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After losing three members of their top six due to the ball-tampering scandal, Australia need to quickly decide upon their best Test batting line-up and then give these players time to grow.
Australia’s batting unit is so greatly weakened by the loss of Steve Smith and David Warner that it will surely falter many times over the duration of that pair’s 12-month bans.
When it does so repeatedly the temptation will be to lose patience and make changes in the forlorn hope new faces will help stem the bleeding. More than likely they wouldn’t – there are no readymade star batsmen biding their time in the Sheffield Shield.
There are plenty of talented players who may well be able to succeed in Tests, but they too would need time and patience to find their feet at the highest level.
Now is not the time for the Australian selectors to begin shuffling the deck constantly. The best thing they could do for a team trying to rebuild from a devastating incident is to pick who they believe to be the best 11 cricketers in the country and then guarantee those players a fair run.
Australia’s bowling line-up picks itself, but it is on the batting front that there will be a lure to tinker. In the fourth Test against the Proteas Australia had close to their best possible top seven, with the only change I would make being to bring in Glenn Maxwell at the expense of Peter Handscomb.
Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh had awful series in South Africa, averaging 20 and 18 with the bat respectively, but they’re now Australia’s two most capped batsmen, and experience is a precious commodity after losing more than 12,000 Test runs in the form of Smith and Warner.
Khawaja and Marsh both have serious queries over their ability to adapt to foreign conditions. The former has averaged just 18 in his past eight Tests away from home. Meanwhile, Marsh scored three tons in his first nine away Tests but since then has floundered, also averaging 18 in his past eight Tests outside Australia.
Fortunately for Australia eight of their next nine scheduled Tests are at home, with the solitary away Test being against Zimbabwe, the weakest team in the format. That one-off Test in Zimbabwe this July will be followed by two home Tests against Bangladesh in August, four home Tests against India in November and December and two home Tests against Sri Lanka in January.
That is a generous schedule, particularly for the Australian batting line-up, which will have time to gel in almost exclusively home conditions and against three weak pace attacks. They will need to make the most of this relatively easy run of bowling opponents because after that they will face consecutive major challenges.
First they will play three Tests next March against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, where Australia’s batting line-up fell in a heap on their last visit in 2014. That will be followed by the Ashes in England, home of the Dukes ball and seaming pitches which have troubled them so often.
By that stage Australia will have back the world’s best Test batsman in Smith and, perhaps, their best opening batsman in Warner.
Until one or both of that star pair return Australia need to resist making too many changes to their batting line-up. After Warner and the banned Cameron Bancroft, Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns are clearly the two best first-class openers in the country and both have experienced periods of success at Test level.
At 22 and 28 years old respectively, they have the potential to become a long-term opening partnership for Australia and must be given a long rope.
The 31-year-old Khawaja and 34-year-old Shaun Marsh have higher expectations on them given their age and experience. Behind them at five I would love to see Maxwell finally given an extended run in the Test line-up.
The Victorian has been very poorly treated by the selectors so far in his Test career. Not only have all seven of his Tests been in Asia, the most difficult location for Australian batsmen, but those seven Tests incredibly have been spread out across four separate stints in the team.
Imagine being dropped four times in a Test career of just seven matches. That is ridiculous. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Maxwell has been tossed around the batting order like a ragdoll, batting in every single position from opening to eight.
Yes, you read correctly, in the space of 14 Test innings Maxwell has opened, and also batted at three, four, five, six, seven and eight. Aboslutely gobsmacking.
Maxwell should be given time to find his feet at five, with Mitch Marsh provided similar latitude at six. The younger Marsh brother had a very disappointing end to the series in South Africa, but it must not be forgotten he also played easily the best innings of the series by an Aussie, with his backs-to-the-wall 96 setting up a victory in the first Test.
In seven Tests since returning to the Test team Marsh has made 496 runs at 45, including two tons and that 96.
At just 26 years old Marsh has not yet reached what are typically the peak years for a batting all-rounder. Given the lack of outstanding candidates to replace him, it would be wise to see whether Marsh can learn from his lean trot across the last three Tests in South Africa.
Australia’s Test batting options are limited at present. That is why it is so important for the selectors to pick the best top six and then back them in.