Spin challenge looms as Aussies mull Test picks

Ahead of a still-to-be-finalised Test series in the UAE, as well as an Australia A tour, we look at who'll be jostling for spots in the coming months

Louis Cameron

14 April 2018, 05:44 PM

While Australia takes a deep breath during a rare extended break from the longest format over the winter, how the Test side plans to confront their spin demons will be the first item on the new-look regime's agenda in the coming months.

The 12-month suspensions of captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner, along with a nine-month ban for opener Cameron Bancroft and the departure of coach Darren Lehmann, have shifted the landscape of Australia's flagship side immeasurably.

The loss of their two best batsmen looks set to be even more damaging for Australia's hopes of success on their next Test engagement, a yet-to-be-confirmed series against Pakistan likely to be held in the United Arab Emirates in September or October.

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An Australia A trip to India that includes first-class matches looks set to precede it, though details of that tour are also being finalised, and could see Test contenders playing off for multiple spots in conditions mirroring what the senior Australia side will encounter in the UAE.

Australia's struggles in Asia are well documented; in eight trips to the subcontinent over the past decade, they've won just one Test series (against Sri Lanka in 2011) and in total have won just three Tests out of 24. 

While they looked to have turned a corner against No.1 ranked India on their home turf in what was widely regarded as an encouraging 1-2 series defeat last year, Australia now appear to be back at square one.

Of the 13 players to have batted in Australia's top seven since that India tour, six (Matthew Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Hilton Cartwright, Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Wade) have, at some stage in the last 12 months, been dropped from the Test team.

Another – opener Joe Burns – has been overlooked for Australia's last two subcontinental Test tours after scoring 34 runs at 8.50 in two matches in Sri Lanka in 2016, and was also snubbed for a national contract this week.

A further three are banned (Smith, Warner and Bancroft), while Mitch Marsh, fresh off a breakout summer, has recently undergone ankle surgery. The start of the Australian season was originally outlined as Marsh's return target, but the Western Australian says he's hopeful of recovering for the UAE Tests.

With his immediate prospects up in the air, it would leave new captain Tim Paine and veteran Shaun Marsh as the unlikely bedrocks and seemingly the only genuine locks in the Test batting order.

The bowling unit is more settled, though even that has question marks at present due to injuries, with Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins both ruled out of the Indian Premier League.

Assuming Starc and Cummins make full recoveries in time for the UAE trip, as is expected, that would give Australia another four certainties for the tour along with Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon.

Below, we've taken an early look at who is jostling for the host of other spots up for grabs in the UAE as well as the Australia A tour.

OPENERS

Of Australia's opening combination for the final Test in South Africa, Mathew Renshaw firms as a likelier starter to face Pakistan than Joe Burns, but both may have something to prove on an 'A' tour given the Queensland duo only returned to international cricket following Bancroft and Warner's omissions.

Renshaw was the leading JLT Sheffield Shield run-scorer last season and established a reputation as a fighter with a couple of gutsy knocks on raging turners in Pune and Bengaluru against India last year.

Renshaw clubs 81 en route to South Africa

Burns managed 725 Shield runs at 56 for the Bulls in 2017-18 but may need to show he's an improved prospect against the spinning ball to contend for a berth in the UAE.

A glance at the other leading Shield batsmen from last summer suggests other opening contenders, for the 'A' tour in particular, could include South Australia's Jake Weatherald (756 runs at 38), Victoria's Marcus Harris (706 at 42), NSW's Daniel Hughes (661 at 41) or even Tasmania's Jake Doran, who scored 756 runs at 44 from the middle order but has opened for Tasmania in previous seasons.

Brilliant Burns posts maiden double century

BATSMEN

Where exactly Usman Khawaja, who averages less than 15 in Asia (albeit from only five Tests) and 47 everywhere else, sits in selectors' minds for a subcontinental tour following the recent upheaval is a mystery.

A majestic 171 in the final Ashes Test in Sydney, plus four more 50-plus scores across the nine Tests against England and South Africa last summer, would seemingly have him on safe ground. But the left-hander was overlooked for all four Tests in India last year and after being reinstated for Australia's series-opener against Bangladesh in August, he was promptly discarded for the second Test after twin failures in Dhaka.

Khawaja's brilliant maiden Ashes century

Peter Handscomb on the other hand shapes as a key man in Australia's middle-order against Pakistan, having earned a reputation as one of the country's better players of spin bowling.

But given he made way for Mitch Marsh during the Ashes and didn't return until after the ball-tampering scandal, he could also be in the mix to feature in the 'A' squad.

Glenn Maxwell, another Victorian adept against the turning ball, having struck his maiden Test ton in Ranchi last year, would appear to be in a similar boat.

Maxwell celebrates emotional Test century

Others likely to be in the reckoning for India, and potentially the UAE, are Hilton Cartwright and Travis Head (both of whom are about to embark on county stints in the United Kingdom), while the leading middle-order batsmen from the Shield (in addition to Head and Cartwright) were Marnus Labuschagne (795 runs at 40), Callum Ferguson (780 at 49) and Kurtis Patterson (672 runs at 37).

Give the lack of senior heads in the Test side, selectors could also turn their attention to veterans George Bailey (602 runs at 33), Cameron White (574 at 52) or Aaron Finch (494 runs at 35).

ALLROUNDERS

Marsh's potential absence could pave the way for fellow Western Australian Marcus Stoinis to make his debut in the UAE, though underwhelming Shield returns last summer (173 runs at 17 and nine wickets at 40) could count against him.

Super Stoinis powers his way to 87 in Perth

Moises Henriques, whose four Tests have all come in Asia, fared only marginally better (374 runs at 25 and five wickets at 36) while young Queenslander Jack Wildermuth (551 runs at 34, 29 wickets at 28) looms as a smokey.

SPINNERS

Despite being overlooked for fellow left-armer Jon Holland in Australia's squad for South Africa, Ashton Agar would appear the most likely spinner to partner Lyon against Pakistan if two are required.

On picking Holland over Agar for the four Tests against the Proteas, selectors reasoned that they viewed Holland as a better first-choice spinner than Agar and that slow-bowling back-up would only be required should Lyon get injured.

Whether that same logic still stands in the UAE where two spinners will surely be necessary remains to be seen, with Agar's ability to bat in the top seven potentially giving him an edge over Holland.

Free-wheeling Agar flourishes with fluent 86

It's unclear whether a line has been struck through Stephen O'Keefe's name after he was axed for the Bangladesh tour despite being Australia's joint leading wicket taker on the preceding trip to India, and then reinstated for the second Test in Chittagong following an injury to Hazlewood.

Leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson would appear a strong candidate to at least feature on the 'A' tour, having gone to both Bangladesh and India last year.

Super SOK's elite eight a career-best haul

FAST BOWLERS

Seam bowling seems the most stable element of the Test side as it stands after Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood bowled Australia to Ashes glory and followed it up with admirable efforts against the Proteas.

After earning the nod to back up that trio in South Africa, Jhye Richardson again firms as a likely inclusion for the UAE. With only six first-class games to his name though, an introduction to bowling on the subcontinent in the 'A' series would likely be deemed a necessary build-up.

Rookie Richardson makes an impression in Jo'Burg

Jackson Bird, originally picked for South Africa before injury struck, will also be a strong contender, having returned for the back-end of Tasmania's Shield final tilt, though the 31-year-old was this week overlooked for a CA contract. 

Chadd Sayers' name will also be floated following his debut at The Wanderers, though Australia have typically preferred quicks who can hit speeds of 140kph on the subcontinent where barren pitches tend to offer little assistance to pacemen, and the Redbacks seamer was another who missed a CA contract.

Sheffield Shield Player of the Season Chris Tremain's remarkable feat to collect 51 wickets at 21 despite playing almost half his games on lifeless MCG surfaces could play in his favour, while Michael Neser (39 wickets at 22), Scott Boland (38 at 27), Tom Rogers (37 at 18) and Nick Winter (34 at 20) were last summer's other leading first-class quicks.