Australia nailed their selections for the first Test against Pakistan next week by recalling batsmen Joe Burns and Travis Head, allowing the Aussies to field their strongest possible top six.
While the inclusion of batsman Cameron Bancroft in Australia’s 14-man squad for this two-Test series was an odd choice, chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns indicated he would not be in the starting XI.
By calling Bancroft the “spare batsman in the squad”, Hohns hinted very strongly that Australia’s top six would be David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head and Matthew Wade. Right now, that is Australia’s best Test batting lineup.
Burns deserves a decent run at partnering Warner at the top of the order after being treated shabbily by the selectors for years now. Hohns conceded yesterday that Burns was “desperately unlucky not to be included in the Ashes squad”.
Burns looks set to take the position of incumbent Test opener Marcus Harris, who was axed after averaging just 14 with the bat from his past five Tests.
Although Burns’ first-class form has been underwhelming in 2019, there was no other opener demanding selection.
That is why it made sense to give another opportunity to the Queenslander, who averages 40 with the bat from his 16 Tests, including four tons.
At number three, Labuschagne is the clear option. In the Sheffield Shield this summer, the 25-year-old has batted at four behind Usman Khawaja, who missed out on this latest Test squad. But Labuschagne ended his wonderful Ashes series at first drop and looks to have the technique, temperament and style of play to suit that difficult position.
Behind him at four, Steve Smith is in godly form.
Travis Head should bat at five, while the more aggressive Matthew Wade is better suited to six. Wade was an obvious pick after making two tons in the Ashes to go with 353 runs at 59 in the Shield this summer.
Head’s red ball form this summer has been less impressive, with 227 runs at 38. In his favour he has youth, at 25 years old, and an impressive Test record to date, averaging 43 from his dozen Tests.
Captain Tim Paine, fresh from his first red-ball ton in many years, rounds out a solid top seven. It may not be a commanding batting lineup, yet it is also far from the rickety unit that many fans are making it out to be.
Australia’s attack, meanwhile, pretty much picks itself. Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon are part of the bedrock of this Australian Test team.
The final bowling spot is between three quicks who all have strong claims. Mitchell Starc boasts 215 Test wickets, adds crucial variety with his express pace and left arm angle, and has hit form at the right time, grabbing 16 wickets at 10 in his last two Shield matches.
James Pattinson has taken eight wickets at 28 in his last two Shield matches, after getting stuck on a ludicrous road at the Junction Oval in round one, and has an excellent Test record of 75 wickets at 26.
Then there’s swing bowler Neser, who has been on a long hot streak. Since the start of the 2017-18 summer, the 29-year-old has taken 110 wickets at 22 in red ball cricket.
Over that same period Neser has also averaged 28 with the bat, underlining his all-round value.
With his nagging accuracy and ability to swing the Kookaburra consistently, Neser is an attractive option.
Yet I still think Starc is most likely to take that fourth bowling berth for the first Test at the Gabba.
Hohns yesterday hinted that Neser’s strongest chance of selection would be in the second Test at Adelaide due to his suitability to bowling with the pink ball under lights.
The selectors have done a good job here. The only misstep was including Bancroft in the squad, although the back-up batsmen options were limited due to the injury issues for Kurtis Patterson, and the mental health withdrawals of Will Pucovski, Nic Maddinson and Glenn Maxwell.
Australian Test squad for two-match series against Pakistan
Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner
Australia’s most likely lineup for first Test at Brisbane, starting November 21
1. David Warner
2. Joe Burns
3. Marnus Labuscagne
4. Steve Smith
5. Travis Head
6. Matthew Wade
7. Tim Paine
8. Pat Cummins
9. Mitchell Starc
10. Nathan Lyon
11. Josh Hazlewood