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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Geoff Lemon

Australia opt against rolling the dice with stability key to Ashes squad selection

David Warner has been given a chance to find some form with his inclusion in a 17-man Australia squad for the World Test Championship final and the Ashes.
David Warner has been given a chance to find some form with his inclusion in a 17-man Australia squad for the World Test Championship final and the Ashes. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Choosing Test cricket teams can be a fraught business. Competing claims and agendas create the conflict that makes selection a staple of reporting on the sport. When a team rarely changes it reflects either a limitation of resources or a period of rare stability. Australia’s men’s team is currently enjoying the latter. Aside from some tweaks for Asian tours, in the last couple of years the team sheet has been pro forma.

It is the same again for the upcoming World Test Championship final and Ashes campaign, according to the squad that covers the first three of those six Test matches in England across June and July. From those 17 names the first-choice XI is an easy pick. David Warner may be running out of road, but he and Steve Smith are still the batting mainstays, first-choice picks for a decade. Usman Khawaja’s late-career revival has made him indispensable as an opener.

Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head have spent the four years since their last England trip proving themselves as generation next. Cameron Green’s bowling has some advances yet to be made, but he has the materials to be the true all-rounder that Australian cricket has hungered for since Keith Miller used to open the bowling and bat five. Alex Carey has consistently done enough to be unchallenged with the gloves.

The stability of the first-choice bowling is even more rare. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood as the pace battery, with Nathan Lyon as their spinner, first teamed up in November 2017. Since then they have played 22 Tests together, a record never exceeded by another bowling quartet.

The configuration hasn’t been seen much lately though, and that’s where the question of reserve players gets interesting. Hazlewood was the most durable of the bowlers earlier in his career but has had repeat injury problems in recent years, even as Starc has gone the other way. The last time the quartet joined forces was for the first Test of the previous Australian season. Hazlewood has been unavailable for seven of eight matches since. Starc missed three with a broken finger. Cummins missed two for family reasons. Lyon may seem immovable, but keeping a bowling attack on the park is no sure thing.

All of which makes it perplexing that the Australian selectors have a fast bowling back-up plan of: Scott Boland. That’s it. An excellent competitor, but despite appearances to the contrary during his dramatic bursts of wicket-taking, he is only one man. Pick up a second injury at late notice, and Australia will either be turning to Mitchell Marsh’s mostly modest mediums, or Todd Murphy as a second spinner on a Birmingham greentop. Luckily there is no history of Australian bowlers suffering mishaps during the morning warm-up at Edgbaston.

Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc.
Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. Photograph: Darren England/EPA

It also means abandoning an approach that worked during Australia’s last trip to England. Retaining the Ashes in 2019 was built around squad depth. Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood were joined by James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Michael Neser. All but Neser played, with selections based on conditions and player rotation to keep bowlers fresh. All contributed meaningfully. The only misstep came in the fifth Test at the Oval, when Siddle was injured early on the first day while Starc’s pace could have been a better asset on a flatter pitch.

Today’s management might not want to try to recreate the past, but dropping from six fast bowlers to four is a radical departure. It signals an approach of picking the same three and hoping they don’t break. Selection chair George Bailey said it was about “not necessarily [having] someone in the squad who ends up being superfluous”, while in the same breath choosing three reserve bats in Marcus Harris, Matthew Renshaw and Josh Inglis.

Most likely Bailey is relying on Neser as an unofficial reserve: the Queensland seamer is contracted to play for county side Glamorgan, but he is yet to appear this year after recent injury. His team will be playing T20 cricket through the relevant period: the initial block of first-class matches is done by the middle of May, and Glamorgan’s next fixture overlaps with the second Ashes Test at the end of June.

Whatever the reasoning, it’s an interesting shift, more so than discussing whether Harris or Renshaw deserved bench spots over Peter Handscomb or Cameron Bancroft. When planning is built on unreliable assumptions, it’s hard to interpret that as anything but a gamble. If the coin flips wrong, perhaps somebody will be putting in a late call down to Somerset. Peter Siddle, 38 years old, has just started another season. Seven wickets at 16, if you’re wondering.

• This article was amended on 19 April 2023. Siddle plays for Somerset, not Sussex as an earlier version said.

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