for the last five years, Australia’s bowling attack has been a given. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, set and forget. There have been change-ups to cover injury or when a second spinner has been needed in Asia, but there has been no question about the best four options in the country when the time has come to revert. With this stability, the quartet has played 22 Test matches together, a record shared with the West Indies’ 1950s and 60s combination of Garfield Sobers, Lance Gibbs, Charlie Griffith and Wes Hall.
The fact that 22 is the record gives a sense of how hard it is to keep a full bowling attack fit and firing over time. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath played 47 times with Jason Gillespie and 38 times with Brett Lee, but only 16 times with both. James Anderson and Stuart Broad played 47 times with Graeme Swann without a regular fourth partner. Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock played 30 matches or more with Allan Donald and later Makhaya Ntini, but these always involved a range of all-rounders and no regular fourth specialist. Sobers was an all-rounder in that West Indies team, but bowled as one of only four frontline options, offering pace and spin.
After all this time, though, Hazlewood is likely to be fit for the Boxing Day Test after missing a couple of matches, and is not quite an automatic selection to come back in. The rise of Scott Boland has been that precipitous. The Victorian quick made it into the Ashes squad a year ago with selectors wanting options to manage five Tests in quick succession. He was specifically there with an eye to Melbourne and Sydney pitches with a recent history of flatness, given his long first-class career of bashing away to find a flicker in lifeless tracks.
An earlier Hazlewood injury notionally gave Boland his chance, although he was still effectively a specialist Melbourne pick: Michael Neser and Jhye Richardson had filled in for the previous Test, and while selectors cited minor injury concerns for both, surely they would have picked one if they were not so keen on using Boland. As it turned out, the Melbourne pitch was not flat, and the rest is history: six wickets for seven runs in 20 balls to wrap up the English and the urn.
Boland kept his spot in Sydney and Hobart, finishing the series with the 1880s numbers of 18 wickets at 9.55 runs apiece. Afterwards he resumed his spot down the pecking order, joining the squad touring Pakistan and Sri Lanka as very much the fourth quick in matches that he mostly only used two. At 33 years old, he could have drifted out of contention and finished his brief Test foray as a curiosity, someone who enjoyed one brilliant moment in the sun.
Instead, he’s back, slotting in thanks to more injuries after the first West Indies Test in Perth. He has picked up right where he left off. When Boland was on song in the Ashes there was this sense of irresistibility, a momentum that washed England away. A big part of this was that twice he took multiple wickets in an over. This year against the West Indies he did it again, three in six balls with a pink Kookaburra in an evening session. Then against South Africa in Brisbane, twice more, knocking over Sarel Erwee and Khaya Zondo in one over in the first innings, then Kyle Verreyne and Marco Jansen in the second.
His career of five matches has reached 25 wickets at 10.36. That’s a long way from Hazlewood’s tally of 217 from 58 Tests, but there has to be the argument that Boland right now has the same mysterious energy behind him that he had last season. There has to be the argument that swapping him for a bowler who is returning from injury and lacking match sharpness is a bigger gamble when it comes to improving the team. And there has to be the argument that if Boland was the specialist pick for the Melbourne Cricket Ground last year, as the country’s preeminent authority on how to use it, then his deeds that followed must have made that position as solid and enduring as the statue of him that Mark Howard on commentary begged to have built.
All cricket logic aside, there is also the matter of the vibe. We keep being reminded that cricket is an entertainment business. Nothing gets a bigger response from Australian crowds right now than when Boland gets thrown the ball. The Queenslanders cheered for Marnus Labuschagne, the Western Australians for Cameron Green, but everybody has hit another notch of volume when that solid block of fast bowler ambles off the rope at fine leg.
Boland has the everyman aspect. He is a toilet and a tryer. He was too unfit to thrive and then dropped the weight to make it as a professional. He won and lost an Australian one-day spot years before creating this Test rebirth. His avalanches of international wickets could not be more at odds with his domestic career than him, where he has banged a length for over a decade to dislodge one batter for every 56 balls. And now that success has come, with his place di lui as a new crowd hero, he has greeted it all with smiling shyness and an air of puzzlement, immovably humble about just running in and doing his bit for a team.
Nothing demonstrated that more than the sight of Boland at the Gabba last weekend, a man of modest batting talent, walking out in the gloomy evening on that green and dicey pitch to face 150kph from Anrich Nortje, all to protect the No 6 Green as nightwatchman . The next morning Green scored an innings of 18 that helped Travis Head push towards an ultimately match-winning lead of 66. Chalk some of that up to Boland. Brisbane appreciated him for it. It would be a very avoidable shame if his own Melbourne crowd did not get to cheer him to the middle once again.