There’s a growing logjam of batting contenders for the Tests against Pakistan after Will Pucovski and David Warner yesterday crunched tons in the Sheffield Shield.
After having the worst Test series of his career in the Ashes, Warner all but cemented his Test spot by making 125 in a low-scoring Shield match at the Gabba.
Meanwhile, Pucovski continued his remarkable start to his Shield career as he glided to 123 in much easier batting conditions in Melbourne. The 21-year-old has now churned out 1023 runs at 57 in Shield cricket, including four tons from just 12 matches.
Pucovski’s Shield record is even better than that of Warner, who has made 1456 runs at 46 in the Shield, with five tons from 20 matches.
Warner’s return to form is a massive boost for Australia, who were rudderless in the Ashes as their champion opener floundered. The left-hander has a mediocre Test record away from home. But that should not obscure the fact he is a goliath in Australia, where he averages 60 and has hoarded 15 Test tons.
While many fans try to minimise his efforts in familiar conditions, Warner’s absence was keenly felt last summer as India bullied Australia’s top order and handed them a rare home series loss.
The 32-year-old has a massive role to play this season. Pakistan boast an elite new ball bowler in Mohammad Abbas, who took 17 wickets at 10 in the Test series against Australia last year.
New Zealand – Australia’s opponents after Pakistan – have a battery of fine quicks in Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Tim Southee and Lockie Ferguson.
Just who should open with Warner in the first Test remains unclear. There are four main contenders in Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Joe Burns and Cameron Bancroft. Nic Maddinson has made himself a dark horse by plundering 224 in this opening round of the Shield, giving him 787 runs at 98 in his last six matches.
He was well supported yesterday by Pucovski. This Victorian prodigy is Australia’s best Test batting prospect to emerge since Steve Smith. The only chink in Pucovski’s armour at this point is his handling of the short ball.
In terms of technique he has a tight defence, the full range of strokes, and is beautifully balanced at the crease. His temperament is equally impressive. Pucovski is calm, patient, has multiple gears to his batting and is content to grind for long periods of time for his runs. He looks built for Test cricket.
Whether he is ready to make that leap, who knows? What is clear is that Australia don’t have a pressing need to blood Pucovski just yet.
They already have six appealing options to fill just four spots in the order between three and six – Smith, Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head, Matt Wade and Kurtis Patterson.
Smith is the world’s best batsman, while Labsuchagne and Wade are almost locks based on their performances in the Ashes. That may leave Head, Khawaja, Patterson and Pucovski scrapping for just one Test spot. Each of them has a strong case to be playing Test cricket.
Patterson has missed this round of the Shield due to injury. In his absence, NSW yesterday made 9-288, giving them a lead of 135 runs over Queensland at stumps.
Head, meanwhile, finished the day on 27* as South Australia responded to Victoria’s mammoth total of 6-616 declared.
Over in Perth, Wade wasted a good start when he was caught behind for 40 off the bowling of WA pace ace Jhye Richardson. After WA made 337 batting first, Tasmania have responded with 5-217, with Test skipper Tim Paine on 18*.
Here are the Shield scores so far of the main Test batting contenders (and a few dark horses): Nic Maddinson (224), David Warner (125), Will Pucovski (123), Marcus Harris (116), Marnus Labuschagne (69), Mitch Marsh (41), Matt Wade (40), Cameron Bancroft (30), Peter Handscomb (30), Travis Head (27*), Matt Renshaw (19), Joe Burns (13), Usman Khawaja (1).