Kurtis Patterson and Joe Burns have missed out on the Ashes squad, with Michael Neser, Mitch Marsh and Matt Wade making the 17-man group.
Rarely has the makeup of Australia’s best XI for an Ashes series been so unsure up until just over a week before the first Test. But Australia’s 12-vs-12 intra-squad match in Southampton this week made things clearer.
Despite both scoring tons in their last Test, indifferent recent form saw Patterson and Burns axed from Australia’s 17-man man squad.
My team for the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston
1. David Warner
2. Cameron Bancroft
3. Usman Khawaja
4. Steve Smith
5. Travis Head
6. Marnus Labuschagne
7. Tim Paine
8. James Pattinson
9. Pat Cummins
10. Peter Siddle
11. Nathan Lyon
12. Mitchell Starc
13. Josh Hazlewood
14. Mitch Marsh
15. Matthew Wade
16. Michael Neser
17. Marcus Harris
The most obvious takeaway from the intra-squad match was that, on a traditional seaming English pitch, Mitchell Starc’s waywardness outweighs his startling speed and bounce.
As Irish seamer Tim Murtagh demolished England with precise 120km/h seamers yesterday, it became even clearer Australia need to prioritise accuracy over pace when picking their quicks to play on moist pitches. James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, the men I’d pick to partner Siddle in the first Test, possess a rare combination of both.
Pattinson and Siddle combined to take 9-80 from 47 overs in the intra-squad match, showing the benefit of having dominated in county cricket over the past two seasons. Starc and Josh Hazlewood, meanwhile, were unable to exploit the moist pitch anywhere near as well, together taking 3-108.
Australia’s quicks too often wasted favourable conditions in the past two Ashes. Time and again the likes of Starc and Mitch Johnson were unable to find the line and length necessary to make the most of the lateral movement on offer. This time around, Australia cannot repeat the mistake of failing to tailor their attack to the conditions.
Starc should be held back for any Tests played on flatter decks, on which his ability to make something from nothing is priceless.
For pitches like Edgbaston, which is typically seam friendly, Australia need a more accurate, reliable pace unit. Hazlewood, meanwhile, is battling for form after a long injury layoff. He has played just two red-ball matches in the past six months, and before that had averaged 37 with the ball from his previous seven Tests. The tall right-armer remains an excellent option in Tests when in form, and could still play a pivotal role at some stage in this Ashes.
So, too, could Burns and Wade, who I would have as my two back-up batsmen. Burns is very unlucky not to make my starting XI. He has a fine Test record and made 180 in Australia’s last Test. But Burns has now had four failures in a row against the only two strong attacks he’s faced on this tour – the England Lions and the Brad Haddin XII.
If Australia are to spring an upset in the Ashes, they need to pick cricketers who are in form right now, and who are accustomed to the conditions. That’s partly why I’ve favoured three men who have played plenty of county cricket the last few months and done well in the process – Siddle, Pattinson and Bancroft.
In his four county matches over the past month, Bancroft piled up 513 runs at 73. One performance, in particular, swayed me to include him in my Ashes XI – his double of 77 and 92* against Lancashire, who boasted England swing superstar James Anderson.
Anderson has tormented Australia in England in the past and has destroyed county cricket this season, with 30 wickets at 9. Yet Bancroft was able to neuter Anderson in the first innings of the Durham vs Lancashire match on his way to 77.
Bancroft was then the standout batsman in the intra-squad match with scores of 93* and 17. What was particularly significant was the amount of balls he soaked up. On an extremely difficult pitch against elite bowlers, Bancroft faced 242 balls while being dismissed just once. The other three openers in the match – Warner, Burns and Harris – combined to face fewer deliveries (222) while being dismissed six times.
The West Australian is dour. Bancroft’s greatest attribute as a first-class opener is his ability to blunt the new ball and bat for time.
That was underlined five months ago in his first-class comeback innings following his ban. Against a solid NSW attack featuring Trent Copeland, Steve O’Keefe and Sean Abbott, Bancroft carried his bat, facing 358 deliveries as he made 138*.
His grit and powers of concentration are fantastic. Combined with his success and experience in the UK, where he’s played 25 first-class matches, this makes him a suitable foil for the aggressive Warner. At number three, Khawaja is an automatic pick if fit. Ditto for Smith at four.
Number five Head failed in both innings of the intra-squad match. But he holds his spot due to his good Test record (663 runs at 51) and his wonderful 139* against a strong England Lions attack last week. Patterson is the Test incumbent at number six and made 30 and 114* in his two innings in his debut series against Sri Lanka.
In his last seven red ball matches, however, including this intra-squad match, Patterson has averaged just 18 with the bat from 13 innings. Patterson definitely has a future as a Test cricketer, but he’s lost touch at the worst possible juncture.
By comparison, Labuschagne has struck form right when it matters and is battle-hardened in English conditions, with five tons in county cricket over the past three months. He also offers Australia a valuable fifth bowling option, having taken nine wickets at 27 so far in Tests, and grabbed 19 wickets from ten county matches this season.
Labuschagne’s followed at seven by captain and keeper Tim Paine, then the horses-for-courses bowling attack of James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon. Overall, this is not a world-beating Test XI. While the attack looks threatening, there are major questions about the ability of this batting line-up to handle lateral movement. England should be confident of rolling them, even after their shoddy performance against Ireland.
But this is the best line-up Australia can pick to play on what I expect to be a relatively moist pitch at Edgbaston in the Ashes opener.