Magellan Ashes 2017-18
Versatile Bancroft answers Ashes call
Our senior writer Andrew Ramsey picks his Ashes squad ahead of announcement on Friday
16 November 2017, 08:00 AM AEST
Having embraced the unusual strategy of proclaiming two berths up for grabs in the Australia XI for next week’s start of the Magellan Ashes, the national selectors now have a chance to further defy convention and install Cameron Bancroft as Test wicketkeeper.
While it seems more likely they will opt for tradition and name an established keeper – potentially Peter Nevill ahead of Matthew Wade – in the Ashes squad to be announced on Friday morning, Bancroft has mounted a compelling case since candidates were called on to tender for the dual vacancies.
With 442 runs at an average of 110 in his three first-class outings for Western Australia this summer, Bancroft stands as the form batsman of the JLT Sheffield Shield competition that selectors identified earlier this year as the proving ground upon which the Test No.6 and keeping roles would be decided.
That challenge was issued to ascertain which players could perform under the sort of pressure and scrutiny that an Ashes contest delivers and, amid a dull glow of modest contributions from others realistically in the running, Bancroft has shone like a beacon.
The 24-year-old is as mentally tough as he is physically fit, and he snugly fits some of the key criteria that the National Selection Panel – chair Trevor Hohns, Darren Lehmann, Greg Chappell and T20 specialist selector Mark Waugh – have identified as the reasons behind previous and future decisions.
Bancroft’s match double of 76 not out (making him the first Shield opener in four years to carry his bat through an innings) and 86 against a New South Wales attack featuring Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon proved he can stand up to world-class bowling in circumstances where other batters succumb.
A week later, the unbeaten 228 he plundered against South Australia’s four-pronged seam attack – statistically the most potent in Shield cricket over recent years – underscored his capacity to bat for long periods, in line with selectors’ expectations of top-order specialists.
The previous instance of a batter posting a double-century when Test places were up for grabs was Victoria’s Peter Handscomb, who made 215 against NSW (minus their Test quicks) last November which then saw him earn a Baggy Green Cap later that week.
Bancroft’s innings at the WACA Ground this week (off 351 balls) showed he also can score freely when required, while his obdurate 211 from 567 deliveries against NSW two summers ago – the longest Shield innings (in terms of ball faced) since 1989-90 – highlighted his competitive instincts, stamina and pride in preserving his wicket.
His appeal to selectors is only enhanced by the paucity of runs that Australia has gained from players selected in the number six and seven (keeper's) role over the past 12 months.
A total of 652 runs at an average of 21.73 per player from Wade, Nic Maddinson, Hilton Cartwright, Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell in those positions across 10 Test matches, with Maxwell’s 104 against India at Ranchi last March the only century.
By contrast, one of England’s acknowledged recent strengths has been the batting prowess of their lower-middle order with allrounder Ben Stokes (whose Ashes availability remains unknown), spinner Moeen Ali and keepers Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler contributing 1351 runs at an average of almost 40 at numbers six and seven in 11 Tests over the same period.
Also not lost on Australia’s brains trust will be the previous Ashes battle fought on Australia soil in 2013-14, when the home team’s top-order struggled against England’s new-ball attack and keeper Brad Haddin routinely saved his team, finishing with a series-high batting average of 61.63.
Furthermore, Bancroft has clearly been in the selectors' planning since he was named in the Test squad for the 2015 tour to Bangladesh (that was ultimately postponed due to security reasons) as shown by his appearances for Australia A in matches against A teams from India and South Africa over the past two years.
The valid and understandable case against his inclusion as a wicketkeeper has been articulated by former Test glovemen Ian Healy and Haddin, who believe his limited experience behind the stumps – just three games for WA – would devalue the specialist role and leave Australia vulnerable in the field.
There are also sceptics who claim Bancroft’s credentials as an opening batter, a position he has filled for the entirety of his four-year Shield career, preclude him from adapting to the vastly different role in the lower-middle order.
But, having thrown down the challenge for contenders to give reason why they should take the place of the incumbents in the two berths opened up to a spill, Bancroft has done precisely what was asked and could justifiably expect to be rewarded.
Whether the selectors are prepared to embrace a bold new strategy for the start of a battle against Australia's most historic Test rival will be revealed when the squad for the first two Tests - in Brisbane then the inaugural day-night men's Ashes fixture in Adelaide – is unveiled on Friday.
Popular wisdom suggests the preference will remain for a specialist gloveman who will occupy the No.7 batting rung, likely to be Nevill on the strength of his recent doughty performances with the bat compared to Wade’s continued lean trot.
While the favourite for the No.6 berth appears to be WA seam-bowling allrounder Hilton Cartwright, even though he – like other possibles for the final specialist batting spot – has failed to mount an inarguable case to be retained.
As former Australia captain Ricky Ponting explained to cricket.com.au recently, the fact that Cartwright has been afforded recent opportunities in the Test and ODI formats indicates that he is at the forefront of the selectors’ thinking to play a role in this Ashes campaign.
And under the 'horses for courses' philosophy that Lehmann and captain Steve Smith have cited as policy since last year’s disastrous 0-3 series defeat in Sri Lanka, Cartwright would seem the preferred candidate in the absence of a stand-out No.6 or in-form all-rounder.
Not only is he the leading JLT Sheffield Shield run-scorer over the past 12 months (856 runs at 47.55 from his past 11 Shield games), the Zimbabwe-born allrounder was brought into the Australia XI for the final Test of the previous summer and was then recalled for the most recent Test match, against Bangladesh in Chittagong last September.
It's the privilege of incumbency that should also quell debate over the other position in the Australia line-up that has prompted public debate of late, that of 21-year-old opener Matthew Renshaw.
The Queensland left-hander has struggled to convert starts in the past three rounds of Shield cricket (70 runs at 11.67) but the selectors are likely to be more heavily influenced by his return in Test cricket since his debut a year ago.
In that time, Renshaw has scored 623 runs at 36.64 from 10 Tests which makes him one of only three Australia Test batters - alongside Sir Donald Bradman and Neil Harvey - to reach that tally prior to reaching their 22nd birthday.
In addition, Renshaw's most recent Test appearance on Australian soil netted him a career-high 184 at the SCG against a Pakistan bowling line-up boasting one of the most potent seam attacks in world cricket as well as highly rated wrist spinner, Yasir Shah.
The fact that Renshaw underwent an intensive nets session against the Test quicks at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane on Wednesday, having failed twice in the Shield game against NSW on the adjacent Allan Border Field, indicated that he remains David Warner’s preferred opening partner for the Gabba.
The other places in the squad for the start of the Ashes series next Thursday were inked in some time ago.
No.3 Usman Khawaja and spinner Nathan Lyon were told of their inclusion prior to the domestic summer beginning, pace trio Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins were certainties if they stayed fit with Jackson Bird was confirmed as the auxiliary seamer through his involvement in specialist training at the NCC this week.
Which means the bout of selection speculation set loose by the decision to effectively call vacant two places within the Test XI will be formally ended when the squad for the first two Tests is released.
And won’t resume until the next round of Shield matches get underway, around the same time as the Ashes battle begins in Brisbane next Thursday morning.
Possible Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner, Matthew Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Cameron Bancroft (wk), Hilton Cartwright, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird (likely 12th man).
2017-18 International Fixtures:
Magellan Ashes Series
First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets
Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets
Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets
Gillette T20 INTL Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21