Australia are set to face-off England in yet another Ashes series Down Under and the stakes are huge. Led by the flamboyant Steven Smith, Australia tick most boxes in home conditions but England are too good a side to not exploit the few weaknesses in the hosts.
When we say they tick quite a few boxes, it has to be emphasized that Australia have a pretty settled top five and a bowling attack that is not only set in stone (unless injury strikes) but also hunting as a pack for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield trophy.
So nine of the eleven that walk out at The Gabba on 23rd for the first Test is decided. But the remaining two positions (no.6 and no.7) and a lot of backup player slots are up for grabs and the selectors will be under pressure to get these selections right.
Ashes series’ without an injury are a rarity so more often than not a group of 15-16 players likely play in the five-match series. This puts a further responsibility on the selectors to pick the right fringe players and keep them close to the group.
Here we try to analyse a few areas that the Aussie selectors will want to focus on ahead of the Ashes squad selection.
The no.6 spot – batsman or all-rounder?
For most of the past two years, Australia have preferred to play Mitchell Marsh or Glenn Maxwell at the no.6 position. The duo could chip in as a decent enough fifth bowling option but eventually, the runs dried up and the selectors were left with no option but to wield the axe.
Maxwell returned with success during the Indian series in the sub-continent but how well he can fare against the English pace bowlers remains a question mark, especially if he finds himself in a situation where he has to buckle down and produce an innings of substance.
Marsh has still not recovered enough to bowl and isn’t a part of Australia’s Ashes plans. This virtually leaves the selectors with an arduous task.
They not only have to decide on whether the crucial spot, earlier donned with immense success by Andrew Symonds, Michael Hussey etc, should go to an all-rounder or a batsman.
Seamer Josh Hazlewood was of the opinion that the Australian bowlers would prefer an additional fifth bowling option.
“It’s always nice having that allrounder to maybe bowl five or six overs throughout the day,” Hazlewood had said. “I think the way Gaz [Nathan Lyon] has bowled over the last 12-18 months has been fantastic and he’s been shouldering the workload if it does get put upon the quicks. But for balance you want runs and wickets from that No. 6 batter … you could go either way.”
Australia have a few all-round options in Marcus Stoinis, Hilton Cartwright, Glenn Maxwell, Travis Head and Moises Henriques. At least one of them is sure to be called upon at one stage or the other during the series but who gets the first chance remains to be seen.
If they decide to go for a pure batsman, it leaves the Aussies with one less bowling option but given how their no.6 position has fared with the bat in recent times, the focus is on getting in players who can make runs as well. Kurtis Patterson, Jake Lehmann, Daniel Hughes and Cameron Bancroft are possible contenders.
Lehmann enhanced his claims with a few wonderful knocks over the past few months and he even has the lineage (son of national coach Darren Lehmann) to aid him. In all probability, of the selectors decide to go for a pure batsman, Lehmann would be the beneficiary. But it might just be better if the selectors listen to Hazlewood and pick an all-rounder. After all, Maxwell had put in some compelling performances in India and given the backing could turn into a Symonds-like player for the Aussies in Tests.
The wicket-keeper’s spot
This debate could go on and on right through the summer. Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade are the obvious contenders and in all likelihood, it would be Nevill donning the mitts when Australia hit the ground on 23rd.
Despite his lack of runs, Nevill is a sturdy wicket-keeper and has shown enough in First-class cricket to merit a comeback. Wade, on the other hand, has been miserable despite being the type of keeper that Smith yearns for.
The skipper himself admitted that lack of runs could hurt Wade. “I’ve said for a while that Matty [Matthew Wade] brings a lot to the team,” Smith had clarified last week. “He provides some good energy, he’s a good sounding board for me too. He understands the game really well, but in the end, you need guys that are performing.”
The backup spots
The backup players are just as important as the main ones and it has to said that the selectors have a huge pool to pick from.
The fast-bowling reserves should be Jackson Bird and Nathan Coulter-Nile although the latter is still recovering from an injury cloud. He bowled quite well against the Poms in their first warm-up game last week and is a responsible performer. If picked, Coulter-Nile can be trusted to give it his all. He does create disconcerting bounce and movement and could complement the likes of Starc and Cummins quite well.
Bird is similar too and a pretty good workhorse, so Australia can trust him to run in all day long of the situation demands.
What they do need to focus on is identifying a quick bowler who can add that X-factor if one of Starc or Cummins goes down. Bird and Coulter-Nile are more Hazlewood-like which puts further focus on the selectors in grooming a wild fast bowler. Pattinson is out injured and wouldn’t be an option. The options are pretty much dry in this area and it is up to the selection panel to ensure they have a dark horse fit and raring to go if one of their big quicks real down.
Among the top order places, Usman Khawaja or Shaun Marsh should own the no.3 slot; more likely that the former would. The reserve player should also be one of these two and ideally, Bancroft, who is a top-order bat and can keep as well. It might just be a tacky ploy to hand over the gloves to Handscomb or Bancroft if the first choice keeper fails and play an additional all-rounder.
Among the spinners, Steven O’Keefe or Mitchell Swepson should be ready to face England although that looks rather unlikely unless Lyon injures himself. Even Sydney, the most turning track in Australia, isn’t expected to be dusty enough to play two spinners.
If the selectors can get their backup men to be ever ready, Australia would be too formidable a force at home for England to counter.