The Cricket World Cup is rapidly fading into the distance, and the Ashes are just about upon us as cricket’s oldest rivalry gets ready to roar to life.
But there is still plenty of water to pass under the bridge between now and then.
England will prepare for their series with a one-off Test against Ireland played over four days, while the Australian side will complete their preparations with an Australia vs Australia A match, which gets underway next Tuesday and will also last four days.
A squad of 25 players has been selected to assemble in Southampton for the match, including all 15 members of the Australia A squad which has been touring England, seven members from the World Cup squad, and three others who have been playing county cricket.
Cameron Bancroft, Jackson Bird, Joe Burns, Alex Carey, Patrick Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, Tim Paine, Kurtis Patterson, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
The Ashes squad will include 18 players, meaning seven of these guys will miss out.
To pick the squad, you need to set some ground parameters about what coverage you need in each position.
Firstly, there can be no question you need two spinners, and two wicket-keepers, while a minimum of five pace bowlers is a must for a five-Test series, and probably six.
However, if you were to pick the six quicks, it leaves you with just eight spots for the remaining top six batsmen, which is where things may get tricky as it only allows one back-up for the top and middle order across what will be a long series where form is sure to ebb and conditions will be challenging.
It does mean that the final spot comes down to the toss-up between an extra bowler, and an extra batsman, but we will get to that in a moment.
So, let’s run the rule over how the squad is shaping up.
Options: Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, David Warner.
The top three for the first Test, pending the injury status of Khawaja, more or less picks itself.
David Warner and Marcus Harris, particularly after scoring some runs in the last week against the England Lions, are going to be at the top of the order, while Khawaja will line up at first drop.
It’s after that where things get tricky, because, as mentioned, there is really only one spot to give away here for a back-up option, but both Burns and Bancroft could make their case that they belong in the side.
Bancroft, who is currently skippering Durham in the County Championship, has racked up an impressive 726 runs at 45.37 with a pair of centuries.
While there can be no doubting the form of the Western Australian and the way he has controlled his side, he doesn’t provide the same versatility that Burns does.
Even though the Queenslander would prefer to open, he can bat anywhere in the top six and with a century against Sussex in his first match on English soil, as well as being the incumbent opener, he should have the inside running on the gig.
At the end of the day, I won’t lose any sleep if the selectors go the other way, but with a better time of it at Test level thus far, Burns seems like the way to go.
The verdict: Burns, Harris, Khawaja, Warner.
Options: Joe Burns, Alex Carey, Peter Handscomb, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Kurtis Patterson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade.
For clarity’s sake, the all-rounders are also being included in this section, and I should really explain before I go any further – I’ve added Burns and Carey to the options here simply because they could play as a batsman only and middle-order batsman, but that’s not the way it should go down.
I’ll explain more about Wade in the next section, but he is an option as a middle-order batsman playing alongside Paine.
But ignoring that fact, it leaves seven players battling for three starting spots and one, or maybe two, in the squad, so there are going to be some disappointed figures here.
The first picked is Steve Smith – he just has to be there. A brilliant World Cup, a mountain of experience and leadership qualities to help Tim Paine, even if he can’t officially get involved.
Travis Head and Kurtis Patterson are the next two who must be selected in the squad, and whether they both play or not is anyone’s guess, although my guess is that the selectors will go for an all-rounder, meaning they are facing off for the number five spot.
In terms of squad balance, Marsh and Labuschagne both have to be there. Not knowing exactly what sort of pitches are going to be served up, it means Australia’s hand is forced.
Regardless, Labuschagne’s form in County Cricket (albeit, Division 2) has been splendid. He leads all run-scorers with 1114 at an average of 65 with five centuries to his name. He has virtually gone and written his own name into the squad through a weight of runs.
Marsh, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the numbers, he did make an impressive 38 in the first innings against the Lions for Australia A and had his name in the wicket column of both innings.
He probably needs a big performance in the pre-selection match, but at the moment, much to the disgust of a lot of Aussie fans, he probably holds off the extra bowler and takes the 18th spot.
What that does do is leave Peter Handscomb and Will Pucovski out in the cold, heading back home to Australia.
Unfortunately, neither of them are cut out for an Ashes tour at this point. Handscomb still has major issues moving his feet and playing good cricket strokes, which is a major problem against the swinging ball.
If he was to play, he would likely be exposed to either reverse swing or a second new ball, and the way he plays makes him a candidate for LBW every time to the crease.
The verdict: Head, Labuschagne, Marsh, Patterson, Smith.
Options: Alex Carey, Tim Paine, Matthew Wade.
Let’s deal with the bleeding obvious then – Paine is going to be there as skipper of the side.
But, in a five-Test series, especially in the freezing conditions of England and when you have a player as injury-prone as Paine, a back-up must be included.
Carey is coming off a staggering World Cup where he announced himself to the world as one of the most level-headed middle order batsmen in the world, saving Australia on a number of occasions.
However, I share the view of many – he just isn’t ready for red-ball cricket, especially in conditions which will move and seam. At 27 years of age, he averages just 29 with the bat, and his glovework at times wasn’t the smartest at the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Wade has been plundering runs and giving the selectors message after message that he should be selected.
That he missed out on playing for Australia in all three formats last year is a travesty given the summer he had. The stat line is astounding.
In the Sheffield Shield, 1021 runs at 60.05 as second in the competition, to go with 592 runs at 42 in the BBL, and while his one-day cup at the start of the summer wasn’t at special, he did have one huge century.
He then belted back-to-back centuries in the first two one-day matches of the Australia A tour, and made a tough 114 in the first innings against the England Lions.
Having been cleared of injury after retiring hurt, he must be included in the squad, and there is some scope to play him as a specialist batsman.
The verdict: Paine, Wade.
Options: Jackson Bird, Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain.
With the above, unless something changes, there are five spots for quick bowlers.
Cummins and Starc, on the back of their fantastic World Cups, get almost automatic selection. They are the best bowlers Australia have, and will most certainly be there.
Hazlewood too, is an incumbent in this side, and even though he has been working his way back from injury, must be in the final 18-man squad, even if not the best XI.
The almost two-metre tall quick will also provide Australia with consistency and control, however, must learn that in English conditions, he doesn’t have to bowl genuine wheels, but rather, bowl full and let the ball talk. He can play the Glenn McGrath-type role if in peak form, but must be there to get a spot in the XI.
Michael Neser is the only bowler I’d say with any confidence won’t be in the final 18 out of the ones listed above.
Bird and Tremain have really pushed for their spots in the last couple of days, both taking a bag of wickets against the England Lions, however, for mine, it’s Siddle and Pattinson in the squad.
Pattinson took seven-for against Sussex and brings Australia another dimension of pace, bounce and deadliness to the attack, while Siddle is more of a McGrath or Hazlewood-type bowler.
He is going to plug away and get the job done for you, extracting movement if conditions permit.
Of course, the fact he has helped to ruin most top orders in Division 1 County Cricket helps as well. As it stands, he has 34 wickets at an average of 20 for the season, and absolutely must be in the Ashes squad.
The verdict: Cummins, Hazlewood, Pattinson, Siddle, Starc.
Options: Jon Holland, Nathan Lyon.
As stated, you need to have two spin bowlers in the squad. Given Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland are the only two selected in the 25, they will both be picked.
The verdict: Holland, Lyon.
My final 18-man squad
Tim Paine (c), Joe Burns, Patrick Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Kurtis Patterson, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
Players missing out
Cameron Bancroft, Jackson Bird, Alex Carey, Peter Handscomb, Michael Neser, Will Pucovski, Chris Tremain
So, that all being said, what does the best XI look like heading into The Ashes?
As mentioned throughout the above, a lot of it picks itself, but there are some spots of contention.
Number five and six are the big ones, but there is also a spot in the bowling attack up for grabs.
Travis Head has probably done enough to stamp his ticket at five, having scored a challenging century against Sussex. Wade batted with him through that innings though, so the spot comes down to Head, Wade and Patterson.
I’m going Head though.
There isn’t two spots here for specialist batsmen either. With the form of Labuschagne, who is plundering runs for fun in County Cricket, he slots into six under enormous pressure.
On the bowling front, Hazlewood has only taken three wickets on the Australia A tour to this point, and they were in the first two one day matches. He went wicketless against Sussex and didn’t play against the Lions.
He will be in the squad, but with James Pattinson picking up seven-for in the same match, he seems to have the inside running on the final spot in the XI for Edgbaston.
Given his past with injuries though, that’d be a major gamble.
The form of Siddle is also talking up a big game. His average of 20 is one thing, but he has taken 17 wickets in his last three matches, and while it shouldn’t come into the reckoning, might add a bit more with the bat than Hazlewood.
1. David Warner
2. Marcus Harris
3. Usman Khawaja
4. Steve Smith
5. Travis Head
6. Marnus Labuschagne
7. Tim Paine (wk)
8. Pat Cummins
9. Mitchell Starc
10. Peter Siddle
11. Nathan Lyon