Vodafone Men's Ashes
Australia mull options ahead of Ashes squad selection
Selectors will on Wednesday name Australia's squad for the opening Ashes Test in Brisbane, with questions over the middle-order and back-up fast bowling spots yet to be resolved
16 November 2021, 06:42 PM AEST
Ten months after Australia last took to the field in a Test match, the national selectors are tomorrow expected to unveil a largely unchanged squad to return to the Gabba and begin their Ashes defence on December 8.
Unlike the 2019 campaign in the UK when the panel named 25 players who then fought for a berth in the final touring party via a spirited practice match at Southampton, tomorrow's announcement will finalise the group from which the starting XI for the first Vodafone Test will be chosen.
In addition, the selectors – chair George Bailey, Tony Dodemaide and men's team coach Justin Langer – will name an auxiliary squad to take part in a three-day centre-wicket practice session in Brisbane prior to the Test, and then represent Australia A in a four-day match against England Lions.
The Test squad is tipped to retain the team that lost last summer's final Test to India with the exception of middle-order batter Matthew Wade, whose replacement is likely to come from in-form left-handers Travis Head, Usman Khawaja or Nic Maddinson.
With the availability of replacement players in Brisbane for the Australia A game (to be played concurrently with the first Test), selectors won't need to replicate the enlarged 17-man squad named for the start of the 2020-21 series against India when players were required to enter a strict bio-bubble.
However, the Test squad is expected to include up to five fast bowlers with fitness concerns lingering over Queensland seamer Michael Neser who suffered a low-grade hamstring strain in last week's Marsh Sheffield Shield match against Western Australia.
The possible inclusion of Khawaja, who has batted in every specialist position during his 14-year first-class career and averages more than 96 as a Test opener, also helps ensure most contingencies are therefore covered should last-minute changes be required.
Members of Australia's triumphant T20 World Cup squad – including Test regulars Pat Cummins, Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood – have begun two weeks of quarantine on the Gold Coast following their return from Dubai this morning, during which they will be able to train under strict guidelines.
The full group will then take part in a three-day practice "opportunity" at Redlands Cricket Club starting December 1, with that fixture expected to be more a series of competitive centre-wicket training sessions than the formal match held in Southampton prior to the 2019 Ashes campaign.
Among those confirmed for the supplementary squad, some members of which will also be undertaking their first red-ball hit-out since last summer, will be Mitchell Marsh who doesn't foresee an imminent return to Test cricket despite his heroics in the World Cup final win over New Zealand.
"I think I'll play the three-day game (at Redlands) and hopefully the Australia A game, to play a bit of red-ball cricket," Marsh said in the aftermath of his player-of-the-match performance in Dubai.
"But then I imagine I'll be back to the Scorchers for the Big Bash and trying to slog a few.
"It's obviously a bit hard to get back to Western Australia at the moment ... and we're very thankful to the Queensland Government to allow us to have training exemptions and a little bit of freedom whilst we're in Queensland."
The restrictions facing travellers returning to Perth means Marsh's fellow WA-based members of Australia's T20 World Cup squad – Ashton Agar and Josh Inglis – are also likely to be included in the Australia A squad.
And uncapped allrounder Sean Abbott is vying for an Ashes berth after he and New South Wales teammate Nathan Lyon undertook a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney after their recent Sheffield Shield match to minimise potential COVID-19 exposure.
Abbott was also missing from the Shield squad NSW named today for their upcoming match against Victoria starting Friday as he "prepares for the international season ahead".
The absence of Test matches for Australia since the end of last season's Vodafone Series loss to India means a fair proportion of the expected starting XI for the first Ashes Test have played virtually no red-ball cricket for nearly a year.
In addition, captain Tim Paine is yet to return to the playing field after undergoing neck surgery last September and it is expected Alex Carey – named as Paine's understudy for this year's proposed tour of South Africa that was ultimately postponed due to COVID-related security concerns – will join Inglis as auxiliary keepers in the supplementary squad.
Carey said today he spoke with Paine during last week's Shield match between South Australia and Tasmania in Hobart and he expected the Test skipper to be fully fit for the start of the Ashes campaign.
Paine will play club cricket in Tasmania this weekend, and will take the gloves whe Tasmania host a Toyota Second XI fixture against South Australia in Hobart from next Monday.
"He was catching and training really hard, so no doubt the Test captain will be there come game one (of the Ashes) in Queensland which is exciting for Australia," Carey said.
"We saw over the last couple of years just how well he's done for Australia, and what a huge Ashes series it is to have Tim Paine lead that group."
Carey also voiced support for his SA teammates Head and uncapped opener Henry Hunt.
As the most prolific opener in Marsh Sheffield Shield cricket this summer, and one of the few right-handers pushing for a place at the top of the Test order, Hunt is seen as a strong chance to be included in the Australia A squad.
"Henry's a great young cricketer coming through," Carey said of the 23-year-old who posted consecutive centuries in his past two Shield games in Perth and Hobart.
"I think this time of year when there's an Ashes series coming up, the view is if you score runs you're next in line.
"It's really exciting to see him go back-to-back in tough conditions – Western Australia was a greener wicket than what we see down in Tasmania ... so there will be lots of opportunities for him if it's not in this series."
Missing from the 19-man South Africa squad named last January will be opener Will Pucovski who remains sidelined due to a recent concussion, fast bowler James Pattinson who last month announced his retirement from international cricket, and allrounder Moises Henriques.
Henriques was unavailable for the start of NSW's season due to Indian Premier League and quarantine requirements, but has been named in the Blues squad for the upcoming game against Victoria along with keeper Peter Nevill who was spuriously rumoured to be in line for a surprise national recall.
However, the numbers of potential glovemen in the Australia A squad could extend to three if WA's Josh Philippe – currently second-highest runs scorer in the Shield competition behind Khawaja – is included alongside Carey and Inglis.
Test incumbents Marnus Labuschagne (840 runs at 76) and Cameron Green (854 at 61) have guaranteed their places as the most prolific Shield batters over the past year, while Warner and Smith are automatic selections.
But the remaining middle-order batting berth is not so clear-cut with Head being a consistent performer since losing his place to Wade last summer, while Khawaja is the leading Shield runs scorer so far in 2021-22 with 404 at 67.33.
Maddinson was also clearly in the selectors' thoughts last season when he was named in the Australia A team that played two games against the touring Indians prior to the start of the Test series.
Bailey has already indicated Victoria's Marcus Harris – who replaced Pucovski for the final Test against India last January – loomed as Warner's likely opening partner and noted the selection panel would "love nothing more than for him (Harris) hopefully to get an opportunity to get an extended run at it".
The hamstring injury sustained by Neser might have led to some revision of the auxiliary bowling stocks, but that quandary was likely short lived given Test-capped quick Jhye Richardson's five-wicket Shield haul against the Bulls over the weekend.
While Neser is tipped to have recovered fully in time for the first Test, Richardson seems certain to be named in one of the squads along with Victoria's Scott Boland who has claimed a remarkable 15 wickets (at 10.80 runs apiece) in his two Shield outings this summer.
Uncapped Queenslander Mark Steketee is also expected to be included given he was in the South Africa squad and is the leading Shield wicket-taker of 2021-22 to date, and his Bulls teammate Mitchell Swepson will likely be included as back-up spinner having been part of the T20 World Cup squad.
Another Queenslander – hard-hitting all-rounder Jack Wildermuth – is also in the mix after he won selection for Australia A last summer and scored an unbeaten century at the SCG.
Possible Ashes squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Steve Smith, David Warner.
Possible Australia A squad: Alex Carey (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Henry Hunt, Josh Inglis, Nic Maddinson, Mitchell Marsh, Josh Philippe, Mark Steketee, Mitchell Swepson, Jack Wildermuth.
Vodafone Men's Ashes v England
Nov 23-25: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Nov 30 – Dec 3: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Dec 1-3: Australian intra-squad match, Brisbane
Dec 9-12: Australia A v England Lions, Brisbane
First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba
Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Perth Stadium