One of the toughest decisions ahead of the challenging tour of India concerns the pivotal position of number six in the batting order.
Throughout this summer, and since the retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath for that matter, Australia have been searching for a solution to who can bat at six and provide meaningful overs as the fifth bowling option.
Shane Watson was a capable all-rounder, but he did not necessarily fill the prototype of an all-rounder who bats at six. The majority of his Test innings were played as an opening batsman, averaging 40.98 in that position. Watson played more of the role that Jacques Kallis played for South Africa, which was as a batsman who bowled.
Coming into the first Test in Perth, Mitch Marsh was the preferred option for this spot in the middle order, but was under increasing pressure to improve his batting despite the value he was beginning to show as a bowler. After another less-than-impressive performance with the bat in Perth, Marsh was dropped as selectors opted for a genuine batsman at number six, in South Australian Callum Ferguson.
Unfortunately, Ferguson was a casualty of the Hobart disaster, where Australia lost to South Africa by an innings and had been torn apart by the Proteas bowling attack. It was then that selectors decided to take a chance on youth, with New South Wales top-order batsman Nic Maddinson making his debut at six in Adelaide, joining fellow debutants Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb.
However, after another two Tests, Maddinson suffered the same fate as his predecessors this summer and was replaced by Western Australian batting all-rounder Hilton Cartwright.
Cartwright made a good fist of his sole match in the Test arena, with a fighting 37 in the first innings. Yet with the ball he did not provide the relief to Mitch Starc and Josh Hazlewood that was hoped, sending down just four overs in the match.
Hence the conundrum that is selecting a number six for Australia: are you a proven batsman who adds depth to the middle order, someone who bats but also bowls a bit, or a genuine all-rounder who can contribute as much with the bat as the ball?
Other scenarios are to pick a keeper who can bat at six and then a bowling all-rounder, which would put the likes of Ashton Agar, James Faulkner and even Mitchell Marsh back in the frame.
Or they could go with an established batsman at six – a tactic that was so successful under the leadership of Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor. This may mean Cartwright keeps his spot or the selectors opt for someone like Chris Lynn, who could be that dynamic number six to complement the exploits of David Warner at the top of the order.
Darren Lehmann has already spoken of the potential of Lynn as a batsman beyond the T20 format, and it could be that with a successful one-day international series against Pakistan, Lynn may be given the opportunity to show why he averages 44.39 at first-class level.
Another batsman in that mould is Glenn Maxwell, whose off-spin makes him more of an all-round option, while he is also an exceptional fieldsman. Predominantly known for his batting extravagance in the shorter forms of the game, Maxwell’s first-class record reveals a batsman with the aptitude to build big scores, with five first-class centuries and an average just under 40.
Despite his underwhelming start to the Sheffield Shield season, Maxwell’s past performances across all formats suggest he may be well suited to this role, especially in India.
Alternatively, selectors could take someone like Moises Henriques, who has shown his worth in Indian conditions before, scoring 68 and 81* on debut in Chennai.
Then there is 23-year-old Travis Head, who – if he can translate his recent form in one-day internationals to Test matches – may be a very handy long-term option at number six, with the added bonus that he bowls part-time off-spin.
In India, where teams can be out in the field for long periods, such is the grinding nature of the cricket the conditions demand, this decision will be crucial to the fortunes of the Australian team during the four-Test series.