With the Ashes XI selected for the first Test having a tough task ahead of them, it is time to look forward to the next Ashes home series and ask the question: are the Australians going in the right direction?
For the sake of this exercise, I will highlight the age of each player in the current team and squad under Darren Lehmann (43).
Chris Rogers (35) – The eldest member of the squad and at this stage one half of the opening pair. It seems Rogers has been brought into the Ashes squad on the back of his remarkable first class record in England.
However, a first class average above 50 and 60 centuries under the belt point to more than just a player adept in English conditions. Three centuries in the last shield season (742 runs at a shade under 50 per innings) also ticks the form box for recent runs on the board.
Rogers will turn 36 shortly after the completion of this series and that provides the biggest question mark to the mind as to whether or not his selection will contribute further than the next two series. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer hung up their helmets at 37 and Simon Katich left the Australian team at the comparably youthful age of 34 (not by his own doing of course).
So Chris Rogers, while well qualified to fill the position temporarily, is only a short term fix. His worth is yet to be proven but his experience could see him utilised for at least this series and the return Ashes.
Shane Watson (32) – Watson has caused one of the most debated batting order quandaries in Australian cricket. Until I heard that he had suffered a ‘leg niggle’, I thought the miserly use of Watson on the first day was a workload-management related strategy.
Hopefully, this is nothing serious and this kind of minimal, efficient usage can continue in the future. Watson’s bowling helps relieve a 3-pronged pace attack and has the added advantage of garnering occasional wickets (which he does have the uncanny knack of taking).
If Watson’s batting is to be taken seriously, the bowling spikes should be put to pasture, and concentrating solely on the opening role would have to become the priority. To his detriment, his current conversion rate to three figures is well below par. However, this is offset by the way he is able to bludgeon attacks and take the attack to the opposition.
All Australian cricket supporters have been spoilt for riches since the late 1980’s until the retirement of Hayden and Langer, and they need Shane Watson to be one member of the opening pair for the next five years or so.
Ed Cowan (31) – 30 Test innings, one century, six fifties. Unfortunately, being a good team man, a student of the game and a hard worker doesn’t pay the bills if runs are not being scored.
At 31, this series is probably Cowan’s last roll of the dice. With David Warner sent to South Africa seemingly until the 3rd Test match, Cowan has an opportunity he must seize.
If he gets tuns on the board he will become an automatic selection due to his other team contributions. If he is successful on this tour, it will be a defining moment for Cowan, who could be the perfect foil to Watson looking towards 2020.
Michael Clarke (32) – Clarke is arguably the best batsman in the world, if not definitely amongst them. With his back problems behind him (pun intended), Clarke will be the mainstay of Australian cricket and most likely the captain of the side.
He will rely on the top 3 to set more solid foundations so there are fewer situations where he has the added pressure of coming in at two for not much. While he has his detractors off the field, coach Lehmann could compliment the skipper well with a healthy mix of the old school and the new.
Phil Hughes (24) – Like Cowan, runs will speak volumes for this young man. While it is easy to pick his technique to pieces, it has been worked on and a healthy shield season (673 at 56) saw his return to the Test side.
Two scores of 80 against Sri Lanka showed promise but the paltry return in India (147 at 18) didn’t. Runs in England are a must or he will once again find himself in the Sheffield Shield wilderness.
If Hughes cruises through this series and the home summer with at least a few centuries, his confidence will build and that would be a good thing for Australian cricket. He will not be the first and is unlikely to be the last successful Test cricketer with a flawed technique.
Steve Smith (24) – Steve Smith does seem to possess real talent. His enthusiasm in the field is refreshing and he displays an attitude of someone you want on your side.
Smith’s positive approach can sometimes border on the risky. That is his natural game though, one that coach Lehmann may be able to finesse and mould into something more consistent.
Usman Khawaja (26) – Khawaja seems to be behind in the pecking order at the moment, but there is no doubting he has shown glimpses of real talent and composure.
His move from New South Wales to Queensland has only resulted in modest returns (438 at 39). If not given the opportunities on this tour he will have to return to the Australian domestic circuit and score hundreds.
It seems guaranteed that if he does that he will not only return to the Australian side but be a senior member in the years to come, possibly in the troublesome first drop position. With Hughes and Smith he can provide a stable nucleus of quality Test players.
David Warner (26) – Warner is undoubtedly a talent. But the number of comments from different corners lately that the best thing for Warner is not being selected in the opening Ashes Test, seem spot on.
Touted as a potential future Test captain, Warner has a long road to travel before his name is seen in that column again. But it certainly is possible if he adopts a ‘head down, bum up’ attitude. Darren Lehmann has already sent the message loud and clear that playing for Australia is a privilege not a right.
Warner can be a destructive, opposition-demoralising top order batsman. His aggressive nature could possibly be utilised anywhere in the Australian batting order, although that is open for debate.
If Watson is to stay at the top, Warner would not be the ideal partner for him as they are both batsmen that seem to thrive when dominating the strike. It seems Warner would be best utilised at number five for the time being, progressing up the order as he matures and the 30-somethings make room for him. Once he has served his time, he could be there.
Others – Alex Doolan (27), Callum Ferguson (28), Joe Burns (23), Nic Maddinson (21) and Jordan Silk (21) offer exciting future options. There are also others playing that I have omitted and still others that will rise into the ranks across the next few seasons.
The hot topic of the wicket keeper will be discussed tomorrow. In the meantime here’s hoping that Brad Haddin can help push Australia into the 300’s, even if it does mean I have to change my tact for tomorrow’s article!