An intriguing second round of the JLT Sheffield Shield saw some of Australia's Test leaders find some timely form, while battles for the No.6 and No.7 spots continue to rage despite a couple of standout efforts.
NSW, thanks to Mitchell Starc's history-making efforts and a Steve Smith ton, ran out victors in a star-studded clash with WA, Victoria and South Australia played out an entertaining draw and Queensland won inside three days over Tasmania.
We've summed up how the certainties and all the contenders have fared over the past few days.
Steve Smith: 76 and 127
David Warner: 5 and 5
Matthew Renshaw: 1 and 19
Usman Khawaja: 27 and 28 not out
Peter Handscomb: 43 and 58
After strong showings from captain Smith and Peter Handscomb, opener Matthew Renshaw remains the only member of Australia's likely top five to have not passed 50 in the first two Shield rounds. That will give selectors slight cause for concern ahead of the series opener in two weeks but the Queenslander's spot nonetheless appears safe. The efforts of Smith, who made the startling admission recently that he sometimes forgets how to hold a cricket bat, against a strong Western Australia attack looks to have the skipper nearing his best form. His deputy Warner failed to reach double-digits against the Warriors after his 83 against South Australia last week. Khawaja, meanwhile, helped the Bulls over the line in Hobart while Handscomb spent some valuable time at the crease at the MCG.
Hilton Cartwright: 0 and 0, 1-20 (7)
Glenn Maxwell: 60 and 64, 0-2 (2) and 0-16 (5)
Shaun Marsh: 2 and 91
Travis Head: 67 and 4, 0-34 (8) and 1-9 (5)
Nic Maddinson: 16 and 22
Kurtis Patterson: 36 and 66
Moises Henriques: 0 and 45, 0-20 (4) and 0-19 (8)
Daniel Hughes: 25 and 1
Joe Burns: 11 and 70
Jake Lehmann: 103 and 93, 1-18 (5)
Callum Ferguson: 4 and 182 not out
Cameron Bancroft: 76 not out and 86, 3 catches
In a nutshell, a lengthy list of Test No.6 candidates just got longer. Where to start? South Australia's Jake Lehmann has thrown himself into the discussion with a first-innings ton against Victoria, and nearly backed it up with another the second time around but fell seven runs short. His Redbacks teammate Callum Fergsuon, who was tried at fourth-drop for the Hobart Test last summer and was promptly discarded after one game, also re-inserted himself into the frame with 182 not out at the MCG. In the same game, dynamic batsman Glenn Maxwell struck a pair of half-centuries and as an incumbent would appear to among the front of the long queue. Other contenders to pass 50 were SA skipper Travis Head (who endorsed Lehmann for the Test spot post-play on Tuesday), Queenslander Joe Burns, WA's Shaun Marsh and NSW's Kurtis Patterson. Warriors opener Cameron Bancroft, meanwhile, not only carried his bat against Australia's likely first Test bowling attack, he also donned the gloves and spent but 24.4 overs in the middle of Hurstville Oval for WA's clash with the Blues. The fact the match was only Bancroft's second first-class match with the gloves surely discounts him from the Test 'keeping spot for now, but the right-hander could well figure in the No.6 debate. It’s a conversation made even more complicated by Hilton Cartwright, one of the frontrunners for the No.6 spot, registering a pair. All of which will give Australia's selection panel plenty to consider ahead of the Ashes opener.
Matthew Wade: 9 and 17, 2 catches
Alex Carey: 36 and 20, 3 catches
Peter Nevill: 32 and 11 not out, 5 catches
Also up in the air is the Test wicketkeeping position, with none of three main contenders significantly advancing their case. While both were tidy with the gloves, incumbent 'keeper Matthew Wade and his predecessor Peter Nevill both failed to notch a substantial score. Potential bolter Carey took a superb catch to dismiss Victoria's Dan Christian, but also missed a regulation stumping off leg-spinner Adam Zampa. While a big total wasn't forthcoming, both Nevill and Carey helped add crucial first-innings runs for their respective sides batting with the tail, a factor national selectors would have noted. Bancroft thrust his name into the conversation with a terrific match keeping and opening the batting (see above) while Cricket Australia XI coach Ryan Harris said the door is ajar for Tasmanian Tim Paine to put his name forward with a standout performance in this week’s tour match against England. But given the lack of eye-catching efforts from glovemen (part-timer Bancroft's match against NSW aside), Wade or Nevill would appear to remain the frontrunners.
Mitch Starc: 4-56 (20) and 3-41 (15.1) (including a hat-trick in both innings)
Pat Cummins: 2-31 (17) and 2-52 (17)
Josh Hazlewood: 3-24 (13) and 3-49 (20)
Nathan Lyon: 1-39 (13) and 2-56 (17)
It's not often Australia's Test attack gets a dress rehearsal with their captain weeks before the main event, and the Starc-Hazlewood-Cummins-Lyon quartet looked in tip-top shape at Hurstville Oval. Starc stole the headlines with a history-making pair of hat-tricks but his fellow bowlers were equally impressive. Selectors would have closely observed Hazlewood's encouraging progress in his return from a side strain that's laid him low since the Qantas Tour of Bangladesh in August. Having played both of NSW's opening Shield matches, Starc and Cummins will sit out the Blues' upcoming third-round clash with Queensland, while Hazlewood and Lyon are expected to have one last hit out before the Ashes-opener.
Nathan Coulter-Nile: 1-43 (16) for Western Australia against England in Ashes tour match
Chadd Sayers: 3-62 (21) and 1-39 (17)
Jackson Bird: 3-41 (17) and 1-42 (16)
Jason Behrendorff: 2-56 (21) and 0-58 (13)
Peter Siddle: 1-58 (19) and 0-71 (19)
While Australia's bowling attack looks all but locked in for the first Test, a host of quicks remain in the hunt to be the first cab off the rank should injury strike this summer. Rested from the Warriors' Shield clash in Sydney, Nathan Coulter-Nile instead captained a WA XI against England and promptly removed Alastair Cook with the second ball of their tour. Last season's leading Shield wicket-taker Chadd Sayers was at his miserly best at the 'G while Jason Behrendorff and Jackson Bird showed glimpses in their respective matches. It's difficult to rank the second rung of fast bowlers but Bird would appear the most likely of this group to be the back-up seamer in Brisbane.