A Sheffield Shield round wedged between two clashes with South Africa should have offered Australia’s selectors the chance to clarify their thinking heading into the final Test.
Instead the round has thrown up more questions than answers, of the Test players featuring in the round so far only Usman Khawaja has impressed blasting a century on the opening day of the round.
Australia were always going to make changes to their XI for the final Test but exactly how many is still unclear.
Coach Darren Lehmann indicated after the Hobart Test that only four men were certainties to retain their places in the shape of the skipper Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner as well as pace spearheads Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
Hazlewood, Starc and Joe Mennie have been allowed a rest while the remaining eight Test players were sent back to their state teams for the round.
Starting from the top Joe Burns’ Shield round has at least provided the selectors with one clear answer. Burns will not feature for Australia in Adelaide, he managed only single figure scores in both innings for Queensland.
This of course poses a question and that is who will open the batting alongside David Warner? Shaun Marsh is seen as the long term solution to this problem but he has broken his finger and won’t be fit to face the Proteas in Adelaide.
Australia’s brains trust would have liked a clear cut candidate with a proven track record to show they were in form and force their way into the squad but what has transpired so far is that a group of young guns have put in some good showings.
Burns’ opening partner Matt Renshaw backed up a first innings ton with a fifty in the second as Queensland as they set South Australia a target of 346 to win in Brisbane.
Renshaw is just twenty years old though and has played only 12 first class matches to date, he has scored three hundreds though and averages over 40 and scored 94 against South Africa A earlier this season. They say if you are good enough you are old enough but Renshaw may not be ready for a fired up Proteas attack.
One of the men Australia would have been looking for a performance from was Cameron Bancroft but the WA opener failed to impress scoring just 2 and 11 against Tasmania. Instead his opening partner Jonathan Wells would score a second innings ton. Wells shouldn’t figure in Trevor Hohns and his panel’s thinking though as this was his first century in 75 first class innings and his average is in the low twenties.
Victorian opener Travis Dean is in a similar position to Renshaw, he has played just 16 first class games and averages 39, his Australia A experience could count against him though. The opener scored just one run in three innings against India A earlier this season but showed great application against New South Wales.
Two New South Welshman could yet stake a strong claim with Kurtis Patterson and Daniel Hughes expected to bat on the final day against Victoria having both made decent scores in the first innings.
The selectors will have to decide if they will pick Bancroft on promise or one of Dean and Renshaw on form to open against a world class Proteas pace attack.
The middle-order should be reasonably straight forward with Adam Voges picking up a concussion on day one of the round he is unlikely to retain his place and Peter Handscomb has blown all other contenders out of the water with his double ton for Victoria.
The number six slot is another conundrum for the selectors and one with even more questions. Callum Ferguson added a pair of Shield failures to his disappointing Test debut and may not earn a second crack at it.
Mitchell Marsh and Glen Maxwell have exhausted the patience of the selectors in the longest format and shouldn’t figure in discussions.
The position has been designated as an allrounders slot but could accommodate a sixth batsman or a wicketkeeper batsman. Alex Doolan scored 89 on his Test debut against South Africa and is fresh off the back of a Shield double ton but both he and WA allrounder Ashton Turner, who scored a maiden first class ton, might lose out to Travis Head who is seen as a long term fix for Australia’s middle order fragility.
Doolan also suffered a concussion after being struck on the jaw and it would seem he is unlikely to earn a recall.
Head got a start in the first innings against Queensland and is unbeaten on 13 overnight and the left-hander has a gilt-edged opportunity to book a place in the Test team.
Peter Nevill finds his place as Test wicketkeeper under question and with a ton from WA keeper Sam Whiteman putting him under even more pressure, the stopper will have to produce something with the bat in New South Wales’ second innings.
The selectors could probably get away with retaining Nevill if they make two or three other changes but may have hoped seasoned gloveman Matthew Wade would put in a better show for Victoria.
None of the quick bowlers in contention for a call up have been overly impressive in this round so far although Chris Tremain did pick up 4 for 22 against New South Wales in the second innings and Jackson Bird was solid for Tasmania. Outsider Jason Behrendorff took 5/80 for WA which may have grabbed Hohn’s attention.
The pace attack of Starc, Hazlewood and Mennie will most likely be kept in place for the pink ball contest in Adelaide.
Nathan Lyon’s place as Australia’s number one spinner is in doubt though, he has had a tough series against South Africa and is wicketless in 46 overs in this round of the Shield.
Lyon’s teammate Steve O’Keefe made a bright start to the second innings picking up two wickets in three overs but questions linger over his fitness.
Adam Zampa has made perhaps the strongest case for inclusion amongst the spinners but he will have to work hard to overcome the limited overs specialist tag he has been saddled with.
Given the paucity of spin options the selectors may consider adding an extra paceman to the attack with Bird likely to benefit if that is the case.
Hohns and his panel have a mammoth task ahead of them with Australia’s cricket-loving public expecting things to turn around sooner rather than later. Or they could be off to fetch their Virgin Casino bonus.
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All the evidence points to yes.
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