Cricket Australia’s list of centrally contracted players for 2013-14 has increased in number by three from last year’s list, but the newly anointed group of 20 has some interesting omissions.
Missing from the list is a quartet of players who all have claims to an Ashes berth in the forthcoming twin home-and-away series – Usman Khawaja, Jackson Bird, Steve Smith and Moises Henriques.
History indicates that missing out on a central contract is not necessarily an impediment to national selection but, in many ways, the list gives an insight into the thoughts of the National Selection Panel (NSP).
Nowadays the contract list is heavily biased towards players who are deemed to be ‘employable’ across all formats with many viewed as suitable options across all three – Test, one-day and T20 – while others are seen as specialists in the two shorter forms of the game.
Very few who are viewed as Test players only have been contracted of late – Ed Cowan (for the first time), and to a lesser degree Nathan Lyon, appear the only two to get the nod this year.
That trend may have contributed to the omissions of Khawaja and Bird who at present are seen as Test specialists.
But the other two who were left out – Henriques and Smith – are a different matter.
Smith handled himself far better than most with the bat on the recent India series, despite his initial selection in the tour party being seen by most as highly contentious.
Called up for the third Test at Mohali, he scored 92 and 5 and followed up with knocks of 46 and 18 in the final encounter at Delhi.
Interestingly, his two innings of substance in India were compiled with moderate strike rates – his 92 at 49.7 and his 46 at 31.7 – belying his reputation as a limited-overs specialist.
He has played 33 ODIs and 20 T20Is so it is a little surprising that he did not make the cut.
His inclusion in the squad to India may simply been a have been horses for courses selection given his ability to cope with spin and not necessarily an eye to the future with regard to the Ashes.
Henriques started the India series with great promise, scoring 68 and 81 not out in the series opener at Chennai.
He was unable to get anywhere near those efforts in the next two Tests with scores of 5, 0, 0 and 2.
His bowling was economical against a rampant Indian batting line-up but seldom looked threatening.
Like Smith, he has played all forms for Australia but it would appear that the selectors want him to do more at domestic level before being recalled to the international fray.
The beneficiary of Henriques missing out is young Tasmanian all-rounder James Faulkner who was upgraded on the back of his performances in five ODIs and three T20Is in the past 12 months.
Veteran Brad Haddin – called in to replace an injured Matthew Wade for the Delhi Test – has retained his contract, pointing very strongly to the fact that he is viewed by the NSP as the back-up ‘keeper to Wade ahead of the likes of Tim Paine and Chris Hartley.
Among the other big winners in the latest contract list are two pace bowlers at opposite ends of their careers – Pat Cummins and Ryan Harris.
Both have spent more time in the last few years in therapy than on the field but they have had the NSP’s faith in them maintained.
Nineteen-year-old Cummins has hardly bowled a ball in anger following his man-of-the-match winning Test debut at Johannesburg in November 2011 but the selectors have him very much in the frame to play a significant role in national colours in the next 12 months.
At 33, Harris has played just 12 Tests but in those matches – 47 wickets at 23.6 – he has shown his worth when fully fit.
Returning to first-class ranks with Queensland late in the Shield season he captured 19 wickets at 22.3 in three matches.
Having got back into Shield ranks and performed well, the granting of a contract virtually stamps him as an Ashes squad certainty.
Ben Hilfenhaus, somewhat of a forgotten man over the summer due to a long-term side injury, has been retained.
Like Harris, Hilfenhaus got back on the paddock late in the Shield season and showed his worth with hauls of 4-84 and 4-33 against beaten finalists Queensland at the Gabba in mid-March.
All-rounder Glenn Maxwell has been given a contract this time around, as has Phillip Hughes, George Bailey and Clint McKay.
Bailey’s inclusion is an interesting one.
As the national T20 captain and a member of the ODI team he deserves to be there but just where he fits into the NSP’s plans for the Ashes series is another matter.
Many fans have called for him to be included in the squad to England but his form in Shield ranks this summer for Tasmania paints a very bleak picture of his abilities at first-class level – 256 runs at 18.3 with one half-century (66) in eight matches.
Mitchell Johnson has been retained on the list, but at 31 years of age, he needs to make an impact over the next 12 months to return the selectors’ faith.
Xavier Doherty is still contracted but given his lacklustre performances in India he can surely only be looked upon now as a limited-overs prospect.
Tellingly at the announcement of the new contract list, chairman of selectors John Inverarity spoke at length about two old stagers – Chris Rogers (35) and Adam Voges (33).
He mentioned both as possible Ashes tourists and well he might given the current dearth of quality batsmen in the Australian system.
The state of the country’s batting stocks was further underlined by the fact that only six specialist batsmen were included in the list of 20 contracted players.
Given the current drought plight, one man who would potentially be kicking himself is David Hussey.
The 35-year-old has long been considered one of the unluckiest players in recent history given the fact that he has never got the call-up to don the baggy green despite wearing the national colours 108 times at ODI and T20 level.
He has had a stellar first-career with an aggregate of 12,697 runs at 52.9, but alas this summer he bottomed out badly.
In nine Shield matches for Victoria he managed just 358 runs at 23.9.
That performance, along with a lean ODI summer, saw him lose his central contract, and with it, perhaps any remaining hopes of playing Test cricket.