Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Positions Vacant: Australia's Test Top Six

Australia’s capitulation with the bat in both innings at Johannesburg has raised the spectre of doom over the coming 12 months, especially in the make-up of the batting for the Test team. With its best performed batsmen on the sideline, and the continuing questions over the viability of those who remain, what options will the selectors look at to boost the top six leading up to next year’s Ashes series in England? 

Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns are the best two credentialed candidates to remain at the top of the order, having led Queensland to their Sheffield Shield triumph from that position. Usman Khawaja remains an enigma, unable to score away from home and yet continues to be prolific on home soil. Both Shaun and Mitch Marsh have reverted to type, following some promising form with a sequence of low scores again, while Peter Handscomb followed his long term 12th Man duties by chopping on twice in his return Test. Given that Tim Paine was the only batsman to average over 40 on the South African trip, it makes for some interesting deliberations on the batting line-up prior to Australia’s next Test match engagements. 

Let’s hope that the selectors will at least ignore the usual calls for the elevation of batsmen to the Test team who have done well in the white ball game. Runs scored on flat decks, on grounds with shrinking boundaries, against bowlers who are not allowed by the rules of the game to bowl down leg side or wide of off stump or too high above the shoulders, are not an indication as to how those batsmen will perform in a Test match atmosphere. Aaron Finch and Marcus Stoinis may have been quite successful in recent times in both ODI’s and T20 cricket with the bat, but you cannot judge that form as a possible selection tool to face Test bowlers on Test wickets under Test match conditions.

The juggling act between experience and youth is another delicate phase the selection panel will need to work through. If changes are to be made, and Paine is to remain as skipper, he will need some support when it comes to seniority in the team. Conceivably the selectors could choose to remain with the top six they put on the paddock in Johannesburg and insist they are the best available for the job. It may pay off, but I’m sure the general feeling is that a new sheet needs to be drawn up. 

Taking the Sheffield Shield averages and aggregates from the just-completed season, there are four candidates who could be considered for an opportunity. Glenn Maxwell (707 runs at 50.50) is the immediate respondent, having flown to South Africa as batting cover for the team. His 278 against New South Wales after missing selection for the 1st Test last summer was a perfect riposte, and his batting appears to have matured in recent times. 
The two senior pros who may come to attention are Victorian Cameron White (574 runs at 52.18) and South Australian Callum Ferguson (780 runs at 48.75). Both scored a century and five half-centuries and have plenty of leadership experience. White only recently forced his way back into the ODI team, though with little success, while Ferguson was one of the many chop-and-change selections of 2016, playing his one and only Test in the previous South Africa debacle in Hobart on their last Australian tour. White is 35 years old, Ferguson is 33. The recent history of success of elder statesmen Chris Rogers and Adam Voges is a pointer that they should both at least be considered in the final make-up of the Test batting line-up, if only as an emergency measure. 
The young buck waiting his chance is still Travis Head (738 runs at 46.12). He has played 34 ODI’s and 10 T20’s for Australia, and proven he can play at that level and also handle the responsibility it requires. At 24 years of age and with this experience behind him, the current impasse could be the perfect time to get him into the Test line-up and start showcasing his wares. 

If nothing else, the loss of three of Australia’s top order has left some holes in the national team that many may not have thought would open up for years. The resulting vacuum should at least give all first class batsmen a hope of perhaps gaining, or regaining, a Test cap in the next few months if they perform well enough.

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