The first Test is less than a week away and form and selection have seldom been more murky.
Australia head into the December 8 Test without playing a five-day match since India shocked Tim Paine’s men back in January, as Rishabh Pant helped the tourists chase down a large final day total.
Since then, white ball cricket has dominated proceedings for the Australian men’s team while, in the case of New South Wales and Victoria, the two states have been limited to facing one another in three matches because of Covid.
Others like batsmen Steve Smith and David Warner and bowlers Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood have not played red ball cricket since the middle of February.
In stark contrast, England have played 12 Tests – albeit they have their own selection headaches because very few of their top five have stood tall and demanded they be picked.
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Both nations have had their preparations severely impacted by the torrential rain in Queensland, but it is interesting to note that in the one series England beat Australia Down Under this century they did so off the back of a long-build up with a number of tour matches.
Australia, too, has a number of selection headaches.
Here are Australia’s four big selection conundrums ahead of the opening Test at The Gabba.
IS STARC A LOCK?
For the best of a decade Mitchell Starc has been the spearhead of Australia’s attack, but the 31-year-old continues to have his place in the side debated.
Warne believes Jhye Richardson, the West Australian swing bowler who bowls at a good clip and is in strong form, should replace Starc.
It is highly unlikely that will occur, at least for the opening Test at The Gabba.
Whether it does later in the series will be dependent on results, but should Australia get off to a strong start the bowling quartet won’t want any changes.
The left-arm option provides balance for Australia’s attack and Nathan Lyon, the off-spin bowler with 399 wickets to his name, will benefit from the footmarks Starc creates.
But there is no doubting Starc is under pressure to perform.
He might have played every match of the T20 tournament, but he struggled to get going and was the least effective of the fast bowling trio alongside new captain Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
His up-and-down series also came off the back of an underwhelming home series against India last summer.
Cummins (21 wickets at 20.04) and Hazlewood (17 wickets at 19.35) bowled well, while Starc managed just eight wickets at 40.72.
He was not helped by some poor fielding, which came back to haunt Australia in Melbourne and Sydney particularly.
Australia’s selectors were also left to ponder whether they should have rotated their quicks as they had done during the 2019 Ashes to great effect.
Starc played through the entire series carrying a burden impossible to empathise with, too.
It was his late father’s wish to continue through the series and not break the bubble despite his aggressive cancer diagnosis.
In a revealing interview with The Daily Telegraph last week, Starc told of the emotional toll it had on him.
“Yeah, he was my first coach, so he’s a huge part of my career,” Starc says.
“And he’s probably the reason why I played any cricket last summer to be fair. It was a tough last summer …”
Starc won admiration from teammates, including Cummins.
“I really admired Mitchy. I’m really proud of how he played last summer,” Cummins told The Daily Telegraph.
“To be able to wake up each morning, front up, do it with a smile on his face and lace up his boots and bowl his heart out time and time again, was just an incredible effort and made so many people around him really proud and strong.”
Following James Pattinson’s international retirement, Richardson is a strong option waiting in the wings.
The 25-year-old made a strong start to his Test career in 2019, where he took six wickets in his opening two Tests against Sri Lanka.
He has not played since and come through some injury troubles but appears to have come out the other end.
Importantly he is in good form, having taken seven wickets in his most recent Shield outing against Tasmania and eight the previous match against Queensland including the stunning second-innings figures of 5-23 where he knocked over Joe Burns and Marnus Labuschagne.
George Bailey put the debate to bed about who should open alongside Warner last month when he said Marcus Harris would also face the new ball.
It was not the first time he had done so during his relatively brief tenure serving as a selector.
Ten months earlier, Bailey came out in defence of short form captain Aaron Finch and said the Victorian would lead Australia through to the T20 World Cup – a tournament they would go onto win.
It was a decision that paid off.
Bailey has followed the same logic and hopes the decision to back his man will empower the left-hander and see the 29-year-old play without the fear of being dropped at the next failure.
Harris, who has been in and out of the Test team since debuting in late 2018, said the selector’s comments filled him with confidence.
“I probably spoke to Bails [George Bailey] about a week before we went away to Sydney for the first Shield game,” Harris told reporters last week. “We just had a really good conversation. It was just good to have some clear communication with a selector about what I was doing and what was in their thinking for me.
“It’s good for your confidence as a player to know where you stand and having the backing of people is really good. It puts your mind at ease a little bit, your mind can run obviously coming into a big series on the Ashes with the amount of attention that’s brought to it, so to not have to worry about that for probably a month leading into the first game has been pretty good.”
Harris will likely be given the opening two Tests to show something.
Averaging just 23.77 from 10 Tests, he does not have the runs to justify a series of failures.
When Cameron Bancroft missed out during the opening two Tests of the 2019 Ashes campaign, the West Australian was dropped despite Justin Langer’s men leading the series 1-0.
Although Usman Khawaja is locked in a fight with Travis Head for the No.5 position, the Queensland captain could also be considered in the opening position.
While Khawaja averages 52.97 on home soil, it will not be lost on selectors his deeds at the top of the order.
Khawaja averages 79 opening the batting, with his 145 against South Africa and 85 against Pakistan on foreign soil the standouts.
Since being dropped during the 2019 Ashes, Khawaja has shifted down the order for Queensland where he has regularly occupied the middle-order roles.
Off the back of a strong start to the Shield season rising South Australian opener Henry Hunt was included in the Australia A side, but the 24-year-old would be a bold pick to make his debut against England.
KHAWAJA VS HEAD
In a two-horse race, who occupies the No.5 slot is perhaps the most debated decision.
Usman Khawaja versus Travis Head: two left-handers, two men who have been in and out of the side and have similar strengths and records.
The comparisons do not stop there, with Khawaja’s Test average of 40.66 just fractionally higher than Head’s 39.75 – albeit the latter’s comes from less than half the Tests (18).
Both men have had similar starts to their respective seasons, with the duo recording centuries amongst a number of lean scores.
Their vulnerabilities remain, with both susceptible to edging behind from balls not always in the corridor of uncertainty.
Head, too, continues to get in and get out.
The 27-year-old is seven years Khawaja’s junior and has a lot of upside, but the main reason he was dropped after last year’s Boxing Day Test was because he, up until now at least, has struggled to convert strong starts into meaningful contributions.
As Australian selectors have shown in recent years though, age is thrown out the window for an Ashes.
Tim Paine’s career was resurrected from the dead in 2017 while Shaun Marsh shone in the middle-order after yet another chance.
Selectors could be wooed by the fact the Gabba is Khawaja’s home ground.
He is also an ultra-cool, calm head in and after a tumultuous fortnight, Khawaja’s demeanour could also be another feather in his cap.
Alex Carey is all but certain to replace Tim Paine, but is he the right man to wear the gloves?
If he was not already considered a lock last week, a dashing century in one day cricket against Queensland likely confirmed their thinking.
His century came after a lean start to the Shield season, where he had passed 50 on just one occasion in his past eight Shield appearances.
Shane Warne last week wrote on no uncertain terms that West Australian Josh Inglis would edge out Carey as his wicket-keeper for the first Test.
“Inglis gets my vote,” Warne wrote in a column for the Herald Sun.
“He’s got silky smooth hands behind the stumps, he’s a 360 degree player with the bat and coming off three first class hundreds last season for WA.
“He’s a great team man who I saw first hand at the London Spirit this year. He’s 26. Bang, get him in.”
Inglis was taken to the UAE for Australia’s successful T20 World Cup campaign but was not used throughout the tournament, where he was stuck behind Matthew Wade who starred with the bat.
But his selection in the wider squad earned praise from Ricky Ponting, who also pushed for his inclusion throughout 2021.
Ultimately it appears selectors have stuck to their initial thinking, sticking with Paine’s heir apparent.
Despite his lean start to the season, his selection is justified.
He is a well-respected character in Australian cricket and captained the ODI side during their series win over the West Indies in the winter.
Carey played in the 2019 World Cup in England and has one ODI century to his name, while his average of 36.45 stacks up well.
In first-class cricket, he averages 34.73 and has five centuries to boot.
Even Warne agreed Carey was the favourite despite favouring Inglis.
“You’d say Alex Carey’s performance over a long period of time would have him as the leading candidate to come into the side,” Warne wrote.
Carey will likely be given the series to prove his worth and although runs will be the currency that generate headlines, it will be his deeds behind the stumps that selectors will be watching closely.
With Paine unlikely to play for Australia again given his age and decision to stand down, Inglis will be nipping at his heels should Carey struggle.
WILL GREEN PLAY ALL FIVE TESTS?
Given the turbulent fortnight in Australian cricket, the all-rounder spot has largely floated under the radar.
Cameron Green was included in Australia’s 15-player squad while Mitch Marsh was left out and included in an Australia A side.
It was a nod of Australian cricket’s estimation of the talented 22-year-old, who performed admirably during his debut summer wearing the baggy green.
Yet off the back of Marsh’s coming of age during a phenomenal 2021 which included his extraordinary feats at the T20 World Cup, it was an interesting decision.
For all of Green’s talent, particularly with the bat, he has played just four Tests and England will look to exploit the vulnerability of the lower middle order. Either Head or Khawaja will bat five, Green at six and there will be a debutant wicket-keeper batting at number seven.
Should Green come to the wicket early, there will be a lot of responsibility on the youngster’s shoulders.
He also failed to take a wicket in the last series against India. He put the ball up there rather than banged it in looking for wickets.
Marsh, in contrast, has been effective over the years with the ball in the same way Shane Watson was.
As Fox Theatre’s Ashes 2019 show revealed, Marsh got the team laughing and in high spirits in their final team huddle as they went out on day five to try and win the urn at Old Trafford. Those little things can’t be underestimated in team sports.
Should Green struggle in the opening two Tests, Marsh will be another who could suddenly come back into the reckoning.
His explosive batting, strength in the field, bowling prowess and leadership could be a trump card used later in the series particularly on the drop-in wickets at the MCG and SCG.