be relentlessly bounced as an international cricketer. From Langer’s perspective, that’s nothing new – he already is at the level below and has hit “thousands” of short balls in preparation for this challenge. The counterfactual inquiry, which went unasked, is whether the young man would even be back in the squad had Joe Burns rattled off a chanceless ton at Melbourne with Australia clicking with the bat more generally. So far in this series when Tim Paine’s side have been bowled out it has been for 191, 195 and 200. What they would give for Pucovski to replicate what he has done for his state.
As for David Warner, there is an upfront acknowledgment that he will be playing this week short of full fitness after tearing a groin tendon in November. Athletes across all sports routinely take the field with injuries but, usually, we find out about this after the fact rather than two days before the engagement. “His batting will be fine, there might be some different movements he needs to make in the field,” Langer said of the pain the 34-year-old will play through. “If we thought we were taking a big risk on him reinjuring himself then we wouldn’t be taking the risk.”
On top of this, for all Warner’s experience and determination, it is far from ideal that the last time he stepped out for a red-ball engagement was in the SCG Test 12 months ago. That is the same challenge Steve Smith confronted at the start of this series, adding 10 runs in 59 deliveries so far in the two Tests – his leanest run in a decade. “Steve always gets the volume up in practice,” Langer said of his struggling match-winner. “But there’s never, even for the greatest of players, there’s nothing that replaces time in the middle, and we know what a great problem solver he is, we know what a great player he is. Davey will be the same.”
If Warner and Pucovski are given the green light to open together for the first time, it has been all but confirmed Matthew Wade will back to the middle order. This leaves Travis Head in a precarious position. “It’s so hard to fit seven into six,” Langer responded when asked about the South Australian, who fell in familiar fashion in both innings at Melbourne. “He’s one of the guys currently in the team. Whether that changes for this game, I can’t tell you. We’ve got some decisions to make.”
That they do. If we have learned one thing as a community across 2021 so far, it is that there are no guarantees it will be any less tricky than 2020. Clearly, cricket is no different.