Ashes 2017/18: Australia's selection conundrum
Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Usain Bolt vs Justin Gatlin, Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics, Michael Schumacher vs Mika Hakkinen, Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, India vs Pakistan; there are some rivalries in sport that are always intense. One such rivalry is the Australia vs England rivalry in cricket, which is called the "Ashes". Both the teams play a five-match series every alternate year and fight to take home the urn.
Also read: The phenomenon called the Ashes
This is that time of the year when both the teams will square off for the 2017-18 Ashes that gets underway at the Gabba on November 23. The English squad sans all-rounder Ben Stokes is already in Australia playing warm-up matches, preparing themselves for the intriguing battle. With less than ten days to go until the first Test, Australia's National Selection Panel is yet to name their squad for the Ashes. The Aussie selectors are in a dilemma regarding the composition of the side.
Deadly bowling attack
Remember the last time the Aussies hosted England for the Ashes? A certain left-arm pacer from Queensland (now playing for Western Australia), Mitchell Johnson, with an intimidating moustache gave the visitors nightmares as he ran through their batting line-up with some hostile bowling spells.
Fortunately for the Poms, Johnson won't be with the Australian team for the upcoming edition, but there is still a cause for concern as the Australian bowling attack is settled and all of them are in a terrific form. Pace spearhead Mitchell Starc is fresh from his twin hat-tricks against Western Australia and has been on a rampage since his return from injury.
Josh Hazlewood's accuracy has been spot on ever since he made his debut and he has been a revelation in the longer formats. Starc's raw pace and accuracy, along with Hazlewood's ability to hit the right spots on a consistent basis, will make life tough for the English batsmen.
Apart from these two, the Aussies also have Pat Cummins, who has been quite successful and injury-free since his return to international cricket. The 24-year-old has pace and can clock 90mph with ease. The bounce he extracts from the wicket will keep the batsmen at bay.
The fourth bowler of Aussies' New South Wales bowling quartet will be Nathan Lyon, the lone survivor from Australia's 2013-14 Ashes bowling attack. Lyon has been excellent over the last few years and is very underrated as a spin bowler.
Aussies' batting conundrum
Coming to their batting department, the Steve Smith-led side have been prolific at home with the likes of Smith himself, David Warner, Usman Khawaja etc. piling on the runs over the last three seasons.
Unfortunately, the Aussies are in the midst of a mini-crisis as a few of their batsmen are struggling to score runs in the Sheffield Shield. As of now, Smith, Warner, Khawaja and Peter Handscomb are the only certainties in the batting order.
Matt Renshaw, who burst onto the scene with some consistent performances last season, had a great series in India, where the Aussies generally tend to struggle. He looked off-colour in Bangladesh and even in the ongoing domestic season, the Yorkshire-born batsman has struggled to get going with the bat. In his last 14 Test innings, he has managed to cross fifty just twice and the Aussies are divided on whether to have the 21-year-old in the Test side or not.
On the other hand, Western Australia's Cameron Bancroft is making a strong case for himself in the ongoing Shield season. Bancroft has been in sensational form for Western Austalia as he has been piling on the runs whenever he has gotten a chance to bat. He scored an unbeaten 76 and 86 against a New South Wales side that had the likes of Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon and followed it up with an unbeaten 228 against South Australia in the ongoing round.
Number 6 woes
Apart from the opening spot, the No. 6 position is another one Smith and co. should fix ahead of the Ashes and they have quite a few names competing for that one spot. The Australian NSP and some of the former legends are particular that the number six batsman should have the ability to bat and give the captain a few overs when needed.
All-rounder Mitchell Marsh was Australia's number six until he got injured during the India tour earlier this year and ever since making a comeback, has looked solid in the List A format, scoring 338 runs in six matches at an average of 338. He started the first-class season on a bad note, managing a cumulative total of 46 runs in four innings before the third round match against South Australia in which he scored 95. But, Marsh is yet to bowl a single delivery since his return and it will be interesting to see what the selectors do with him.
Mitch's competitors for the number six slot are Hilton Cartwright, who has mediocre numbers of 134 runs from five innings, and South Australia's Jake Lehmann, the son of Australian coach Darren Lehmann, who scored a century and a 93 in the second round match against Victoria, and has amassed 225 runs in five innings so far in the Shield season.
One more name that can give Marsh a run for his money is Victoria's Glenn Maxwell. The aggressive right-hander has accounted for 155 runs in five innings so far in this competition. Those numbers though do not deserve a place in the Australian squad for the Ashes with Lehmann being the best among the lot.
Alyssa Healy, the best wicketkeeper in the country
There were some jokes circulating in social media that Alyssa Healy is easily the best wicketkeeper in Australia. For those who don't know who Alyssa is, she is the wife of Mitchell Starc and the wicketkeeper of the Southern Stars, the Australian women's team.
The land that gave the cricket world the likes of Rodney Marsh, Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist is struggling to find a proper wicketkeeper for the Ashes as their regular gloveman Matthew Wade has been dismal of late. The chances of Wade making it to the squad are as slim as Alyssa representing the Australian men's team in the upcoming Ashes.
Bancroft is also a wicketkeeper and has donned the gloves for his side in the Sheffield Shield but he is not someone who is reliable behind the wickets. In all likelihood, the Aussies will prefer a proper wicketkeeper who is solid behind the stumps. There is no point in looking beyond New South Welshman Peter Nevill, as the 32-year-old is a reliable keeper who can contribute with the bat.
The Aussie team management will look to have a competent wicketkeeper-bat who can score runs and at the same time, contribute behind the stumps. But, they don't have anyone in the country who is equally good with both bat and gloves.
What's next for Australia?
Even though Renshaw has been going through a pale patch, he has done nothing wrong with the national side to get dropped. So, it won't be a surprise if he is included in the squad for the first two matches at least.
With Bancroft doing a fantastic job with the bat, it will be unfair on the part of the NSP to drop him. With the number six spot still up for the grabs, trying out Bancroft ahead of Mitch Marsh (who is the likely candidate for the spot) and having Peter Nevill as the specialist keeper is a definite possibility when the squad is announced after the end of this round's Shield matches.
My 12-member Australian squad for the Brisbane Test: David Warner, Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Peter Handscomb, Cameron Bancroft, Peter Nevill, Mitchell Stac, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood
12th man: Jackson Bird