Opportunity knocks in the early rounds of this Sheffield Shield season.
Opportunity knocks in the early rounds of this Sheffield Shield season.

New order: Who should fill Test batting slots for Australia?

AUSTRALIA returned from England with the Ashes metaphorically in their carry-on luggage for the first time in 18 years this winter.

But the success did little to disguise the unsettled nature of its batting line up.

Steve Smith aside, only Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschagne can make a credible case for having made a substantial Ashes contribution.

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The likes of Usman Khawaja, Cameron Bancroft, Marcus Harris and even David Warner did their best to play themselves out of the side.

The slate, selector Trevor Hohns said last week, had been wiped clean, with positions again up for grabs.

And so the early stages of this year's Sheffield Shield shape as a nation wide audition for starring roles when Pakistan and New Zealand visit.

Below we rank the chances of each batting contender based on their performances in the domestic competition:

 

DAVID WARNER

David Warner endured the worst series of his otherwise successful career in England this winter.
David Warner endured the worst series of his otherwise successful career in England this winter.

Warner went to England for the recent Ashes series in hunt of a first Test century over there, and returned having failed to score 100 runs in the series.

He was not the only opener to struggle, but 95 at an average of 9.5 and Stuart Broad's domination of him has led to questions around his place at the top of the order.

A career Test average of 45.47 - that blows out to almost 60 at home - and 21 centuries leaves him with plenty of credits in the bank and he has his skipper's backing. It would be a major call to axe him from the team, especially when the options to replace him are limited.

Nevertheless, a bright start to the Shield season back on Australian tracks was imperative after Trevor Hohns refused to declare him a certainty.

And Warner duly delivered, with a century in his first innings of the season, in conditions others - including even Steve Smith - had struggled

Current odds of selection: 10/10

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USMAN KHAWAJA

Usman Khawaja needs to assert his quality on Australian wickets to secure his Test place.
Usman Khawaja needs to assert his quality on Australian wickets to secure his Test place.

A breezy 114-ball century in the one day format for Queensland hinted at Khawaja being comfortable again back home after he was axed mid-series in the Ashes, having made 122 runs at 20.3 against the moving ball in the UK.

However, the entire Queensland top order failed their opening audition in the long form of the game, with Khawaja trapped lbw for one by NSW's Harry Conway at the Gabba on the opening day of the Shield season.

Despite being overlooked for the final two Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval, Khawaja's career average sits at 40.07 but leaps to 52.97 at home - where six of his eight Test tons have been plundered.

That record makes him a likely pick for the home summer series and he remains a strong shout as one of Australia's top six batting options in home conditions.

Current odds of selection: 8.5/10

 

MATTHEW WADE

Wade did what all players dropped from the national team are supposed to do and 'knocked down the door with Sheffield Shield runs' across the last two seasons, culminating in his return to the side earlier this year after a long spell away.

The Tasmanian hit two centuries and finished as Australia's third-highest run scorer in an Ashes series that culminated with the urn being retained.

The punctuation mark was a fighting second-innings 117 in the final-Test loss at The Oval. But he, too, struggled in-between those two tons, making his position far from bulletproof, as he himself admits.

"I'd like to think my performances over those five Tests will have me in the first Test, but you never know," Wade said on return to Australia.

Current odds of selection: 8/10

 

TRAVIS HEAD

Travis Head has been a solid if unspectacular presence in Australia’s middle order since his selection.
Travis Head has been a solid if unspectacular presence in Australia’s middle order since his selection.

Head was the third highest scoring Test batsman of the calendar year - behind Steve Smith and Ben Stokes - at the end of the fourth Ashes Test. But he then lost his place for the fifth.

However Tim Paine insisted he wasn't dropped, instead missing out for tactical reasons to accommodate an all-rounder.

Nevertheless that only underlines his lack of security within the first XI.

His position as one of the vice-captains speak of his perceived long-term value to the side (though Mitch Marsh found himself swiftly on the outer despite being elevated to the same office) and he shapes as a strong chance for a quick return.

His numbers since joining the side a year ago have been solid, with a career average of 42.70 from his 12 matches. However a single century, against a poor Sri Lanka, and single 50 in England have failed to protect him from pressure.

Current odds of selection: 7/10

 

JOE BURNS

Joe Burns was desperately unlucky to miss out on selection for the recent Ashes squad.
Joe Burns was desperately unlucky to miss out on selection for the recent Ashes squad.

A 180 in his last Test outing, against Sri Lanka in Canberra in February, and a century against Sussex on Australia A's tour of the UK (after recovering from post-viral fatigue) had many observers penning him in for the Ashes. But not only did he give up his starting spot, he was left out of the squad entirely.

In his stop-start international career Burns has never let Australia down, posting four Test centuries from 16 matches and has an average north of 40, a record that leaves many confused as to why he hasn't been given a longer run in the side.

With Australia searching to fill a number of top-order places he looks well placed to be given another chance.

However, his stocks took an early blow when he fell for just 13 when opening against NSW as the Shield season got under way.

Current odds of selection: 6.5/10

 

MARCUS HARRIS

Marcus Harris had a difficult Ashes but hasn’t missed a beat in Victorian colours.
Marcus Harris had a difficult Ashes but hasn’t missed a beat in Victorian colours.

Handed his Test debut against India in 2018 following a consistent run of form for Victoria, Harris' early promise in Australian colours faded a touch in the white heat of Ashes battle, and his position is now in serious doubt.

He has just two half centuries in his last nine Tests, including 58 from six knocks in the UK when he was drafted in to replace Cameron Bancroft mid-series but failed to take his chance.

Should, as seems likely, Warner retain his spot, Australia's natural preference for a left-hand, right-hand combination at the top would further dent his case.

For all that, a return to his 2018-19 Shield form in the first part of this season could remind selectors why they turned to him in the first place. And he wasted no time doing so as he and Nic Maddinson punished the SA bowlers on the opening day of the domestic summer. His 116 was the perfect way to clear the winter cobwebs away.

Current odds of selection: 6.5/10

 

WILL PUCOVSKI

Will Pucovski has long been viewed as a Test star in the making, despite his inexperience.
Will Pucovski has long been viewed as a Test star in the making, despite his inexperience.

Three centuries, including 243 against Western Australia, announced Pucovski as a major talent at the start of his first-class career last summer. And he was duly rewarded with a place in the Test squad to face Sri Lanka, though ultimately did not feature.

Candid about his challenges with mental health, the Victorian is confident that should not hold him back having taken positive steps to manage his wellbeing.

The 21-year-old scored another classy ton in just his 15th first-class match to open this year's campaign and the case for a Baggy Green becomes more compelling by the week.

Despite his callow experience, Pucovski has long been touted as a potential Test star of the future, a future that may now not be too far away.

And he has a huge amount of support from some former Test greats, not least Ricky Ponting, who has pushed his case in the past, describing him as "an impressive man".

"Everyone's talked about him for a long time," said Ponting.

"A couple of years before the next Ashes series you want to try and blood someone in that No.6 role and he'd be the obvious candidate."

Current odds of selection: 6.5/10

 

NIC MADDINSON

Nic Maddinson continued his fine Victorian form of last season in to the new one.
Nic Maddinson continued his fine Victorian form of last season in to the new one.

Maddinson continued his stunning form resurgence since switching states as the Redbacks were put to the sword on the opening day of this year's Sheffield Shield season.

The New South Welshman appeared on the professional cricket scrap heap a year ago but thumped 224 - his first first class double century - over two days opening the batting on a helpful deck at Junction Oval to start his season off in grand style.

He was dismissed early on day two but not before smashing 224.

It is Maddinson's fourth ton in six Shield matches for Victoria after losing his Blues contract last season. And it came with national selector Trevor Hohns in attendance.

A surprise pick for Australia's Test squad to face South Africa in 2016 - a choice believed to have been driven by Steve Smith's faith in his potential - his stay was brief and his career spiralled down immediately after being dropped soon after.

The signs are he's back to his free-flowing, attacking best. His return to form could be perfectly timed.

Current odds of selection: 5/10

 

KURTIS PATTERSON

Kurtis Patterson has a Test average of 144 (albeit from just two knocks for the national team).
Kurtis Patterson has a Test average of 144 (albeit from just two knocks for the national team).

Like Burns, Patterson can feel slightly hard done by to have missed out on an Ashes berth despite going past three figures in his last outing for the Test side.

In his only two matches to date, both at home against Sri Lanka last summer, he hit 30 and an unbeaten 114, against an admittedly weak opposition.

With a number of those who did stay on in the UK failing to produce, the opportunity for a quick return exists for the classy left-hander, if he can pick up where he left off with NSW last Shield season.

Having forced his way into the side off the back of big scores for a Cricket Australia XI against the Sri Lankans - after a similar return in the scrutinised Shield round before that - he can draw on that experience now the pressure for performances is on again.

However, will have to wait for his chance to shine while he continues to recover from injury.

Current odds of selection: 5/10

 

MITCH MARSH

Australia would love to select a batting all-rounder at No.6, and in a thin field Marsh is the most viable option. A surprise pick in many people's eyes for the final Ashes Test at the Oval, he came to the party with ball in hand, taking seven wickets.

However, he convinced less with the bat and so the jury, as it has been for almost his entire career - particularly in the court of public opinion - remains out.

With Pakistan expected to offer a limited challenge in the first two home Tests of the summer, and two of the first three Tests being the generally rapidly concluded day-night affairs, the need for bowling support to Australia's front line quicks may be less pressing than usual at this juncture, meaning a specialist batsmen may edge him out.

An almost run-a-ball 41 for WA in their season opener against Tasmania was solid without moving the dial in either direction.

Current odds of selection: 4/10

 

CAMERON BANCROFT

Cameron Bancroft wasted the unexpected chance he was given in the recent Ashes.
Cameron Bancroft wasted the unexpected chance he was given in the recent Ashes.

Bancroft was a surprise pick for the first Ashes Test of the series, the justification being his excellent form while captaining Durham in the early part of the County Championship season and Justin Langer's belief in the technique and mental toughness of his fellow Western Australian.

That call failed miserably.

The third member of the Sandpaper-gate trio, his position was far from secure when his nine-month ban interrupted his nascent Test career. The four failures at Edgbaston and Lord's, where he looked scratchy throughout, means he will need to build up a weight of performances again in domestic cricket to force a third coming to the international arena.

A scratchy 30 to get his Shield season under way against Tasmania at home was only a small step in the right direction.

Current odds of selection: 3/10

 

PETER HANDSCOMB

Peter Handscomb has struggled to hold down a place in the Australian side since making the Test team.
Peter Handscomb has struggled to hold down a place in the Australian side since making the Test team.

A man whose unusual technique has been a constant source of fascination and, at times, exasperation, Handscomb more than most needs to trade in raw numbers if he is to force his way back in to the Test reckoning.

Dropped after struggling against the high-class Indian attack last summer, Handscomb's Test average of a nudge under 39, including two centuries from 16 matches, suggests he is capable at the level.

However, with his natural position being Steve Smith's No.4 slot he will need to convince selectors he is adaptable enough to fill a hole elsewhere.

Current odds of selection: 3/10

 

MATT RENSHAW

Matthew Renshaw looked like a long term Test opener three years ago but is down the pecking order now.
Matthew Renshaw looked like a long term Test opener three years ago but is down the pecking order now.

The forgotten man of Australia's batting ranks, Renshaw was the coming force back in 2016 when he was one part of a solution to a previous batting crisis and took to the stage with alacrity despite only a dozen first-class matches behind him.

A young man displaying the old fashioned virtues of batting time and putting a price on his wicket, his performances, in India especially - where he battled his own inexperience, hazardous pitches, high quality spin and a bout of the trots - suggested he was to be a fixture of the side thereafter.

However, since he lost his place in the Test side 18 months ago his form has been mixed. A 2018-19 Shield season in which he averaged 21 across nine matches was poorly timed during Warner's absence and his most recent County Championship stint was less impressive than his previous efforts.

However, still only 23, the talent is still there. As is the temperament. And, now, the opportunity. A consistent run of scores this summer and he will be very much back in the conversation.

Against NSW on the opening day of the season he showed typically obduracy in facing 88 balls as teammates fell around him - but a score of 19 is far below what he needs to convince.

Current odds of selection: 2/10

DANIEL HUGHES

Daniel Hughes could benefit from the struggles of Australia’s other candidates at the top of the order.
Daniel Hughes could benefit from the struggles of Australia’s other candidates at the top of the order.

Might be a smoky for the first Test, but after the failures of all Australia's opening batsmen in England the field is wide open again. Hughes has a deceptively strong record in domestic cricket.

Fresh from massive back-to-back hundreds in the one-day competition, Hughes also averages a very acceptable 38 in the four-day format of the game. Incumbent Marcus Harris averages 37 at first-class level with 12 hundreds from over 80 matches. Hughes has played fewer than half that number and has five first-class tons.

Would need a couple of hundreds for NSW against the red ball to emerge as a serious candidate and didn't start his campaign well, falling cheaply to Queensland's Cameron Gannon at the Gabba on day one of the Shield season (like Steve Smith).

But a couple of summers ago it was clear selectors did have him on their radar after Ed Cowan was dropped from the NSW side to accommodate him.

Current odds of selection: 2/10

 

ALEX CAREY

Alex Carey may have to bide his time for a crack at Test cricket.
Alex Carey may have to bide his time for a crack at Test cricket.

Having won a place in the 2019 World Cup team of the tournament as a keeper-batsman Carey, 28, is entering his prime.

However, his route to a Test berth is currently blocked by the skipper and so he may have to bide his time. Australia is indebted to Tim Paine for transforming a Sandpaper-gate rabble into the unified machine that retained the Ashes on English soil and there is little reason for him to vacate his spot any time soon.

Carey plundered 375 runs at 62.5 in the recent World Cup, mopping up Australian collapses at No.7, and his 20 dismissals were just one fewer than leading keeper in the tournament, Tom Latham of New Zealand.

Carey is ready if the call comes, but a Test debut this summer seems unlikely. Despite over 800 ODI runs from 26 knocks, a first-class average of 31.38 means a place as a specialist batsmen looks beyond him.

Current odds of selection: 1.5/10

 

SHAUN MARSH

Another return to the Test side appears only an outside chance for Shaun Marsh.
Another return to the Test side appears only an outside chance for Shaun Marsh.

Since making his debut in 2011 Marsh's place in the side for the longest form of the game has been something of a revolving door.

Dropped at the start of the year after an underwhelming 12 months prior, and one half century in seven knocks against India at home, a ninth re-selection would be at the skinny end of unlikely but for Australia's ongoing troubles with finding long-term solutions to top six batting positions.

While his Test form was in decline his performances in ODIs have remained stellar and he was a part of the World Cup squad until a broken arm saw him return home.

He has started his latest short form domestic season in typically effective form - 165 from four Marsh One Day Cup matches - but in all likelihood it would take a huge number of runs, and many others to underperform, for him to force his way back in to squads to face Pakistan and New Zealand.

Current odds of selection: 1/10