No part of Australia’s Test XI has been more unsettled than the openers over the last 12 months, and with the Sheffield Shield season kicking off today, both positions are up for grabs.
Selector Trevor Hohns insisted on Tuesday that the “slate is wiped clean” after a poor Ashes campaign from David Warner, Marcus Harris and Cameron Bancroft. But his insistence of “two or three” batting vacancies was indicative of the uncertainty surrounding the positions.
While captain Tim Paine recently insisted Warner had “enough credits in the bank” for selection against Pakistan on 21 November, Hohns’ comments would suggest that numbers one, two and possibly five were open season in the initial Shield rounds.
“There’s plenty of openers around the country,” Hohns said. “It’s up to them to perform.”
It would appear almost certain that Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and Matthew Wade will retain their spots at three, four and six respectively.
Irrespective of the conflicting comments, the bar for Warner to succeed in the early rounds of the domestic season is likely the lowest in the bat-off that includes Marcus Harris, Joe Burns, Cameron Bancroft, Matt Renshaw and even Usman Khawaja.
That is, only repeated failures are likely to see his position truly under question. A moderate return to form would suffice for selectors, such is Warner’s seniority in an otherwise inexperienced batting line-up.
Each of the other five contenders have opened for Australia before: Burns on 24 occasions, Renshaw 19, Bancroft 18, Harris 17 and Khawaja seven.
The spread of numbers is indicative of the unsettled nature of the openers’ spots in recent times. Add to that mix Aaron Finch (and a one-off cameo by Shaun Marsh in the UAE) and it’s the most turbulent period for some time.
Reflexively some might say it has been an uncertain position since Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden departed, but across the last ten years, the opening pairings of Chris Rogers and David Warner, Simon Katich and Shane Watson and Ed Cowan and Warner have each combined for over 1000 Test runs.
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, I suppose.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the opening Shield rounds is that, aside from Warner, it would appear the selectors have thrown a blanket over the next-best contenders.
Harris and Bancroft both struggled in the UK and have failed to quell questions around technique and ability to spend long periods at the crease. The Victorian opener started his career brightly against a tough Indian attack last summer but has laboured since. And while Bancroft remains a player Langer seems desperate to succeed, he too has failed to grab his chance.
A strong start to the Shield season, however, could see things turn around quickly for the pair.
Renshaw is the least likely of the contenders to be in the Australia XI for the Gabba Test and may need the most runs to convince the selectors he is ready for a Test recall following a mixed run of form in the last 12 months.
Undoubtedly a player of promise and one with tremendous potential, his recent form hasn’t suggested he can succeed – at present – on the international stage. He’ll be back, but probably not this year.
Burns is the only opener whose stocks have risen this year. The Queenslander plundered 180 against Sri Lanka earlier in 2019 and was desperately unlucky not to be in the Ashes squad. Having overcome a health issue earlier this year and with four centuries in 16 Tests to boot, a bright start to the domestic season should see him back in the Australian XI.
Finally, Khawaja’s predicament is an interesting one. A disappointing Ashes series saw him usurped as Australia’s preferred number three. In Labuschagne, Australia now have a potential long-term first drop, and he will be given the five Tests this summer to bed down the position, barring disaster.
As such, Khawaja could slot into number five – which is unlikely – or as an opener. Certainly the selectors haven’t closed that door.
“He could – we’ve seen him open before for Australia,” Hohns said on Tuesday. “He’s had a fair amount of success there as well. I think his preferred position is three but we know he can do the job in the opening role if we need him to.”