Alex Carey has the makings of a Test wicketkeeper, but it would be a mistake to play him as a specialist batsman in the Ashes as suggested yesterday by Australian cricket legends Steve Waugh and Shane Warne.
In the wake of Carey’s stunning World Cup campaign, Warne and Waugh both backed Carey to be picked as a frontline batsman in the Tests in England, which start in just 19 days from now.
Carey was widely considered to be in the frame for a Test berth 18 months ago before Tim Paine edged him out for the wicketkeeper spot in the 2017-18 Ashes.
At that stage, the South Australian was yet to play for Australia in any format and had an underwhelming first-class record. Since then, however, Carey has improved in the longest format and has bloomed into one of Australia’s most valuable ODI cricketers.
The left-hander was among the breakout batting stars of the World Cup, cracking 375 runs at 62. Carey was so impressive with the blade that many Australian cricket fans have been echoing the calls of Warne and Waugh for him to play in the Ashes as a batsman.
Carey probably should be first in line to take over from Paine in Tests once the skipper’s career winds up in the next year or two. Matt Wade also has strong claims but, if Paine hangs on for a while, age may well count against him.
For now, though, Paine deserves to be Australia’s Test gloveman. Since making a shock return to Tests 18 months ago, Paine has been one of Australia’s best three players. Along with paceman Pat Cummins and spinner Nathan Lyon, he has formed the bedrock of the Aussie Test team in that time.
Paine’s leadership has been encouraging, his keeping has been excellent and he has also averaged 35 with the bat in that period, consistently chipping in with handy runs.
By the time his Test career finishes, Carey should be primed to replace him. That looks as if it could be a smooth handover, which would be terrific for the Australian Test side.
What Australia should not do, however, is rush Carey into the team as a specialist batsman. They should not try to fashion him into something he is not. The 27-year-old clearly is gifted with the blade, but it cannot be overlooked that he has just two centuries in his career across all formats.
That is not the record of a man who is ready to play as a frontline batsman in an Ashes series in England.
Let Carey further hone his first-class batting and keeping skills in the Sheffield Shield so he’s prepared to take over from Paine down the line. Not only is Carey unsuited to playing as a specialist batsmen at this stage, but there’s also no need for him to be wedged into such an unfamiliar role.
Australia have plenty of decent batting options for this Ashes. In fact, they have so many options that they will have to leave out batsmen who look worthy of further Test opportunities.
David Warner, Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja should be locks for the first Ashes Test if fit. That leaves five batsmen – Joe Burns, Marcus Harris, Kurtis Patterson, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne – fighting for just three spots, without even factoring in the strong claims of the red-hot Wade.
Burns, Head and Patterson all scored tons in Australia’s last Test match. Burns and Harris just scored centuries in Australia A’s first four-day match in England. Harris is also coming off a phenomenal Sheffield Shield season, in which he scored 1,188 runs at 70.
Averaging 33 after his six Tests, the left-handed opener has shown enough in his brief international career to suggest he can potentially make the grade.
Burns, meanwhile, averages 40 in Tests and has four tons from 16 matches. Head has had a great start to his Test career, averaging 51 after eight matches. Then there’s the less proven pair of Patterson and Labuschagne.
Patterson thoroughly deserved his Test debut last summer and then aced this challenge by making 30 and 114* in his sole match. Labuschagne, by comparison, did not really deserve his Test opportunities and failed to capitalise on them, but has since blossomed.
The 25-year-old Queenslander is, by a country mile, the leading runscorer in Division Two of the English County Championship this season, with 1,057 runs at 70.
I wouldn’t have him in my starting Ashes line-up at this stage, but with five tons in this county season alone, I’d pick him ahead of Carey, who has two tons in his entire cricketing career. It is just not Carey’s time yet.
Unless Paine gets injured or suffers a catastrophic loss of form, then Carey should be held back. Test opportunities are on the horizon for the gifted gloveman, they just shouldn’t be as a specialist batsman.