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Sure things and surprises in my Aussie Ashes team

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Expert
29th July, 2019
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Come Thursday, Australia is guaranteed to field a Test team that will contain at least four changes to the one that played against Sri Lanka at the end of last summer.

Everyone has an opinion on what the XI should look like, so here’s my take.

We are entering a unique Ashes series with the first ball to be bowled in August.

For many months we have trumpeted the fact that Australia would be in the rare position of having so many players being tested in English conditions in the lead in.

Those playing county cricket have had the opportunity to turn out in as many as ten first-class matches while the Australia A squad has been in England since mid-June.

The form of those players needs to strongly come into consideration for who plays the opening Test of the series.

Let’s start at the top.

David Warner is an automatic inclusion, as are several others.

His reintegration into the international fold has been seamless.

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The hoots and jeers of the English crowds failed to have an impact during the World Cup as he went within one run of being the tournament’s leading run-scorer.

In ten matches he accumulated 647 runs at 71.9 with three centuries and three fifties.

He did so in a far more measured fashion than we are used to seeing in the white ball arena.

David Warner celebrates a century.

David Warner celebrates his century during Australia’s win over Pakistan in the World Cup. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Transitioning to the red ball he was only one of two players to score a half-century in the intra-squad match at Southampton.

The choice of his opening partner is between Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris after Joe Burns unluckily failed to make the cut.

Both have similar records in the nascent stages of their Test career.

Bancroft’s eight Tests have produced 402 runs at 30.9 while Harris has compiled 327 runs at 32.7 in his first six appearances.

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Neither has gone onto reach three figures with Bancroft’s best an unbeaten 82 on debut against England at the Gabba in November 2017 and Harris 79 last summer at the SCG against India.

Harris is the incumbent, but then again, so was Burns.

Harris has played six red ball innings in England in the past three weeks for 226 runs at 45.2 – 109 of those coming in his first innings against Sussex.

That is a solid return but I would be selecting Bancroft.

On a seemingly treacherous pitch for batting at Southampton he scored an unbeaten 93 against an attack that included Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Peter Siddle.

Across both innings he scored 110 runs off 242 balls.

It is that sort of approach that will be needed to blunt the English attack.

His knock was easily the dominant performance in an innings of 6-156.

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That came on the back of nine county matches for Durham in which he scored 726 runs at 45.4 with two centuries.

Against the Lancashire attack, led by James Anderson, he made 77 and 92no.

Australian opening batsman Cameron Bancroft walks out of the dressing rooms

Cameron Bancroft. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

His last stint in county cricket with Gloucestershire in 2017 ended with an unbeaten double century.

Usman Khawaja, at the time of penning this column, had still not been declared fit for Thursday although it appears he will pass his fitness test.

Having said that, I would actually not be selecting him.

He has not had an innings against the red Dukes ball prior to the series and while he was serviceable during the World Cup – 316 runs at 35.1 from nine appearances – having no first-class warm-up is a concern.

Considerable water has flowed under the bridge since his last Ashes series in England in 2013 in which he scored just 114 runs at 19.0 in six innings.

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He had a four-match stint with Glamorgan last year during which he scored 420 runs at 52.5.

It is the same county that Marnus Labuschagne played for this season.

His form was impeccable.

In ten matches, Labuschagne scored 1114 runs at 65.5 with five centuries – including two in the match against Worcestershire.

Yes, Glamorgan is in the second division but form is form and Labuschagne has spent an inordinate amount of time at the crease against the red ball.

Next best, with 885 runs, is 15-Test England batsman Dawid Malan.

Most importantly, the bulk of Labuschagne’s innings for Glamorgan have come at number three. It is the same spot he batted in the intra-squad match.

On the opening morning, when conditions were at their most challenging, he was the standout as others fell around him.

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Whilst his innings amounted to only 41 by the time he was dismissed the score was a calamitous 6-70.

By day’s end with 17 wickets having fallen his innings was clearly the highest.

It indicated that the technique he has honed in English conditions this season has him in good stead.

His leg-spin bowling has claimed nine Test wickets at 27.1 making him an obvious choice to send down some overs in support of the primary attack.

Khawaja will have an opportunity to get some red ball practice in the three-day match against Worcestershire between the first and second Tests.

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There is a second first-class fixture against Derbyshire slated between the third and fourth Tests.

Steve Smith is a certainty at number four.

He had dual single figure scores in the intra-squad match but made four half-centuries in the World Cup on his return to international cricket, including 85 against England in the semi-final.

He averages 43.3 in 12 Tests in England.

Discounting his first two Tests when selected as a leg-spinner in 2010 that average climbs to 47.4.

Travis Head has done little wrong through his first eight Tests with 663 runs at 51.0, highlighted by a knock of 161 against Sri Lanka at Canberra.

He has passed 50 on five other occasions.

In the Australia A fixture against the English Lions – in which Ashes squad member Sam Curran took 6-95 in the first innings – he made an unbeaten 139.

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In the same match, Matthew Wade made 114.

It continued an incredible purple patch in first-class ranks for a man whose last of 22 Tests was in September 2017.

His Test average may be 28.6 but his recent mountain of runs means he cannot be denied.

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In his past 11 first-class matches he has scored 1137 runs at 63.2.

Tim Paine clearly slots in at number seven.

His selection is a lay down misère as skipper but his form with the bat has been lean in the lead-in with first-class scores of 20, 0 and 38 followed by 2 and 8no in the intra-squad match.

In his last eight Test innings he has past 20 six times but his best has been 45no.

He needs to start going big.

In the bowling department Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon are must-picks.

Cummins has assumed the mantle as the leader of the attack in recent times.

Since overcoming his injury woes his performances have been of the highest order.

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His record of 94 wickets at 22.0 sits comfortably alongside anyone in the game.

Pat Cummins of Australia

Pat Cummins is a must. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Pattinson, like Cummins, has had a well-chronicled history with injury.

In recent times he has recaptured his best form.

He finished his seven-match Sheffield Shield season with 26 wickets at 18.9.

By all accounts he was near unplayable in the first innings of the intra-squad match, beating the bat with regularity.

He finished the game with 4-35 from 23 overs.

Player-of-the-match in two of his first three Tests – albeit way back in 2011 – he could be one of the trump cards this series.

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Lyon continues to get better with age.

He enters the series 12 wickets shy of Dennis Lillee’s career haul of 355.

He will surely pass it and when he does only Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne will be ahead of him on the Australian hit parade.

His skills should see Australia hold the advantage in the spin battle.

Nathan Lyon of Australia smiles

Calling Nathan Lyon ‘the GOAT’ no longer seems very funny. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The last pace position is a fight between four – Starc, Hazlewood, Siddle and Michael Neser.

Hazlewood has a good record in England – 16 wickets at 25.8 in his four Tests in 2015 – but he has been off the boil in his last two Test series.

In his last eight Tests, away against South Africa and home versus India, he captured 25 wickets at 34.8.

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He missed the home series against Sri Lanka at the end of last summer due to injury, was not able to get back for the World Cup and has had lean pickings for Australia A with 3-141 across the three List A games.

0-53 in the first-class game against Sussex and 2-56 on the bowler friendly pitch in the intra-squad match.

He is not simply a walk-up start.

Neser is coming off a fine Shield season having snared 33 wickets at 23.0 and scoring 481 runs at 43.7.

He bowled well in the intra-squad game with match figures of 4-42.

Whilst his ability with the bat is enticing, his experience in England is limited.

Starc is best suited to flatter pitches where he can use his raw pace to blast out opponents.

He may not be the best option on seaming pitches where line and length rather than out-and-out speed is often a more effective method.

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Ireland’s Tim Murtagh underline that when his 5-13 humbled England on the opening day of last week’s Lord’s Test.

Siddle has a distinct edge in this area.

His probing line in the channel on and around off-stump has regularly borne fruit in England.

Before signing on for the intra-squad match he claimed 34 first-class wickets at 20.0 for Essex.

That comes on the back of 37 wickets at 16.4 in his seven-game county stint last year.

His last Test in England was the final Test in 2015 – his only appearance in the series – where he picked up 2-32 and 4-35.

With the Edgbaston pitch expected to be lively, Siddle would be my choice to round out the attack.

So, there you have it, my XI for the opening Test is:
Warner, Bancroft, Labuschagne, Smith, Head, Wade, Paine, Cummins, Pattinson, Siddle and Lyon.

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I am sure it will not meet with universal approval, but then again, debate is what makes this website what it is