Regarded as one of the best players of spin on the domestic circuit, the 25-year-old did his reputation no harm, dominating legspinner Shah throughout that series. A big fan of former Australian middle-order batsman Damien Martyn, Handscomb has a huge task ahead of him when Australia begin their Indian Test journey in Pune on February 23.
Wisden India caught up with the Victorian, who has already amassed 399 runs in four Tests at a Bradmanesque average of 99.75, ahead of four-match series. In an exhaustive interaction, Handscomb talks about practicing playing spin with his dad at an early age, how Ajinkya Rahane has broadened his horizons when it comes to playing the turning ball, takeaways from his IPL stint and the Australia A tour to India, his plans against India’s tweakers, and more. Excerpts:
November 15, 2016 – Australia lost to South Africa (in Hobart, their fifth consecutive loss) and it was time for a shake-up. You had been in the reckoning for quite some time. How important was the game against New South Wales where you made a double hundred?
Obviously, it was important, but I would like to think that even if I hadn’t scored those runs, I would still have been there or thereabouts and in the frame for selection. Having said that, the selectors, ahead of that round of matches, had asked for runs and so for me it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. And at the same time, I was conscious of Steven Smith and David Warner being in the opposition. It’s always nice to make runs in front of the Australia captain and vice-captain. I didn’t speak to Smith much about the game. I was just backing myself to score runs in that game but got much from him after I came into the squad.
You are yet to be dismissed for less than 50 in Tests. Is batting long something that comes naturally to you?
It’s hard to use the word ‘naturally’ as I have had to work very hard on technique, temperament, and my mental approach. That desire and ability to bat long isn’t just there. You want to do it but it does require a lot of preparation that people don’t see. On the mental side, it’s a case of wanting more and more runs and always telling yourself, no matter what the situation, it’s never enough. It’s also about being willing to stick to your game plan in any given situation and be happy – and, more accurately, willing – to face dot balls. Losing patience can never be an option.
On his only tour to India in 2004, your idol Damien Martyn averaged above 55, including a couple of hundreds. Have you watched any of his batting on that tour?
I have (watched footage of it) and watched how he went about things. I have taken things from that approach, and the way he played off the back foot was very impressive. The key, as far as I could see, was that even off the back foot, he usually played with the full face of the bat and a straight bat unless the ball was very short, and he let the ball come to him rather than go searching for it. That was a terrific effort, given he was brought up at the WACA in Perth where the ball comes on to the bat and the diet is mainly fast bowling. Playing off the back foot rather than pushing forward can have the advantage of taking the close fielders in front of the wicket out of the equation unless the ball behaves outrageously.
You worked a lot on playing spin with your dad in the nets at a young age. Can you take us through that phase?
It was pretty much just that he would throw the ball anywhere around the wicket and tell me just to run down the wicket and find out my own way of dealing with it, whether it was kicking it away or getting something behind it. It was about trying to score off those deliveries by hitting over the top and finding my own way to deal with it.
ou tried various things, technique-wise, in your early years of Shield cricket. Then, Greg Shipperd identified a fallibility against balls angled in from wide of the popping crease. How did you deal with it?
It was a case of finding a technique that worked for me. I spoke with Greg and the idea was to get me into a position before the ball was bowled to defend and, having established that, I was then in a position to expand and be more aggressive depending on the situation and the ball bowled. But the thing with technique is that it’s always evolving and you are always thinking of ways to improve and adapt to different circumstances and different bowlers. You can’t just stand still in terms of your development as a player.
You have always been a high hand player, but what were the other technical changes you have had to make?
It’s not always a technical thing, about the mechanics of batting. It’s more a case of just being comfortable with your set-up. In my case, I am happy and comfortable to play and defend off the back foot. When I went to England to play county cricket with Gloucestershire in 2015, it required a slightly different approach as the pitches tend to offer seam bowlers something. In those circumstances, you tend to try and play a bit more off the front foot. That took perhaps three games and training sessions to adapt. I was still trying to play the ball late, but much more on the front foot than would be the case back home.
You enjoy playing pacers more off the back foot and it’s the complete opposite while facing a spinner. Does this come naturally, defending spinners from outside the crease?
Yes, it’s quite natural as I like using my feet when and where I can as it can cause the bowler to change his length, even if you’re not scoring. It’s something you obviously have to assess in any given circumstance, but I had some success with it on the last (Australia) A tour to India against Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, in 2015.
Talking about that, you have already played in India, for Australia A and in the IPL. Any particular lessons you will be bringing into this series?
I think it’s just the value of experience, really, knowing that I have experienced the conditions before, so that side of things won’t come as a surprise to me. The fact that I did quite well against two classy spinners in Ojha and Mishra in 2015 gives me some confidence and belief that I can do okay on the tour coming up.
I learnt more just to back my game plan, back my skills, try not to be too worried about what the ball is going to do off the wicket, and still be confident coming down the track, but also playing off the back foot, and if I need to sweep, try and sweep as well.
Throughout that series against India A, your dismissals came mostly against the spinners.
It was more a simple case of the law of averages: I batted in the middle order, so quite naturally in those conditions, I faced more spin than pace. The same would be true of an opening batsman in, say, Australia or England. You would expect as an opener over the course of a series in those countries that you’d be dismissed more often by pace bowlers because that’s the type of bowling you would face more of opening the batting; it’s the same batting in the middle order in India, facing a diet of mainly spin bowling.
Coming to the IPL, though you only featured in two games last season, you got the chance to work with R Ashwin and other local spinners in the nets. How did that go?
I got some training although not as much as I had hoped, which was understandable because I wasn’t playing and the playing squad always took priority. I did get the chance to work with spinners in those circumstances but I’m not sure how much there is to take from that as getting ready for Twenty20 cricket is a totally different approach from getting ready for a Test match.
You have spoken about being fascinated by watching Ajinkya Rahane playing spinners more off the back foot in the IPL. Have you chatted with him or any other Indian player about it?
I had a good chat with Ajinkya for about half an hour after one training session. I was fascinated by how he worked out his game plan of playing off the back foot and his ability to hit back-foot drives, with a straight bat, through or over midwicket. When he did so, he actually had his back foot behind the crease. He said it was a case of trial and error with him, working out a successful method, but it was great to speak with him about how he went about things. I also watched MS Dhoni go about his business but the way he and I bat is so different that I’m not sure there was a lot I could take from that from a technical point of view!
You also provide an option as a back-up wicketkeeper, like you did in the last series (ODIs in New Zealand). Are you willing to take the next step and play as a full-time wicketkeeper if the team demands it from you?
I’m happy to be a back-up ‘keeper as it can be very handy for the team but I don’t see myself as a full-time gloveman. I have always been a batsman, first and foremost, even in age-group cricket, and although it’s good to be involved, batting is my bread and butter.
Any chat with Dhoni about keeping on Indian pitches, where there will be more turn and less bounce than you are used to?
I had a long chat with Ankush Bains, the back-up ’keeper at Rising Pune Supergiants, particularly about the way he stayed down to deal with the lower bounce on the pitches there. I also watched the way he went about his business and that was a good learning experience for me. The ‘A’ tour of 2015 also allowed me to watch both our ‘keeper back then – Matthew Wade – and Naman Ojha and see how they dealt with conditions too.
It is a challenging tour at an early stage of your international career. What goals, if any, have you set for yourself?
In Dubai (where Australia practiced before coming to India), we were looking to adapt to spinning wickets and trying to find our own game, and how to combat spin pretty much. I will be looking to use my feet and be positive, going either forward or back to the spinners.
I haven’t set any goals for myself in terms of numbers. From my perspective, it’s a case of getting my plans right, making sure I back them and being confident in my own ability. If I can do that, then the rest, including the runs I score, should look after itself. So the goal is a simple one: stick to my plans.
Lastly, tell us about your interest in tennis and being a contemporary of Bernard Tomic.
I played national age-group tennis at the Under-12, Under-14 and Under-16 levels and enjoyed the sport, although cricket was my main love. But anything comparing or linking me to Bernard Tomic is a bit fanciful. I think he’s about 18 months younger than me, although I do remember playing in the same tournament as him in Albury (on the New South Wales–Victoria border), which was Under-14, I think; I went out in the round of 16 and we never played each other, while he went on to win the tournament.
Source: Wisden India