Diligently crafted spin methods make Handscomb battle-ready
At a time when Justin Langer, Australia's head coach, admits to having sleepless nights because he doesn't know who his best six batsmen are, you would think a batsman who averages 43.63 in 13 Tests would be a definite shoo-in. Apparently not. Peter Handscomb is set to go through the 'A' grind after five months of "not even touching the bat", score big runs in India and put himself back in contention for the Test tour of UAE against Pakistan.
In Vijayawada, with rains forcing the team indoors for the better part of a week, Handscomb and his mates converted their team room into a makeshift squash court to spend time. Now, he's ready to spend time in the middle and get the big scores to give Langer and others sound sleep. Handscomb is aware that how he performs in this series could go a long way in determining Test selection for the UAE, but it's a prospect he isn't fretting over. Instead, he chooses to derive confidence from his two "memorable subcontinent acts."
Ranchi 2017, against India, was when he first exhibited tremendous resolve on a turner, with Australia fighting to save the Test. After the penultimate day, it was a battle that the then coach Darren Lehmann had considered lost. "Eight good balls there, and that's it," he had said, with the despondence of someone waiting for the inevitable. Against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who had picked up 16 wickets between them just a week earlier, it needed a Houdini act, and Handscomb pulled it off.
He walked in to bat half an hour before lunch, with seven close-in fielders. When play was called off, the chirps from the close-in fielders had died down, and Handscomb walked off with an honourable 72, after a 261-minute vigil, to draw the Test and keep the series alive. Then, in Chittagong last year, his dogged 82, during which he fought severe dehydration while batting in 98% humidity, which he described as the "toughest condition ever", set up a platform along with David Warner as Australia levelled the series.
It was a vindication of sorts, given Handscomb hadn't been picked in Australia's original touring party to Bangladesh in 2015 - one that was postponed due to security concerns - on the back of a successful 'A' tour in India.
"I took a lot of confidence from those Tests," Handscomb said ahead of Australia A's quadrangular series-opener against India A on Thursday. "I knew I could play spin relatively well, especially in Australia. But coming over to the subcontinent, and actually being able to put a couple of knocks together and score some runs was a nice feeling personally. It meant that I was able to have that confidence, knowing that my game is good enough to stand up against some of the best bowlers in the world in tough conditions. Hopefully, I can do that moving forward."
Handscomb's stance and batting technique aren't exactly copybook. He hardly taps the bat, it hangs up, sometimes coming up to right behind his ears in small arcs - a bit like Lance Klusener - as if to say, "come and get me if you can". As a kid, this was a method his early coach Greg Shipperd didn't endorse, but later accepted when he saw Handscomb had the confidence to pull it off.
The high backlift that is essentially completed before the bowler delivers helps him get a good stride, sometimes even allowing him to get outside the line of the stumps against spinners who keep attacking them. That he is tall, and has a good reach also aids him in his forward stride. That, however, is just one aspect. His manner of using his feet instinctively, to try and smother the ball, was developed as a teenager in his backyard.
His older brother, James, was a once a legspinner who kept out Shane Warne from St Kilda Cricket Club, until a shoulder injury put paid to his cricket career. Their father, John, too was a spinner in minor counties in England. The pair used to spend hours on their pebble-strewn backyard, honing the technique of an impressionable young player trying to find his feet, literally.
"My old man used to take me to the nets and just throw balls," Handscomb remembers. "I just had to use my feet and find a way to deal with it, so it was pretty awesome being able to do that with him. That started right from when I was about 10 to 16 or so, when I stopped having him as a coach and moved on to some other people. I guess using my feet to spin has been a natural thing; with my old man, I used to do a lot of training like that when I was younger.
"I was trying to figure out how to come out of my crease, but in terms of batting deep, that is something I worked on with my coach in Victoria. That seemed to work for me for a while, but I've got to evolve as well, even if that means I need to bat outside my crease or from the crease for certain periods, maybe go deep or forward again. I've got to be able to accept that and adapt."
The use of the crease that Handscomb underlines wasn't as much a part of his game until two years ago. An IPL stint with Rising Pune Supergiant, where he couldn't get much game time, afforded him an opportunity to work on it. "I played in the IPL a couple of years back with Ajinkya Rahane. I love how he plays, he has the ability to play spin off the back foot really well," Handscomb said. "I've watched him, had a couple of chats with him during that time, and I think he's a quality player and someone I've tried to emulate on occasions.
"In my day, I've used Greg Shipperd a lot. And now, I'm leaning a lot more on Chris Rogers, who has really taken me aside and done some quality work up in Brisbane, where he's the batting/academy coach for the young kids. He's been great. Obviously, he had an amazing international career as well. So I've been learning a lot off him, and it's been awesome."
Handscomb's understanding of spin has been a result of the work he's put in with a number of coaches. In the past, he's also been helped along by Thilan Samaraweera, the former Sri Lanka batsman, who has been a batting coach at Victoria. Now in India, he's picking the brains of S Sriram, the former India batsman, whom Steven Smith had described as "genius" for his tactical inputs during their 2017 tour of India. Sriram has been spin consultant with Cricket Australia for two years, and enjoys genuine respect from within the group.
"Before the Indian Test series last year, we went to Dubai, had two weeks there, and really worked on finding ways to score runs and put the pressure back on the bowler. That's something we've done with our coach Sri, who is one hell of a batter and bowler in his own right. He knows what to look for, and he's been helping all of us learn how to sweep, use our feet, play off the back foot."
Does Sriram empower players to come up with their own methods and work on them, or does he tailor specifics? "He watches each batter separately, understands that we've all got different techniques and different ways of playing certain shots," Handscomb explains. "And then he finds their strengths and tries to teach that, coach that. If you really want to learn how to sweep, he'll work with you on that.
"He's got a couple of little things that he wants you to be doing, but besides that, it's your way. He just wants you to be able to score, and he gets you doing that. With the bounce in Australia, I tend not to sweep too much there, just because it can be a bit more dangerous and brings in some catching opportunities. With playing it in the subcontinent, it's just something we've trained."
The understanding of his game puts him in a good headspace. With all the inputs and behind-the-scenes work out of the way, it's time for the real act after a week of soaking in India's monsoons.