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Back in the golden years of Australian cricket, most Australian batsmen had to score plenty of runs for a number of seasons at Sheffield Shield level to make the Test team.
Names like Matt Hayden and Michael Hussey spring to mind. Players like Stuart Law and Martin Love would be locked into the Australian Test team today. Instead, they played one and five Tests for their country respectively.
Australian cricket, and the batting order specifically, is in a much different position today. Over the past few seasons, strong early Sheffield Shield form has led to Australian Test debuts. Matthew Renshaw and Pete Handscomb debuted against South Africa in November 2016 and Cameron Bancroft played his first Test in November 2017.
It will happen again this year. After the Test series defeat to Pakistan, coach Justin Langer told radio station SEN that Test spots were up for grabs. “It’s very open. Because we’re not performing,” Langer said, before adding “whether you’re an 18-year-old wonderboy or a 30-year-old run machine”.
With that in mind, we look at early season form and see if we can pick those batsmen who must now be firmly in selectors’ minds as we move into November. We also note there are three more Sheffield Shield rounds before the first test, so it is not too late for any hopefuls. However, they wouldn’t want to get too far behind.
Firstly, Will Pucovski has done the right thing, by taking an indefinite break from cricket, to deal with mental health issues. Pucovski is an undoubted talent, averaging 55.75 last Sheffield Shield season and, of course, the 243 run effort against Western Australia at the WACA this season.
However, at 20 years of age and with just six first class games under his belt, he has plenty of time to become a fixture in the Australian test team. With all the pressure that goes hand in hand with that position, Pucovski should be given all the time he needs.
Surprisingly, Pucovski’s double century is not the highest Shield score so far this season. Marcus Harris’ 250 not out against NSW is.
After six seasons playing for Western Australia, Harris left for Victoria in April 2016. The then Western Australian coach Langer described Harris’ batting efforts as “mediocre with flashes of brilliance”. Harris’ two seasons with Victoria have been much more consistent and he must be close to a Test call.
Going against him is that Matt Renshaw would have opened in Pakistan if not for concussion problems. Renshaw has only scored 0 and 3 in his only Shield appearance to date but he may be given first shot against India if he gets some scores in his remaining games.
Jake Lehmann must also be very close to selection. After being tipped as an Ashes bolter last year, his scores this season of 61, 33no and 126 put him firmly in the frame. With the current Australian middle order positions all potentially open, another couple of strong performances would likely see Lehmann in the baggy green.
Plenty were rightfully calling for Shaun Marsh’s axing, from the Australian team, after his woeful series against Pakistan. Whilst those calls are not likely to ease, his 80 and 98 against Tasmania have given selectors a reason to pick him. With Langer a supporter, he may well keep his place for the first Test against India.
Of the others so far, Alex Doolan has scored 115 and 76 this season whilst Tom Cooper has scored 178. Cooper arguably only got his chance in the South Australian team due to Callum Ferguson’s injury whilst Doolan would need another few big scores to give him any chance of a recall. Kurtis Patterson has made 63 and 50 in the recent Shield game vs Victoria but his failure to go and post a big hundred will count against him.
The no 6 all-rounders position is also open after Mitchell Marsh’s series against Pakistan. After working on his batting and seemingly enjoying a break-out series against England, his away tests have been poor.
Of more concern though is that of his four dismissals in Pakistan, three were LBW. Marsh has worked hard on getting his pads outside the line but he fell back into bad habits in the UAE.
Of the contenders for no 6, Marcus Stoinis has put together 80 amidst a couple of failures. Glenn Maxwell hasn’t played Shield at all this season but is coming off a good season last year averaging over 50. As is the case with Stoinis, a successful one day series against South Africa could be enough for Maxwell to gain the no 6 spot.
With the first Test against India not starting until 6th December, there are another three Sheffield Shield rounds to stake claims. At this stage, Jake Lehmann is only a couple of good scores away from selection.
If Renshaw’s early season form continues to falter, another century or two from Harris will put plenty of pressure on the selectors. November promises to be a very interesting month of Sheffield Shield cricket.