Scrutiny over Australia’s selections for the first Ashes Test at the Gabba was still unclear after the first round of the domestic Sheffield Shield competition. The recent series in Bangladesh, where Australia won the second Test to rescue a series draw, highlighted frailties in the batting, all-rounder and wicketkeeping departments. Consequentially, the Australian selectors will delay naming their Ashes squad for Brisbane until the day after round three of the Sheffield Shield. Places are undoubtedly up for grabs but the recent matches did little to answer questions or assuage speculation.
Usman Khawaja’s century for Queensland at the Gabba pencilled in his name on the team sheet for the opening Test at his home ground. Khawaja’s 162 runs in the match were instrumental in Queensland defeating back to back champions, Victoria. On the other hand, opener Matt Renshaw’s disappointing 17 and 16, both dismissals from poor shot selection, led to selector Mark Waugh describing his form as “patchy”. The 21-year-old will be keen to make amends with some runs in the next two games. Glenn Maxwell’s claim to the number six spot was underwhelming with a contribution of 7 and 20 plus two expensive overs with the ball.
Over in Western Australia, Hilton Cartwright scored 61 and 38 to tighten his grip on a place in the Test team. Cartwright won his second cap in Chittagong and reminded selectors of his ability as a batsman. Cartwright shared a 111-run partnership with Shaun Marsh which has elevated the 34-year-old back into the frame for a Test recall. Whether Marsh would be considered is unlikely at this point but further successes may result in the selectors going for an experienced, albeit still unproven, Test player.
New South Wales’s game against South Australia courted controversy before it even started with the selection of in-form Daniel Hughes over last season’s top run scorer, Ed Cowan. Hughes is rated highly by Australian captain Steve Smith and justified his selection with a half-century in the first innings. Smith, on the other hand, appeared to be distracted by his book launch with two rare failures. Whether it alludes to cracks in the captain’s armoury or not will be seen over the next two weeks before the Ashes start.
Vice-captain David Warner had no such problems, despite his controversial call to arms interview with Jim Maxwell, as he top scored in both innings. Nic Maddinson remained on the periphery of the Test team with just 5 runs across both innings.
Debate has raged for a while over who will have wicketkeeping duties for the Ashes. The selectors lost patience with incumbent Matthew Wade, who was replaced by Peter Handscomb during the ODIs in India, and he is struggling in the Test arena. Wade has moved to his state of birth, Tasmania, and was hoping to regain his form. However, he only faced 19 balls in his scores of 1 and 6 which have heaped on further pressure.
Wade’s main rival, and the man he replaced, Peter Nevill fared slightly better with the bat for New South Wales. His solitary innings of 20 was accompanied with a single catch. Another name in the mix, endorsed by Adam Gilchrist no less, is Alex Carey of South Australia. Although being 26, Carey has only 19 first-class matches under his belt but broke the Sheffield Shield record last season for the most dismissals (59). He also became the fourth player to score 500 runs and take 50 dismissals in a season. Recent scores of 12 and 4 are unlikely to sway selectors but it appears that he could still be in the frame.
Bowlers Fitness Issues
Australia’s 2013-14 Ashes whitewash was engendered by pace bowling and Mitchell Starc is expected to take the ‘Tormentor-in-chief’ mantle from Mitchell Johnson. The fast bowler’s opening gambit was to blow South Australia away with 8-73 to set up victory. Starc’s figures were more remarkable as South Australia opened up their second innings with a 137 partnership before losing their ten wickets for 69 runs. Starc’s ball to clean up Travis Head for a Golden Duck was the highlight of an impressive bowling performance.
Starc was backed by Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, who took two wickets apiece in the match, and should feature in Brisbane. Chadd Sayers took 6 wickets in the match for South Australia, including Steve Smith, to highlight there are other bowling options for Australia. Nathan Coulter-Nile took 3 for 18 as Tasmania were skittled for their lowest ever Sheffield Shield score (63). However, Coulter-Nile scored 42 and 52 with the bat and could be an outside chance for a starting berth. Interestingly, he has been withdrawn from the second round of games and will captain the Western Australian XI to face England in their first warm-up game.
Next Round of Sheffield Shield games
Whilst England start their two-day game in Perth on Saturday, the next round of domestic games starts. Victoria entertain South Australia at the MCG, New South Wales and Western Australia play at the Hurstville Oval in Sydney and Queensland travel to Hobart to face Tasmania. One noticeable addition to the round is Josh Hazlewood. The New South Welshman will continue his return from injury to prove his fitness. With the first Test less than three weeks away, the Australian selectors will be hoping for more clarity around player form. Australia have options for places but an unsettled team augurs well for English hopes of retaining the Ashes.