Usman Khawaja could be in doubt to play the first Ashes Test after being left out of the 24-man group for the Australia vs Australia A match starting Tuesday, the final game before the Ashes.
There are only five days between the end of that match and the first Test at Edgbaston. If Khawaja is not deemed fit enough to play in this trial match due to his hamstring injury, he may not be right for the Ashes opener either.
Khawaja would likely be an automatic selection in Australia’s XI if healthy, but it remains to be seen whether he can recover in time, with the series starting just 11 days from now.
It would be a big blow to Australia given the stability offered by having veterans Khawaja, David Warner and Steve Smith in their top four. Yet they also have better batting depth than they’ve boasted in years.
Joe Burns, Marcus Harris, Cameron Bancroft, Kurtis Patterson, Marnus Labuschagne and Matt Wade all have solid claims to play the first Test.
Warner, Smith and Travis Head should be locks in the top six. If Khawaja is unavailable, that would leave those six aforementioned batsmen competing for three spots.
It is nigh-on impossible to predict which of those six would get the nod. There are so many permutations. For example, would Australia consider playing one of Harris, Burns or Bancroft at No.3 in place of Khawaja?
In England, where minimising damage in the first 20 overs of your innings is paramount, Australia could find it appealing to have someone at first drop who is used to facing the new ball.
Harris and Burns have both done enough to justify opening in the first Test, but clearly only one of them can partner Warner. Harris did a fine job of consistently blunting the new ball against India’s elite attack, while Burns has made four Test tons and averages 40 after 16 matches.
Both men made centuries in Australia A’s four-day match against Sussex. Burns also has experience batting throughout the order in first-class cricket, having debuted at No.6 in Tests and batted between No.3 and No.5 for Queensland early in his Sheffield Shield career.
Bancroft, meanwhile, was very impressive with the bat in his last Test series. Against South Africa’s dominant pace attack and in sometimes difficult conditions he was Australia’s leading run-scorer over the first three Tests, with 223 runs at 37.
Bancroft also has significant experience in the UK, having played 25 first-class matches there, and is on a run of hot form, with 513 runs at 73 in his past four county matches, albeit in Division 2.
The leading run-scorer in that division by a long way is another contender for the first drop spot should Khawaja be unfit: Marnus Labuschagne.
After an underwhelming start to his Test career, Labuschagne has run amok in England with 1114 runs at 66, including five tons. Labuschagne batted at No.4, behind Khawaja, in Australia’s last Test and has often been at first drop for Glamorgan this county season.
Labuschagne also has the advantage of being a handy fifth bowling option. Since he made his Test debut in the UAE nine months ago, he has become a regular bowler for the first time in his red-ball career, taking 35 wickets at 39 in that period.
While his leg spin is not economical, it is a genuine wicket-taking option, as evidenced by his first-class strike rate of 62 in that period.
Granted, he is nowhere near the quality of these bowlers, but when you consider the first-class career strike rates of Nathan Lyon (67) and Moeen Ali (65), Labuschagne’s rate underlines that he is a real threat with the ball, albeit an expensive one.
Either Patterson or Wade could also come into the XI if Khawaja is unavailable. Smith could well take over from Khawaja at No.3, opening up a position further down the order. Patterson and Wade both are deserving of Ashes opportunities. The latter was overlooked many times for Test selection in recent years.
When finally he got his chance in February against Sri Lanka he made 30 and 114*. Yet if the selectors pick on recent form, Patterson will need to pile up runs in this intra-squad match after having a limp end to the last Shield season and making scores of four, 32 and 38 so far on this UK tour.
Playing the ball late and with soft hands, his style appears suited to conquering the Dukes ball in England. I sense, though, that will matter less than recent form.
Wade, then, is a huge chance to play at Edgbaston – even if Khawaja is healthy – considering his prime touch. But with so many batsmen in the mix, the final make-up of Australia’s top six will be decided by performances this week in the intra-squad match. Rarely has there ever been so much riding on a non-international fixture for Australia.
Graeme Hick XII
Joe Burns, Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith, Peter Handscomb, Matthew Wade, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (c), Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Chris Tremain and Nathan Lyon.
Brad Haddin XII
David Warner, Marcus Harris, Kurtis Patterson, Travis Head (c), Marnus Labuschagne, Will Pucovski, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Peter Siddle, Josh Hazlewood and Jon Holland.