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Cricket news - Post trial-and-error, Australia find balanced Ashes unit
It probably was akin to a job interview scene from those retro Bollywood movies, where you'd see a number of nervous faces sitting around in a room, each glancing anxiously towards the latest person to walk out of the dreaded door. For, based on a report in The Australian, that was pretty much the case on Friday as each one of the 25 Ashes hopefuls in Southampton were informed about their fate in private in alphabetical order by chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns and coach Justin Langer. It was a unique and unprecedented exercise to start with. You wonder whether any international team has previously ended up with 25 players playing against each other in a formal game far away from home and then picked their squad for a series based more or less on that performance.
Eventually, despite a few contentious calls on the personnel chosen to make way for the returning Steve Smith and David Warner though, Hohns & Co seem to have come up with a reasonably strong squad that ticks all boxes. And while you could feel sorry for Joe Burns and Kurtis Patterson, who made centuries in the last Test Australia played five months ago, this is also perhaps the best squad the selectors could have gone for based on the hectic schedule for the Ashes, current form and the nature of pitches they expect to be served up.
"There's always been that sort of in the background, where we're trying to move forward but we know that these guys (Smith, Warner and Bancroft) are going to be back at some stage. So it'll be great when they actually are back, and we can all look into the future," skipper Tim Paine had told Cricbuzz in an interview back in February. Unlike Smith and Warner, whose returns to the Test squad in England seemed inevitable from the time they were banned, it wasn't so straightforward for Bancroft to jump right back.
The likes of Burns and Marcus Harris had after all come in and scored runs in his absence at the top of the order with the Queensland right-hander having made 180 against Sri Lanka in Canberra in February. But runs for Durham in the County Second Division - 726 runs at 45.37 in 9 games with two centuries-and a very impressive showing on a difficult pitch in Southampton - have got him the nod. Burns, who was scheduled to play a similar number of matches for Lancashire, unfortunately had to fly back after a single game owing to a post-viral chronic fatigue condition, and despite scoring a century upon his return for Australia A last week, couldn't make the cut. It's Harris who retains his place despite having struggled against Sri Lanka following a reasonably decent start to his career against India.
"We're very comfortable with the form of Marcus Harris, very much so. He had a wonderful season back home, he's been in good form since he's been here. So he probably got the nod over Burns in that area," said Hohns. "No one has done anything wrong at all. It's just a judgement call on how people are playing at the time and what we think the requirements are.. It probably didn't help his cause going home, it would have been ideal for his preparation and to make a good case for himself to stay here and play county cricket. However there was an issue there and no one can blame him," he added when asked where Burns had missed out.
Hohns also explained that in addition to county runs, the thing that had gone in Bancroft's favour was his energy around the team and admitted that his unbeaten 93 on Thursday (July 25) was what convinced the selectors to give the man who opened in all five Tests of the last Ashes series in Australia another go.
"He's the type of player we think we need in our Australian side, he's tough, he's enthusiastic, his work ethic is fantastic. And he's infectious. We need people like that, people who want to continue to improve their game, and who are hard-nosed and tough. He fits the bill," the chief selector said.
The others to miss out despite having done well in their most recent appearances for the Australian team in international cricket were Alex Carey and Kurtis Patterson. While Hohns didn't rule out a call-up for Carey, who had a remarkable World Cup, if Paine does suffer a long-term injury, the South Australian was always going to struggle to be picked ahead of Matthew Wade, who has made copious amounts of runs over the last eight months both in Shield cricket and on the A tour here. Patterson though had to make way for the multi-skilled Marnus Labuschagne, whose crucial 41 in the first innings at the Ageas Bowl and his innocuous leg-spin, got him in as both a middle-order reserve batsman and a potential last-minute contingency in case of an injury to Nathan Lyon, the only specialist spinner.
"We kept asking ourselves 'are we really going to play two spinners over here in England?' and we came up with the answer 'probably no'. We thought it would be handy having a batting spinning allrounder in the squad to complement Nathan if we wanted to go down that path. If anything was going to happen to Nathan in the short term we could contend with that," said Hohns.
The decision to not pick a second specialist spinner though opened the doors to pick a reserve batsman. But in the end the selection of Michael Neser as a sixth specialist seamer perhaps came down to the limited recovery time in between the Tests, not to forget the mere two-day gap between the opening match in Birmingham, which ends on August 5, and the county game against Worcestershire that starts on August 7. To his credit, Neser stood out with his performance on the opening day of the warm-up game with wickets and troubled most of the Aussie batsmen with his skiddy pace and movement in the air even when the key batsmen decided to have a hit once the match was over on Thursday. Having an extra fast bowler will also ensure that the Aussies are never short of fresh seamers in the nets.
"Michael gives us a little bit of variety in that bowling attack, he's not a tall fast bowler like the majority of them, he swings the ball, he uses the Dukes ball in particular very well as you would see from his record back home over the last two seasons where we've used the Dukes ball in the second half of the season... The idea of six fast bowlers as well is to enable us to manage our fast bowlers as best we can, given the workload. There's five Tests and even the county games in between are very hot on the heels of the final day of each Test match. Whether he plays or not, takes part in the Test match series is in the lap of the gods at the moment," said Hohns.
The chief selector did admit that the top six in the batting line-up had been unsettled for a bit but was confident of it getting sorted out finally. And after nearly 15 months of the Australian selectors clutching at straws to come up with a XI, Hohns understandably sounded relieved to be talking about how his committee's job was more about leaving people out rather than picking them.
And while it's a squad that looks good to take the urn back home from England after 18 years, for those who had to leave his room with their Ashes hopes crushed, he did have some words of solace too. "Very hard for some of them because they were disappointed. But they also knew that from the 25 here, we couldn't pick them all. Some probably knew and felt that they were line-ball, others thought they were a good chance of being included. So yes, there were some disappointments. And all we can say to those fellers is you're desperately unlucky, but go and keep doing what you're doing, improve your game, and belt the door down. We can't say much more to them."
Ashes Test Squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Patrick Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
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