Tomorrow’s Australia A match against Pakistan will see an epic bat off for Test berths as well as a deepening focus on the issue of mental health in cricket after the withdrawal from this match of batsman Nic Maddinson.
These are two key talking points ahead of this three-day pink-ball match under lights at Perth Stadium.
Australia A expected line-up
Harris vs Burns vs Khawaja vs Head vs Pucovski
With Steve Smith, David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne and Matt Wade seemingly locked in for the first Test against Pakistan starting on 21 November, the race is on for the final two spots in the batting order. Based on recent comments from Australian coach Justin Langer and chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns, Khawaja, Head, Pucovski and Burns are all in the mix for the last spot between three and six.
Burns, first and foremost, is trying to unseat incumbent opener Marcus Harris so that he can partner David Warner at the top of the order. That could yet happen if Burns outshines Harris in this match. It’s also been reported that Australia would consider playing Burns in the middle order, where he began his Test career nearly five years ago. The Queenslander has since compiled an impressive Test record, with 1123 runs at 40, including four tons.
Burns has made a good start to this current Shield campaign, with 202 runs at 40 despite playing all three of his matches at the Gabba, which has been the most bowler-friendly pitch this season. Harris, meanwhile, has churned out 266 runs at 53 while batting in easier conditions.
Although Harris’s Shield form has been supreme over the past two years, he has flopped at Test level, unlike Burns. The Victorian has averaged just 14 with the blade in his past five Tests.
While Harris finished the Ashes in Australia’s starting XI, Head was a shock omission from the line-up for the final Test of that series. The selectors have since suggested Head wasn’t dropped for poor performance but instead made way so they could include an all-rounder in the form of Mitch Marsh.
It was a very harsh call on Head, who has exceeded expectations since making his Test debut last summer. In 12 Tests Head has made 854 runs at 43 and has stood up for Australia in tough situations repeatedly. After a scratchy start to this Shield campaign he bounced back with 109 in his most recent match, against a strong NSW attack of Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Trent Copeland and the in-form Harry Conway.
Khawaja has no such Shield form to point to. After being axed from the Test team following a run of poor form, the veteran left-hander has floundered in the Shield, averaging 11 from his five innings. He does, however, have two things in his favour: his generous experience at Test level and his commanding home Test record. Khawaja has made 1854 runs at 53 in Tests in Australia, including six tons. Yet with Labuschagne having staked a claim to his favoured first drop spot, it seems he will have to really stand out in this Australia A match to win back his Test berth.
Then there’s Pucovski, the most gifted young batsman in the country. The 21-year-old was close to making his Test debut against Sri Lanka last summer before withdrawing from the Australian squad with mental health concerns.
He has made a remarkable start to his Sheffield Shield career, with 1099 runs at 50, including four tons from just 14 matches. After starting this Shield season in resounding touch, with scores of 123 and 64, he has since made three consecutive single-figure scores.
All it may take, though, is for Pucovski to play one sparkling knock against Pakistan to vault himself into the Test team. The same goes for each of Burns, Khawaja, Head and Harris.
Maddinson’s withdrawal further reveals depth of mental health issue
Nic Maddinson yesterday became the third Australian player in the past 12 months to withdraw from national duty due to mental health issues, after Will Pucovski and most recently Glenn Maxwell. This trend is, as jarring as this may sound, both concerning and comforting.
It is, first and foremost, a worrying sign of the largely concealed emotional and mental impact of being an elite cricketer. The ceaseless pressure to perform, coupled with intense public scrutiny and regular travel away from home must take its toll on all professional cricketers.
Yet cricketers taking time away from the game to address mental health concerns has been extremely rare over the history of the sport. The fact that Pucovski, Maxwell and Maddinson have felt able to do this is, my instincts tell me, a positive sign. It suggests the issue of mental health has less and less stigma among Australian professional athletes. That, if it is true, would be a great thing. Get well, Nic and Glenn, and stay strong Will.