Former Test batter Mike Hussey has voiced his doubts as to the choices available to Australia's selectors should incumbent opener Cameron Bancroft fail to find form on the upcoming Qantas Tour of South Africa.
Bancroft and his current batting partner David Warner are the only specialist openers in the 15-man squad for the four Tests against the Proteas that gets underway next month, with Australia chasing their first series win on foreign soil in almost two years.
By doing so, the national selection panel reaffirmed their faith in Bancroft, who posted a solid half-century in his debut Test against England at the Gabba last November but found runs increasingly tough to come by as the Magellan Ashes Series progressed.
The 25-year-old failed to reach 30 in his six Test innings that followed the campaign opener in Brisbane and finished his inaugural series at international level with 179 runs at an average of 25.57 after beginning the season in solid form for Western Australia.
But the absence of an auxiliary opener in the touring party for South Africa has prompted questions as to how that highly specialised role might be filled against one of the world’s most potent pace bowling attacks should Bancroft’s form continue to elude him.
In unveiling the squad on Monday, selection panel chair Trevor Hohns indicated that "other options" were available although he did not specify what they might entail.
However, while backing Bancroft to learn from the harsh lessons of the Ashes where England seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad zeroed in on vulnerabilities in his technique, Hussey conceded he was unsure what those "other options" looked like should a change be needed.
Number three batter Usman Khawaja (twice) and middle-order veteran Shaun Marsh (nine times), the latter Bancroft's opening partner for WA at the start of the JLT Sheffield Shield season, have both filled in for brief stints at the top of the order in Tests.
But Hussey believes there is also a chance that Peter Handscomb, the extra batter in the touring party, could be handed the responsibility.
Even though the Handscomb lost his place in Australia’s starting XI when allrounder Mitchell Marsh returned to full fitness for the third Ashes Test, and the right-hander has served as an opener just six times in his 53 first-class appearances for Victoria.
Where he averaged 14 with a top score of 52, in a position that he last held for the Bushrangers in 2014.
"I guess Shaun Marsh can come up to open the innings, he has done that before but that wouldn’t be ideal," Hussey told The Unplayable Podcast in relation to Australia’s options should form or injury force a change at the top.
"Shaun played so well batting at number five and six in the Ashes that I’d be reluctant to make that move.
"I’d be keen to keep him where he is, he just feels settled and comfortable playing that middle-order role which is really important.
"So I don’t know what that means.
"Possibly they could make a change with Handscomb going to the top – I don’t think he’d mind, he’d just love to get an opportunity to play.
"I’m not sure what else they could do.
"They’ll just be hoping that Bancroft can do the job and get a few runs."
Hohns told a media conference on Monday that the decision to stick with the young opener for the South Africa tour was "absolutely a vote of confidence in Cameron Bancroft".
"He’s the type of player we love having there at the moment; he’s the type of player that seems he could excel in Test cricket," Hohns said.
"We do have other options for openers if something needs to happen in that area."
It seemed likely that former Test opener Joe Burns might have served as one of those "other options" until he tore an adductor (groin) tendon in a fielding mishap while training with his KFC Big Bash League franchise Brisbane Heat last week.
Initial reports on the severity of Burns’s injury claimed it was unlikely he would be fit to return for the remainder of the BBL season (that ends on February 4) and it is unclear when or if he will be available for Queensland in the Shield competition that resumes the following week.
Hussey believes that both Bancroft and Handscomb deserved their places in the touring party for the Tests against South Africa in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Johannesburg despite their collective lack of productivity during the Ashes.
In particular, the veteran of 79 Tests and more than 200 limited-overs internationals for Australia noted Bancroft’s renowned work ethic and hunger to learn as reasons for his confidence that the right-hander can find form against the Proteas.
But Hussey added that a continuation of the results that beset Bancroft in the latter part of the Ashes campaign will surely increase the clamour for selectors to make a change.
"Bancroft found it tough at certain stages through the Ashes, but looked good most of the time and he would have learned so much from playing in that series," Hussey said.
"The experience that he would have got from playing in an Ashes series, a huge high, will hold him in good stead as long as he learns from those lessons.
"He’s a student of the game ... he’ll continue to work really hard and it will be a challenge for him in South Africa.
"The pitches generally do a little bit more, so he’s certainly going to be under the pump over there.
"If he doesn’t perform well in South Africa, I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of people saying that he needs to move out of the team."
Qantas tour of South Africa
Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Jackson Bird, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc.
Warm-up match v SA Invitational XI, Sahara Park, Benoni, Feb 22-24
First Test Kingsmead, Durban, March 1-5
Second Test St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, March 9-13
Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26
Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3