Aussies face selection dilemma ahead of Windies Test
For a fleeting moment on the final morning of Australia's tour match against the West Indies Cricket Board President's XI the tourists looked like they may fail to reach the follow on. Of course, not a single person cared; the result here was never of consequence, notwithstanding the thoroughly estimable performance of the President's men.
For the Australians, their Antiguan three-day hit out was about preparation for the back-to-back Tests ahead; acclimatisation, time in the middle, red ball cricket, etc. But there was something else too, a palpable theme through the course of the match: very competitive jockeying.
Not in modern memory has there been a pre-series tour match where the composition of the Australian Test XI has been less immediately clear-cut. Quite legitimately, every man of this 16-strong touring squad, with the exception of back-up keeper Peter Nevill (and probably Peter Siddle) would have fancied their chances for a start in Wednesday's first Test team in Dominica. The quintessential good problem to have for Australian selectors.
With added overlay of Australia's IPL Five (let's call them) belatedly joining the tour, rested from the side at Sir Viv Stadium, we were left with some tasty match-racing as claims were laid bare in this much-needed warm up game.
Nearly five months have elapsed since Australia's series defeat of India, with turnover to match. Then, Ryan Harris led the attack (he'll join the team in England), Joe Burns made a pair of half centuries (omitted), and Steve Smith was stand in skipper for Michael Clarke; who was joined by Mitchell Johnson in the hamstring sickbay.
To the key match-ups:
Shaun Marsh v Adam Voges
With Clarke and Smith uniting with openers David Warner and Chris Rogers as auto-selections, the experienced Voges would have known displacing Marsh, his state teammate, was the only viable path he had to an immediate baggy green. Coming together at 25 for two, this must have crossed both of their minds. Did they discuss the conundrum between overs? 'Not at all', Marsh earnestly replied when asked.
In the end, Voges didn't do an awful lot wrong in his return to the national squad; but nevertheless, the play-off for the precious final specialist batting spot was emphatically resolved the other way. Simply put: Marsh's century was a fine innings with his retention now beyond doubt.
Experience breeds pragmatism, evidenced by Voges' pre-game comments as to the importance of this performance in the context of his long career. The sentiment was clear again when he copped one that straightened from the tweaker, striking him in front on 53. He stared at the umpire as to wish it weren't so, then slumped, and then left. He knew.
Shane Watson v Mitchell Marsh
This time last week it was unclear whether Shane Watson would make it to the Caribbean in time for the Dominica Test. This family man was going nowhere until the birth of his child. But with a healthy baby delivered, Watson arrived part way through the match.
While Marsh's two most recent Test caps were earned alongside Watson, the reality is at the moment they're occupying the same piece of real estate. In turn, this meant Marsh needed to do something special to dislodge the huge incumbent.
As it happens, we're coming into a Test series for the first time in a while where Watson's form hasn't proved a talking point. Runs in his previous Test (and a 20 over stint at the bowling crease) were followed by significant performances at the pointy end of the World Cup.
For the purposes of a West Indies Test tour – so often games of endurance and hard graft – the fact that he bowled in all 10 of his IPL starts is important, too. As coach Darren Lehmann reiterated in his post-game commentary, Australian teams under his watch will always play five bowlers.
Marsh jagged delightful back-to-back wickets on day two, but trailed this with a poorly executed hook shot to lose his way for eight with the bat. He definitely didn't knock the door down, so Watson it will be.
Fawad Ahmed v Josh Hazlewood v Mitchell Starc
Leaving the most complex poser to last, a game of selection Jenga awaits as three bowlers become two; all combinations perfectly viable in the bid to join Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon.
Much like Voges, Fawad understood this was a prized chance to command a late-career national debut. Out of the blocks in a flash with quality wickets to commence each of his first two spells, he looked the part. But when no more came, anxiety appeared to set in.
If a leaping Siddle was a fraction taller the leggie could've been the only bowler with three wickets. Instead, he winced watching the ball roll to the boundary. He did so again in the second dig when a leg before shout was turned down well after the game was competitive.
The coach Lehmann's take: He (and Lyon) bowled "good spells in certain stages". Qualifiers like this will haunt him. There's no telling how badly he wants this.
Conditions may be his friend in Dominica, the track there carrying with it the reputation of a raging turner. If that's so, and he's capped number 442, it may also be the final prod selectors need to go with Hazlewood (if they're flipping a coin between he and World Cup dynamo Starc) on the basis of the footmarks he'd generate for Fawad.
To be fair, the former's case is vastly stronger than the side of the wicket he bowls from. He was outstanding, taking five early wickets across the two innings with the shiny Duke balls. While Starc was reduced to net bowling sessions, as one of the IPL late arrivals, on the park there's little more the bustling lad from Tamworth could have done.
If Australian administrators subscribe to the underlying logic that squads, not teams, win football premierships, they can only be filled with a quiet confidence approaching the first leg of this seven-Test, two-continent marathon.
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