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Aussie Test stars set for Shield returns

Eyes on Bancroft particularly as Australian players look to find red-ball form before South Africa tour

Nine members of Australia's Test squad to tour South Africa will tune-up for the four-match series when the JLT Sheffield Shield resumes this week.

The second half of the domestic first-class competition gets underway on Thursday and nine Test players have been freed up to play some red-ball cricket before flying to South Africa next week.

Skipper Steve Smith (rested) and stand-in T20I captain David Warner will miss NSW's match in Perth, as will pace trio Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, while wicketkeeper Tim Paine has been rested for Tasmania's game in Brisbane.

But Cameron Bancroft, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Jhye Richardson (all Western Australia), Peter Handscomb, Jon Holland (both Victoria), Nathan Lyon (NSW), Usman Khawaja (Queensland) and Jackson Bird (Tasmania) will all return to the first-class arena ahead of the showdown with the Proteas.

The Shield competition will resume with less than 12 points separating first-placed NSW and last-placed Victoria with five rounds to go before the final at the end of March. The full Shield squads for this week's round of matches are expected to be announced later today.

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Much of the focus this week will be on Bancroft, who will be desperate for some time in the middle after posting only one half-century in the Ashes, his maiden Test series.

The national selection panel reaffirmed their faith in the right-hander by not picking a back-up opener in the Test squad, but selector Trevor Hohns indicated that "other options" were available should Bancroft's form continue to elude him against South Africa's imposing pace attack.

Those "other options" appear to be either No.3 Khawaja or the older Marsh brother, the latter Bancroft's opening partner for WA at the start of the Shield season, with that pair having both filled in for brief stints at the top of the order in Tests.

Former Test batsman Mike Hussey also told cricket.com.au recently that middle-order batsman Handscomb, who was dropped partway through Australia's Ashes triumph, could be an option to open.

The Victorian is the only reserve batsman in the squad and will also be desperate for Shield runs this week having posted just one half-century from nine first-class innings at the start of the summer.

Given Marsh's success in the middle order during the Ashes, Hussey urged selectors not to move the left-hander up the order should Bancroft struggle early in the series.

"Shaun played so well batting at number five and six in the Ashes that I'd be reluctant to make that move," Hussey told The Unplayable Podcast last month.

"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.

"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."

While Bancroft no doubt needs to improve on his current Test average of 25, Australia will enter the series with a settled line-up having romped to a 4-0 Ashes win.

Along with Handscomb, pacemen Bird and Richardson as well as reserve spinner Holland would all be expected to sit out the first Test unless injury strikes.

The Aussies will depart for South Africa on Feburary 15 ahead of a three-day tour match and then the first Test in Durban, which starts on March 1.

TEST PLAYERS TO PLAY ROUND SIX OF SHEFFIELD SHIELD

Available: Cameron Bancroft, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Jhye Richardson, Peter Handscomb, Jon Holland, Nathan Lyon, Usman Khawaja, Jackson Bird.

Unavailable: Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, Tim Paine (all rested), David Warner (T20 series).

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

Visit cricket.com.au/travel for more information