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Australian selection riddles build first Test intrigue nicely

5th December, 2018
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5th December, 2018
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As big a fan as I was of Justin Langer the batsman, I didn’t imagine that cagey media operator would feature heavily in his debut Test on home soil as Australian coach.

Langer the batsman’s work ethic, attitude and desire to get the most out of whatever talent is available at the time is all there and present in every Australian team this summer. It’s been no different this week in Adelaide as the Australians have readied themselves for India.

For many Australian fans today will be the first time they’ve seen the Test team in action since the infamous South African tour for which Steve Smith and David Warner remain exiled for another few months. Cameron Bancroft probably isn’t much closer to a recall despite his ban ending before the new year.

» Australia vs India: Day 1 live scores, blog

For many Australian fans today will also be the first test of their resolve never to watch the Test team again.

This will be an interesting subplot. I was having a conversation at a barbecue last weekend in which one of the participants was adamant he’ll never watch another ball. “I’m just done with them, all of them,” he declared, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the team that steps onto the Adelaide Oval this morning is a very different beast to the one that lost control of its sanity in Cape Town last March.

Regardless of the extent of the rebuild – a necessary rebuild, make no mistake – this series against the No.1 side in Test cricket has been commonly written off. Though some of the bookies surprisingly have Australia as slight favourites for both the first Test and the four-Test series, it’s been difficult to find a huge amount of support for the home side anywhere, really.

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But since skipper Tim Paine named the side in his press conference yesterday in Adelaide, I don’t might admitting that I’m feeling more confident about the Australians starting the series with a win than I might otherwise have felt. The XI as named just has a good feel about it, and reports of the Adelaide Oval wicket having more grass on it than in recent years is encouraging.

And maybe the fact Paine named the XI yesterday at all is the biggest surprise of all. The interpretation and guesswork over the last 48 hours of the likely make-up of the top order was quite humorous to watch.

It all started with the ‘mail’ that Victorian opener Marcus Harris was no certainty to debut and that Usman Khawaja or even Shaun Marsh could take on the new Kookaburra alongside Aaron Finch.

Travis Head was also no certainty to play earlier in the week, with the South Australian skipper said to be facing a battle to hold off the challenges presented by all-rounder Mitchell Marsh and recalled Victorian captain Peter Handscomb. But then Head was hardly mentioned and somehow his place became secure.

Langer spoke to Michael Clarke’s new mate ‘Gerald Wheatley’ on Melbourne radio on Tuesday morning – that’s SEN’s Gerard Whateley, for the record – and his thoughts seemed to be taken a number of different ways.

Justin Langer, coach of Australia speaks to the media during a press conference on May 3, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Colleague David Lord read the tea leaves initially as Langer saying, “The final composition of the batting line-up rests between debutant Marcus Harris and Peter Handscomb on the comeback trail”.

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“That comment means Aaron Finch, and Mitchell Marsh, are definite starters,” he wrote on the day.

Other reporting around the traps, including on cricket.com.au and on these very pages, carried the Langer quote that quickly uncemented Marsh’s spot in the side.

“We’re pretty sure Marcus Harris will make his debut, which is very exciting for him,” the quotes had Langer saying.

“We’ll make the decision on the last batting spot … at this stage I’d say it’ll be either Peter Handscomb or Mitchell Marsh who’ll take the five or six position,” the coach said, making the remarkable admission that the last spot in the batting order would come down to the only two batsmen left in the squad.

Langer went on to hint that the state of the Adelaide Oval wicket might convince the Australians than the New South Wales pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins along with spinner Nathan Lyon wouldn’t require an extra medium-pace option in the form of the younger Marsh.

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But that hint was given on Tuesday, with two whole days of pitch preparation and South Australian sunshine still to come. Paine naming the XI yesterday had to have come with the assumption that the pitch wasn’t going to going to drastically change colour over the final day of curation.

And with the confirmation of the XI, Handscomb’s return and Marsh’s omission, many of the worst fears and plenty of the selection angst went out the window.

Six specialist batsmen, keeper Paine and the four bowlers is the recipe that plenty of us were calling for last summer, when it was ironically decided that Marsh as the fifth bowler gave the team a better balance than Handscomb as the sixth batsman. Now a bit of grass in Adelaide will give us the chance to see if this is true.

There’s no doubt the Mitchell Marsh will remain in the frame for the remaining Tests this summer, indeed, with Paine confirming the plan yesterday was to “send him back to Shield, get some more cricket under his belt knowing at some stage we’re probably going to need him.”

The selection intrigue that produced something of an unexpected Australian XI will no doubt carry on through the series.

But it’s already given the summer a nice little kick already.