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Ball-tampering sees Aussie outsiders rocket into Test contention

Travis Head celebrates after scoring a century. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)
Expert
14th April, 2018
45
1762 Reads

While the ball-tampering scandal left a dark stain on the Australian cricket team, it also created a rare opportunity for domestic batsmen to earn a crack at Test cricket.

Whereas after Australia’s recent 4-0 Ashes win the top six looked set in stone – bar one opener’s berth – not a single member of their batting unit is now truly cemented in the line-up.

Openers Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns, and number four Peter Handscomb have only just returned to the side, as replacements for the banned David Warner, Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith. Veterans Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh, meanwhile, possess valuable experience but both had poor series in South Africa and own troubling records away from home.

Australian batsman Usman Khawaja

Usman Khawaja (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

And all-rounder Mitch Marsh is set to undergo ankle surgery which will reportedly rule him out of what is now being slated as Australia’s next Test series – a two-match contest in Pakistan in October.

All of this means there are likely to be generous opportunities for batsmen to grab Test places over the course of the 12-month absences of the banned trio.

Mitch Marsh’s Test understudy has appeared to be Marcus Stoinis, with the West Australian drafted into the Test squad in India 12 months ago when Marsh went down injured.

But a horses-for-courses selection saw Marsh’s spot for the remaining two Tests in India instead go to spinning all-rounder Glenn Maxwell. The Victorian acquitted himself well across a run of four matches in India and Bangladesh, averaging 37 with the bat, before losing his spot to Marsh for the Ashes.

His impressive display in Asia last year makes Maxwell the obvious replacement for the burly seam-bowling all-rounder in Pakistan. Stoinis’ Test chance could come next summer, when Australia host series against India and Sri Lanka.

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The Aussies like to play a pace all-rounder on their flat home pitches so if Marsh is not fit, that could create an opening for Stoinis, who is highly regarded by the national selectors despite poor Sheffield Shield performances of late.

Stoinis’ main competition comes from his WA teammate Hilton Cartwright, who played one Test in Bangladesh last year after debuting at home against Pakistan in January 2017. Cartwright’s appeal dulled last summer, as he endured a disappointing Shield campaign, but he can push his Test case over the coming months during a stint with Middlesex in Division One of the English county cricket competition.

That will be crucial experience for Cartwright, who has only played three first-class matches outside Australia – the Test in Bangladesh, plus single first-class matches in England and New Zealand.

Hilton Cartwright of Australia bowls

Hilton Cartwright (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Also hoping to use this county season as a springboard is Travis Head. Like Cartwright, the South Australia captain lacks first-class experience outside Australia, having played just one match in England and one in India.

While I still have misgivings about Head’s looseness outside off stump, he has now put together three good Shield seasons on the trot. In the first of those, he won the Sheffield Shield player of the year, and he has averaged 46 and 43 over the past two seasons.

Head has long been earmarked as a future Test player so it will come as no surprise if he earns a baggy green this year. It would be a shock, however, if that debut were to come in Pakistan, given Head is far weaker against spin than pace.

The ability to play spin bowling could work in the favour of ODI stalwart Aaron Finch. The 31-year-old Victorian is a greatly-improved first-class cricketer, having made 2365 runs at a shade under 50 in the past four years.

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Having captained Australia in limited overs cricket, Finch also offers impressive leadership skills, which could appeal to the selectors as they seek to rebuild the shattered Test team.

Any or all of Finch, Head, Cartwright, Stoinis and Maxwell could vault into the Test XI as a result of the ball-tampering debacle.