India 'A' series on the cards for Aussie hopefuls

The race for Australia's reserve batting spots next summer heats up on Friday when the English county season gets underway

Australia's Test top six may be settled after six wins from seven matches across the summer, but the race to be the 'next man in' is wide open once again as several hopefuls head north for the English summer.

Matthew Renshaw, Marcus Harris and Cameron Bancroft – the contenders to replace retiring opener David Warner before Steve Smith swooped in – all have deals for the upcoming County Championship season, as does the 2023-24 Marsh Sheffield Shield leading run-scorer Beau Webster, while Peter Handscomb is returning to Leicestershire for another season.

Four of those five – Bancroft, Handscomb, Webster and Harris – have been the Shield's most prolific batters over the past five seasons along with Western Australia skipper Sam Whiteman, and men's national selection chair George Bailey said players would continue get opportunities to push their case for the Test side's reserve batter spots.

While Australia's next Test isn't until late November when India arrives for the five-match Border-Gavaskar series, Bailey and his selection panel will no doubt be keeping an eye on the opening rounds of the English county season which gets underway on Friday.

Bancroft (Gloucestershire), Harris (Leicestershire), Renshaw (Somerset) and Handscomb will be in action from the start of the season, while Webster will join Gloucester in late May for the T20 Blast and four-day fixtures against Yorkshire and Glamorgan.

Bailey revealed last week that India are also expected to send an 'A' team to Australia next summer, which would give players such as South Australia's Nathan McSweeney an opportunity for greater exposure should he not be able to secure a short-term county stint over the winter.

"We've been clear with a number of players that there's going to be great opportunities come the start of next year," Bailey told reporters after Cricket Australia announced the 23 men's players awarded central contracts for 2024-25.

"A blank page is a good way of describing it. It's open for anyone to jump up and grab the opportunity."

Renshaw missed out on a CA contract for next year despite being the reserve batter throughout the Test summer, while Harris's national deal wasn't renewed after he averaged under 30 for the first time in eight Shield seasons.

Renshaw returns to Somerset this year where he hit three centuries in 2022 // Getty

"We were really clear with not only Matt, but the (other) guys who missed out as well, it was a really close decision to take him on that NZ tour," Bailey said.

"I know Marcus Harris is one who has come off contract but he's firmly in that mix as well, and Cam Bancroft.

"Nathan McSweeney's had a wonderful season as well.

Beau's brilliant summer in the Shield

"Throw in Aaron Hardie, Josh Inglis purely as a batsman and Beau Webster's year has been absolutely incredible.

"I think there's a handful of players that with another 12 months continuing to perform can all be putting their hands up, and there's a reasonable amount of flexibility around where some of those players can bat as well."

Hardie was one of four fresh faces on the CA contract list for next season along with Matt Short, Nathan Ellis and Xavier Bartlett.

But given Australia's success over the past 12 months, which included a maiden World Test Championship, retaining the Ashes and an ODI World Cup triumph, Bailey said the "onus (was) on those outside (the team) to make a really compelling case of why someone should be displaced".

Bartlett 'on Aussie radar' for some time: Bailey

Nathan Lyon (Lancashire), Scott Boland (Durham), Marnus Labuschagne (Glamorgan), Bartlett, Wes Agar (both Kent) and Chris Tremain (Northamptonshire) are the other Australians who will feature in the early rounds of the county season.

England Test captain Ben Stokes is also set to suit up alongside Boland at Durham ahead of the English international summer after opting out of T20 World Cup selection to focus on getting his body right to play as an "allrounder in all formats of cricket".

Australians in the 2024 County Championship

Durham: Scott Boland, Ashton Turner (T20s only)

Essex: Daniel Sams (T20s only)

Glamorgan: Marnus Labuschagne

Gloucestershire: Cameron Bancroft, Beau Webster

Hampshire: Michael Neser, Ben McDermott (T20s only)

Kent: Xavier Bartlett, Wes Agar

Lancashire: Nathan Lyon

Leicestershire: Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris

Northamptonshire: Chris Tremain

Somerset: Matthew Renshaw

Surrey: Sean Abbott

Sussex: Nathan McAndrew, Daniel Hughes