Peter Nevill, Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft and Matthew Wade are all in contention for selection.
Peter Nevill, Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft and Matthew Wade are all in contention for selection.

Burning Ashes questions ahead of first Test squad announcement

IN less than 24 hours, Trevor Hohns will front a press conference and let the country know which men have been tasked with winning back the Ashes.

Many of them will not be surprises.

Steve Smith will headline a batting order, punctuated by the power of David Warner, and the class of Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb. On the bowlers' side of the ledger, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon all pick themselves, with Jackson Bird a ready and willing understudy.

However, there remain huge question marks over three positions in the batting order.

Ahead of Friday's announcement we take a closer look at the men under the microscope.

Matthew Renshaw is yet to pass 20 in the Shield this summer
Matthew Renshaw is yet to pass 20 in the Shield this summer

IS RENSHAW COOKED?

It was only a month ago that Matt Renshaw looked a lock to play at the Gabba against childhood friend Joe Root. Things aren't so rosy anymore.

For most of his first year in Test cricket, Renshaw looked tailor-made to play the five-day game. Only 20 years old when he debuted, the southpaw passed 50 four times in his first nine innings, posted a top score of 184 and averaged a healthy 59.25. Those numbers were even more impressive considering he'd batted on tough decks in Pune and Bengaluru. But the longer things went on in the subcontinent, the worse his form got - his average across his nine most recent Test innings is only 16.55.

It was hoped that slide was simply down to conditions but a dire run in the Sheffield Shield has confirmed the worst - he's simply out of form. The fresh-faced 21-year-old has not reached 20 across six innings this season and balls that were previously beating the edge are now finding it.

It leaves selectors with the most difficult of questions. Let the incumbent fight for his position in the Test arena - a chance he deserves - or axe him for the man in form, Cameron Bancroft?

Perhaps the question they should really be asking is how Renshaw would respond to being selected?

Matthew Hayden pushed selectors to stick with Renshaw for the entirety of the series, positing that the show of faith would allow the young buck to rediscover his best touch.

Conversely, would it be better for both the player and the team to leave Renshaw out? By adding an in-form player, selectors would allow the Queenslander the chance to find his groove away from the pressures of an Ashes Test.

Either decision is a gamble.

 

 

Cameron Bancroft scored a double century this week.
Cameron Bancroft scored a double century this week.

 

IS CAMERON BANCROFT A MUST PICK?

Two years ago Bancroft looked a certainty to make his Test debut, picked for the doomed tour of Bangladesh after scoring a truckload of runs in the 2014-15 Sheffield Shield season (896 at 47.15).Three games into the current season and Bancroft has already racked up nearly half as many runs (442 at 110.50). There isn't a player in Australia in better form right now.

But if Bancroft is a must-pick where does he bat?

Having grown up with a poster of Justin Langer on his wall, Bancroft has played all 121 of his first-class innings at the top of the order. He's as specialist an opener as they come, and like Renshaw he prefers to grind attacks down rather than flay them - the Western Australian (strike rate of 43.15) only scores a smidgen faster than the Queenslander (42.83) in first-class cricket.

If selectors keep the faith in Renshaw, there is still the option of playing Bancroft at No.6 as a specialist batsman. Despite a strike rate that suggests he is ill-suited to picking up quick runs with the tail, Bancroft has shown signs that he can accelerate the innings. Earlier this week he scored a career-best 228 off 351 balls against South Australia.

One innings is not the most convincing of cases for a shot at the No.6 slot but nobody else has really put their hand up to demand selection.

Is Matthew Wade the best of a bad bunch?
Is Matthew Wade the best of a bad bunch?

SHOULD BANCROFT BE GIVEN THE GLOVES?

It seems the perfect solution to bolster the Australian batting, keep Renshaw in the team and still have the option of adding an all-rounder ...

But the answer is no - Bancroft should not be given the responsibility of taking over wicketkeeping duties.

As noted by Ian Healy, Australia's finest pure gloveman, Bancroft has kept wicket in just three of his 66 first-class matches for Western Australia.

And to put him in as wicketkeeper would be simply to shoehorn an in-form player into the squad, whereas Bancroft deserves to be viewed as what he is: an elite batting talent but a back-up wicketkeeping option.

It would make as much sense as dumping the gloves on middle-order rock, and similarly reluctant wicketkeeper, Peter Handscomb.

Truth be told, the only reason the 24-year-old has taken the gloves for Western Australia this summer is as a stopgap measure due to a finger injury to first-choice Sam Whiteman - although he has done so ahead of highly rated backup Josh Inglis.

At Test level, the 24-year-old would simply be a temporary measure, waiting until Whiteman or South Australia's Alex Carey lift their all-round games to a Test level.

Realistically, the keeper debate should boil down to Peter Nevill, Matthew Wade and Carey.

Wade, as the incumbent, has to be dethroned - although his form with both bat and gloves has been wanting through three rounds of Shield cricket, and his Test claims may never have been weaker.

Nevill has been underwhelming in the past month, but remains the most likely - and safest - option if selectors want an all-round package of a steady bat, experienced head and classy option behind the stumps.

Carey's batting doesn't hold up against his rivals just yet, but respected judges rave about his glovework.

Bancroft deserves a baggy green - but to hand him the gloves would be disrespectful to the fine wicketkeepers who have gone before him.

 

Shane Watson played an important role with the ball in 2013-14.
Shane Watson played an important role with the ball in 2013-14.

DOES AUSTRALIA NEED AN ALL-ROUNDER?

If Australia wants to keep Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood on the park for all five Tests of the Ashes, then an all-rounder is almost essential.

In Australia's past two Ashes whitewash victories over England, back-up bowlers - chiefly Shane Watson in 2013/14 and Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke in 2006/7 - chipped in to contribute roughly 50 overs on each occasion.

Their role is rarely to come in and break a game open with three quick wickets: they're there to churn through some overs with a low economy rate to give the star paceman a well-earned breather.

Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood are competitive beasts. Any time Steve Smith throws them the ball, they will deliver for their skipper - whether their bodies are up to it or not.

With no one in the top five a recognised option - especially with Smith becoming increasingly reluctant to bowl himself in recent years - Australia will be placing enormous pressure on their four specialist bowlers should they go away from an all-round option at No.6.

An alternative would be to shield Cummins - who has endured the worst of the injury curse of the trio - from the short turnaround between the first and second Tests by resting the 24-year-old from the day-night five-dayer in Adelaide.

But Australia should always aim to pick their best XI. And Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc will be in their best XI for all five Tests this summer.

Glenn Maxwell has enjoyed a mixed bag of form in the Shield to date.
Glenn Maxwell has enjoyed a mixed bag of form in the Shield to date.
 

DOES THE IDEAL NO.6 EXIST?

Considering the explosive power of Starc and Cummins, and Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon's status as world class bowlers, Australia doesn't need too much from their fifth-bowling option. All he has to do is tie up an end and allow the main cast the chance to have a break.

It is a job that Glenn Maxwell is capable of doing and of the No.6 candidates he has enjoyed the best start to the Sheffield Shield season (175 runs at 35.00 at the time of writing). By the same token, he hasn't taken the decision out of the selectors' hands and the fact he bowls spin could count against him. Selectors have always preferred a seam-bowling all-rounder at home.

The problem for Hohns et al is there isn't a seam-bowling all-rounder in the country banging the door down. Mitch Marsh can't bowl at the moment and New South Wales' Moises Henriques (101 at 20.20) and Western Australia's Hilton Cartwright (152 at 25.33) are both short of runs in the Shield. And is Cartwright actually a better option with the ball than Maxwell?

Is it time selectors concede that their ideal choice at No.6 doesn't exist?



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