Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Open season: Race for Ashes heats up
Take a closer look at the race to open the batting in the first Ashes Test and what the six months ahead will entail
26 February 2019, 10:00 PM AEST
Less than six months out from the start of Australia’s Ashes defence, coach Justin Langer and his fellow selectors have no less than six openers to choose from for the first Test at Edgbaston.
The question is – who will they choose?
The return of the JLT Sheffield Shield this week saw WA’s Cameron Bancroft leap back into the conversation for a Test return with a superb double against NSW in his first four-day game since his ball-tampering suspension expired.
But incumbent openers Marcus Harris and Joe Burns showed they won’t give up their spots without a fight, the pair impressing in Victoria’s final-session victory at Junction Oval in a match where another former Test opener - Burns’ Bulls teammate Matthew Renshaw - also spent some time in the middle.
And while Queensland skipper Usman Khawaja is firmly focused on white-ball cricket in India and Australia’s World Cup defence that precedes the Ashes, his Test batting average of 96.80 as an opener won’t be far from the mind of selectors either.
Then there’s the not insignificant matter of David Warner and his 21 Test hundreds, with the banned opener just a month away from returning to the game after his 12-month absence.
With competition for spots heating up, take a look at five of the major factors that will determine who gets the nod for the first Test against England in August.
The key to any good opening partnership is consistency, which gives Australia’s incumbent Test openers – Harris and Burns – the inside running over their rivals.
Harris gave himself a rating of six-and-a-half out of 10 for his maiden summer as a Test opener, scores of 79 and 70 against India the high points of a campaign that yielded 327 runs at 33 and finished with a double failure against Sri Lanka in Canberra.
It was at Manuka Oval where Burns made a statement with a brilliant 180, his fourth Test ton – more than Bancroft, Harris and Renshaw combined – giving selectors every reason to pick him again for what would be his first Ashes campaign.
What will incumbency mean in six months from now? It remains to be seen.
With three Sheffield Shield rounds remaining as well as the final, four of the opening contenders have an excellent chance to jump to the front of the pack over the next month.
Bancroft will be looking to build on his record-breaking display against NSW this week, where he became just the fourth man in Shield history to face more than 600 balls in a match in a defiant display against a strong Blues attack.
And while Bancroft impressed in Sydney, Harris was doing the same in Melbourne, the left-hander posting scores of 95 and 174 as Victoria edged closer to another Shield final with victory over Queensland.
Burns impressed at the Junction Oval as well, scoring 60 in the first innings and 80 in the second as the Bulls chased quick runs, a continuation of his good recent form.
Despite looking imposing and in superb touch, Renshaw will no doubt be frustrated with his output in Melbourne, scores of 29 and 47 representing both valuable time in the middle but wasted opportunities to post a score of significance.
But with at least three more games remaining against the Dukes ball in March, he and the other Shield trio will have more chances to impress.
Three of the six opening contenders will have a golden opportunity to show what they can do in English conditions in the months leading up to the Ashes courtesy of deals with UK county sides.
After a strong debut season with Somerset last year, Renshaw will play for Kent this northern summer and could storm into calculations if he can continue his fine record against the Dukes ball with runs early in the county campaign.
Renshaw’s stint with Somerset came after the club cancelled Bancroft’s deal due to the ball-tampering scandal, and the WA right-hander will return to the UK this year with a point to prove at his new side, Durham.
Burns will also head to England at the end of the Shield season and link up with Lancashire, his first stint against the red Dukes ball in the UK since he played for Middlesex four years ago.
But the trio’s stints abroad also carry an element of risk. Should they fall out of form early in the season, could they be overtaken by in the pecking order by the trio who don’t have county contracts?
The World Cup and A tour
Warner, Harris and Khawaja won’t play county cricket this year, but the World Cup and Australia A tour in the UK means they too will have plenty of opportunities to put their names forward leading into the first Test.
The pre-Ashes cricket for Warner and Khawaja will likely be predominantly against the white ball, although the pair will still have a few weeks of red-ball preparation between the end of their Cup campaign – should they be picked - and the start of the Ashes.
The schedule means all six men are expected to be in the UK in the weeks leading up to the Edgbaston Test, whether that be at county level, international level or with Australia’s A side.
The elephant in the room when it comes to Warner and Bancroft (and Steve Smith) is just how they can fit back into the Australian dressing-room following the ball-tampering scandal.
Langer and Cricket Australia CEO Kevin Roberts have spoken about the re-integration process for the banned players, particularly for Smith and Warner ahead of their expected return for the start of the World Cup in June.
How this delicate and unprecedented process goes for the two former Test openers, their teammates and Australia’s new-look coaching staff will be as crucial to their chances of selection as runs on the board.