Judgement days loom for Australia’s Ashes hopefuls

July 23, 2019

SOUTHAMPTON: Justin Langer has stopped short of labelling the historic Australia v Australia match a “shootout” for places in the men’s Ashes squad, but concedes he will have...

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SOUTHAMPTON: Justin Langer has stopped short of labelling the historic Australia v Australia match a “shootout” for places in the men’s Ashes squad, but concedes he will have players left either delighted or desolate come the game’s final day.

While a bulk of the expected 16-man touring party for the Qantas Ashes Tour of England is already inked in, several key berths remain in abeyance.

Langer on Monday confirmed “three or four” of those positions that will command his attention and that of selection panel chair Trevor Hohns throughout the four-day game between 12-man teams coached by Brad Haddin and Graeme Hick at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl.

“I think there is a couple of bowling positions up for grabs, probably a couple of batting positions,” Langer told reporters as the teammates turned rivals completed their final pre-game training session.

“There will be a lot of discussion about whether we have an extra spinner, a lot of discussion about whether we have an extra wicketkeeper.

“It won’t necessarily be a straight shootout, but there will certainly be good opportunities for guys.”

While planning to cover all contingencies and conditions with a finite list of personnel is always fraught, the selection process for the upcoming five-Test campaign against England (starting August 1) is made more complex for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the staging of the ICC World Cup and an Australia A series immediately prior to the Ashes has meant some players — most notably ODI wicketkeeper Alex Carey and fellow gloveman Matthew Wade — have mounted irresistible cases for inclusion in the Test squad.

Secondly, the return of former skipper Steve Smith and his ex-deputy David Warner, along with the availability of Cameron Bancroft, has meant the comfort usually afforded those who performed well in the team’s preceding Test match no longer applies.

Which is why players such as opener Joe Burns and middle-order batters Travis Head and Kurtis Patterson can’t consider themselves certain starters despite posting centuries in Australia’s most recent five-day outing, against Sri Lanka in Canberra last February.

“It was a bit the same when Pete Handscomb missed out on the World Cup squad, he was replaced by Steve Smith,” Langer said.

Further complicating the process of distilling a group of 25 potentials down to 16 (or possibly 17) tourists is the fitness of incumbent No.3 batter Usman Khawaja, who also scored a century in the Canberra Test against Sri Lanka.

Khawaja sustained a hamstring injury during the World Cup which saw him withdrawn from the squad, and he has been rested from the four-day game at Southampton as he continues his rehabilitation.

However, he underwent a series of running drills before having a brief batting stint in the nets yesterday, and Test skipper Tim Paine suggested Khawaja might be called up to play in the final phase of the warm-up game if he’s deemed fit and another player succumbs to injury.

Uncapped Victoria batter Will Pucovski is already under a cloud for the Hick XII, having been struck flush on the left foot by a searing Mitchell Starc yorker at training on Saturday which rendered him unable to bat in yesterday’s practice session.

The doubt over Khawaja’s availability for the series opener might help decide the identity of the auxiliary batters in Australia’s squad.

Burns is an opener by trade but has shown he’s also capable of batting further down if a new No.3 was needed for Edgbaston.

Or an established middle-order player such as Patterson might be deemed the preferred option if Khawaja’s absence meant Smith was elevated to first-drop.

Given the specialist nature of opening, Bancroft might also be considered a necessary addition as back-up should either of expected opening pair Warner or Marcus Harris be sidelined at the last minute.

If, as seems likely, James Pattinson is added to the established pace bowling trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, then the auxiliary seamer’s berth looms as a choice between Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird.

If Siddle is not included in the final squad, he will return to his county role with Essex which means Australia has the extra reassurance of a player who can be called upon at short notice but is still playing high-level competitive cricket in the interim.

The same scenario applies to Marnus Labuschagne, who has shown impressive form for Glamorgan this northern summer.

But with tour matches scheduled after the first Test (against Worcestershire) and third Test (Derbyshire), selectors must also ponder which bowlers are best suited to providing respite for the frontline attack while also being considered next-best in line should injury strike.

On the basis of his World Cup form, which saw him included in the ICC’s Team of the Tournament, Carey has mounted a strong case but both Bancroft and Handscomb can claim to add glovework to their considerable top-order batting talents.

However, the most compelling candidate remains Wade, whose sublime red and white-ball from during the Australia summer has been transplanted to England where he has proved the most successful batter in the recent Australia A series.

There is a strong argument that Wade could be slotted into the number six berth as a specialist batter, given that he is also an energetic presence in the field and can bowl a few handy overs of medium-pace if needed.

Langer acknowledged that Wade, who lost his place as Test keeper to Paine at the start of the 2017-18 season, has fulfilled every requirement for a player pushing his case for an international call-up.

For months prior to departing Australia for the World Cup tilt, Langer spoke of the need for Australia’s ODI and Test squads to begin their quests for success “battle hardened” if they hoped to lift the trophies they sought.

That hard-nosed competitiveness is one objective sought from the unprecedented intra-squad four-day game on foreign soil that has been likened to a ‘sixth Test’, such is the influence it will wield on the composition of the final Ashes squad.

The other imperative is for the Haddin XII v Hick XII match to provide a gauge on how individual players respond to the challenge and the pressure of bidding for those few vacant positions that are up for grabs in the heat of a full-scale battle.

For Langer, the immediate challenge will be breaking the news to all those who have fallen short of Ashes selection, a process that he expects to undertake in concert with Hohns on Friday afternoon — the scheduled final day of the sole warm-up fixture.

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