Marsh Sheffield Shield 2021-22
Schedule mysteries make for early Ashes sub-plots
The much-anticipated start of the Sheffield Shield season presents several head-to-head battles which could influence Ashes selection in the coming months
23 September 2021, 05:33 PM AEST
With uncertainty enshrouding Australia's domestic men's season beyond the first few games, a couple of head-to-head battles in tomorrow's Marsh Sheffield Shield opener could carry added credence in the early jostling for Ashes berths.
Ongoing border restrictions within Australia have played havoc with planning for the start of the Shield summer, with tomorrow's South Australia-Western Australia clash in Adelaide and the Queensland-Tasmania match in Brisbane from next Tuesday the only inked-in fixtures to date.
The lack of clarity surrounding opportunities to push claims for the upcoming five-Test series against England that is scheduled to start at the Gabba on December 8 ensures first-up performances could prove vital.
And with the identity of David Warner's likely opening partner for the Ashes far from settled, WA's prolific pair Cameron Bancroft and Sam Whiteman have golden chances to stake an early claim.
Australia deployed Matthew Wade (when Warner was absent through injury), Joe Burns, Will Pucovski and Marcus Harris as openers during their most recent Test campaign, last summer's humbling 1-2 loss to India.
Pucovski was the only member of that cohort to average more than 30 against the new-ball in his solitary appearance before suffering a shoulder injury, the result of which was a bout of surgery that has the 23-year-old in doubt for the start of the coming season.
Burns was jettisoned after the second Test against India and subsequently lost his Cricket Australia contract, Wade was not named in the squad for the proposed Test tour of South Africa (which did not go ahead) and Harris remains sidelined with his Victoria teammates due to the state's COVID-19 situation.
As the only opening batters to post three centuries during the 2020-21 Marsh Sheffield campaign, Bancroft and Whiteman could feasibly figure in early discussions about Australia's need to find greater productivity at the top of the innings if they begin this season strongly.
Bancroft's 678 runs at 48.43 for WA last summer was second only to Harris's output among Shield openers, while Whiteman finished fourth on that runs-scoring list with 555 at 39.64 (behind SA's Henry Hunt who compiled 628 at 44.86 in a breakout season).
While Bancroft's credentials at Test level are known given his 10 appearances in the Baggy Green Cap (averaging 26.23 with three 50s), Whiteman has been something of a quiet achiever since his installation to the opening role at the end of the 2018-19 summer.
The 29-year-old began his career as a keeper-batter but, having packed away the gloves following a serious finger injury in 2017, he has focused on achieving greater consistency with his batting and believes he can mount a case for national selection.
"I think anyone that's playing in Australian cricket wants to play for Australia," Whiteman told cricket.com.au this week.
"I'm no different. I guess that's one exciting thing about being an opener, there's only a limited number of openers in the country and you're only ever a few hundreds-at-the-right-time away from being considered.
"So I'll just keep trying to do my job for WA, and always dream.
"I know I'm good enough to play at this level and do really well, it's just trying to find that consistency.
"Last year was a step in the right direction, and the plan this year is to try and do the same and keep it consistent."
The other duel that might prove relevant for Ashes selection is the battle between rival keeper-batters Alex Carey (SA) and Josh Inglis (WA) given incumbent gloveman (and Test captain) Tim Paine's recent surgery to repair a disc problem in his neck.
Paine remains confident he will be fully recovered and able to gain some first-class match practice before the first Test in Brisbane, but should that not be the case it's likely his replacement will come from the two aspirants involved at Karen Rolton Oval from tomorrow.
Inglis's star continues to ascend after his stand-out summer in 2020-21, when he averaged 73 and plundered three centuries for WA to be the nation's best-performed keeper-batter at Shield level.
The 26-year-old then bolted past Carey and into Australia's squad for next month's T20 World Cup in the UAE and Oman on the back of some blistering performances in the UK's domestic limited-overs competitions.
However, Carey was named as Paine's understudy for the South Africa Test tour that was scheduled for last February before COVID-related security concerns intervened, and he led the national ODI team to a series win in the Caribbean earlier this year in the absence of skipper Aaron Finch.
The 30-year-old could hardly have started this summer in better form, posting an unbeaten 128 from 106 balls faced in batting through SA's unsuccessful run chase in yesterday's Marsh One Day Cup season opener in Adelaide.
Carey played just three Shield matches for SA last summer due to his international duties, but averaged almost 60 with the bat and posted a highest score of 125.
SA coach Jason Gillespie also noted Carey's glovework during the Redbacks' 78-run loss to WA yesterday, and added the left-hander could comfortably settle into the Australia line-up in either red or white-ball formats given his current form.
"I know he's disappointed to miss out on the T20 (World Cup) selection but he's played such a fantastic role for Australia in one-day cricket," Gillespie said today.
"He's been in multiple roles and has shown with the bat and with the gloves just how effective he is.
"He's batting beautifully, and I thought he kept really well.
"That probably gets overshadowed when you score an unbeaten hundred and bat through an innings, but I thought his movements and glovework yesterday were excellent."
Among other potential talking points in the Shield game starting tomorrow will be the performances of Test middle-order hopefuls Cameron Green (WA) and Travis Head, the SA skipper and ex-Test vice-captain who lost his Test berth and national contract last summer.
Green would seem a near-certain selection after his all-round efforts in his maiden Test campaign against India but has seen little cricket since the end of 2020-21 and faced just five deliveries (for 13 not out) batting at number eight in WA's star-studded One Day Cup team yesterday.
He also claimed 1-21 from five overs with the ball, but is expected to take on a greater workload on a flat Karen Rolton Oval pitch over coming days in an attack led by Test-capped quick Jhye Richardson who is returning from injury and also pushing his Ashes claims.
Head will be hoping to repeat his exploits of last Shield season when he finished second behind Green on the runs-scoring list (with 893 at 68.89) and put forward a case to win back his berth in the Test middle-order that was occupied by Wade in the final two matches against India.
SA seem set to field two debutants tomorrow, with off-season recruits Jake Carder (WA) and Nathan McAndrew (NSW) expected to be named in the Redbacks' starting XI at the coin toss.
Gillespie said a decision will be made tomorrow morning on whether leg spinner Lloyd Pope will also be recalled or if the spin role will be filled by part-timers Head and Sam Kerber.
WA will be led by ex-Test veteran Shaun Marsh after his younger brother (and incumbent skipper) Mitchell returned home to Perth today to continue his preparation for next month's T20 World Cup, along with all-rounder Ashton Agar and left-arm quick Jason Behrendorff.
The visitors boast six seamers in their 13-man squad (including all-rounder Green) and will omit at least one of those, in addition to choosing between yesterday's One Day Cup player of the match Josh Philippe, all-rounder Hilton Cartwright and uncapped spinner Corey Rocchiccioli in the final XI.
South Australia: from Travis Head (c), Wes Agar, Jake Carder, Alex Carey, David Grant, Henry Hunt, Sam Kerber, Jake Lehmann, Nathan McAndrew, Lloyd Pope, Jake Weatherald, Nick Winter, Dan Worrall.
Western Australia: from Shaun Marsh (C), Cameron Bancroft, Hilton Cartwright, Cameron Gannon, Cameron Green, Josh Inglis, Matt Kelly, Lance Morris, Joel Paris, Jhye Richardson, Corey Rocchiccioli, Josh Philippe, Sam Whiteman.