Men's Ashes 2021-22
Ponting's early verdict on Australia's Ashes questions
Australia legend Ricky Ponting weighs up the contenders to fill the middle order, and the fast bowlers he thinks could revitalise the attack for this summer's Ashes
26 May 2021, 07:00 PM AEST
Ricky Ponting believes Travis Head still has the inside running to feature in this summer's Ashes campaign despite his recent contract snub, though he suggested the left-hander will face competition from Moises Henriques or even Marcus Harris recast as a middle-order batter.
And on the bowling front, the former Australia captain also tipped Riley Meredith as a potential bolter to make his Test debut against England.
While Ponting expects Australia's Test XI to remain "pretty settled" following last summer's 1-2 series defeat to India, he indicated "there will still be a couple of question marks on our top order and middle order, and there will be a bit of talk about one of the fast-bowling positions as well".
Head was overlooked for one of the 17 Cricket Australia national men's contracts handed out last month, with selection chief Trevor Hohns demanding more consistent performances in international cricket from leading domestic performers.
The South Australia skipper dominated the Marsh Sheffield Shield with nearly 900 runs in seven games but failed to make the same impact in three Tests against India before losing his spot for the series decider at the Gabba.
His inclusion for the (subsequently cancelled) Test tour of South Africa over incumbent Matthew Wade did highlight, however, that he remained in selectors' thinking for the No.5 berth he has occupied for most of his 19-Test career.
With Wade also overlooked for a national contract, Ponting identified Harris, whose 10 Tests have all been as an opener, and Henriques as the other options to feature in the middle-order alongside Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and Cameron Green.
Speaking to cricket.com.au about Head, Ponting said: "He went back to Shield cricket and really started filling his boots and making big scores – that's what you want to see from those guys, the hunger to get themselves back in the Australian team.
"I think Travis will play some more (Test cricket). I think that's probably his slot in the middle order now, so let's hope he can make the most of it.
"(But) Marcus Harris is someone who can bat there as well, I don't think he needs to open. If he shows that he's good enough and scores enough runs in domestic cricket as an opener, then I think he can bat in the middle order quite easily.
"I think they've just got to work on who their best player is and if it's Harris, if it's Head, if it's Henriques – work out who it is and give them a chance there.
"That probably just going to come down to weight of runs. Out of those three guys, I think one of them will be batting in the middle."
Harris has moved to first drop with his County Championship side Leicestershire, having spent almost the entirety of his decade-long first-class career as an opener, and scored his maiden century in the competition from No.3.
"As I've gotten older, I don't really worry about what position I bat in now – I'm happy to bat anywhere," Harris told cricket.com.au recently.
As Ponting saw it, the upside of Australia's second home Border-Gavaskar Trophy series loss in three summers was the emergence of Will Pucovski and Green, who both made their Test debuts against India.
Green made an encouraging start to his career, playing all four Tests and had a remarkable run-scoring campaign for Western Australia in domestic cricket.
Pucovski made a promising half-century at the SCG in his first game but was limited to just the solitary Test due to a shoulder injury, with Hohns admitting the Victorian was no certainty of being fit for the start of the home summer after he recently underwent surgery.
With eight of the 14 players used in the Tests against India now aged 30 or older, Ponting also suggested Australia's bowling stocks may be invigorated by youth this summer.
He believes 24-year-old speedsters Meredith, who made an exhilarating international debut on Australia's recent T20 tour of New Zealand, and Jhye Richardson, already with two Tests and 27 international limited-overs games to his name, will be in the mix.
"To have Pucovski and Green come in and start challenging what some of the more experienced guys are doing is great for the team," said Ponting.
"You can have the same sort of conversation with a Riley Meredith and a Jhye Richardson, they are both a chance of playing some Test cricket in that Ashes series and that might just spark the bowling group on a little bit as well.
"I like the fact that those younger blokes are there. I liked seeing Pucovski just for that one Test match and I love what Green's done when he's gone back to state cricket. He just seems really hungry to score lots of runs there – they are the things that you love seeing.
"I think (Green) would have learnt a lot about himself in those Test matches against India and how good quality Test match attacks go about their work, and how you need to cope with high-class bowling for long periods of time.
"I like what's happening, I loved seeing those younger blokes getting a chance in this summer."
Australia and England are set to have vastly different lead-ins to the Ashes, which will begin at the Gabba in December after Tim Paine's side hosts Afghanistan for a one-off Test.
While the Aussies have no Tests scheduled until then, England will play 17 Tests in the 2021 calendar year.
Hohns conceded he was "very concerned" about Australia's lack of five-day cricket this year and said it places extra importance on the Sheffield Shield rounds before the Test summer, but Ponting suggested the Aussies may actually benefit from the break.
"I honestly don't think it matters that much," Ponting said. "If they get a bit of first-class cricket in and they get that one Test match in against Afghanistan, are you better off going into the Ashes series with not a lot or going in with a lot (of Tests)?
"Ashes series are so physically and mentally draining; you might be better off going in with less.
"But it doesn't matter what you're going in with, it's about what you do in those big moments, as we saw with the India series."