Matt Wade and Mitch Marsh are competing for the last spot in Australia’s batting line-up for this year’s T20 World Cup, after being included in the squad for this month’s tour of South Africa.
The World Cup top four appears set in stone – Aaron Finch and David Warner opening, followed by Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell.
With Alex Carey the clear frontrunner to keep wickets and selectors keen on playing a bowling all-rounder at number seven, that leaves Wade and Marsh fighting for the final batting spot at five or six.
Coach Justin Langer has preached continuity in selection, and his panel have stuck to that more than previous panels, which suggests that from now until that global tournament starts in Australia in October, we will see a shootout between Marsh and Wade for that prized berth.
The Aussies will play ten T20s in the next five months as they seek to bed down their starting XI and expected 15-man squad.
That run begins in 16 days, with a three-match series in South Africa, followed by three games in New Zealand in late March, then one against Scotland and three against England in the UK from late June.
While Marsh has generous experience in the middle order, having often batted between four and six for the Perth Scorchers, it is more of a foreign environment for Wade.
The left-hander’s generous success in recent years has come at the top of the order for the Hobart Hurricanes. Across the past two BBL seasons he has hammered 943 runs at 45, with a blistering scoring rate of 9.3 runs per over.
Wade has been in terrific form across all three formats in the past 18 months, which has coincided with him largely giving up his wicketkeeping duties.
In that time he has also averaged 43 in List A cricket and 52 in first-class cricket. Wade is now a far more rounded and damaging batsman than he was during his previous stints in the Aussie 20-over side.
Between 2011 and 2016 he played exclusively as a wicketkeeper and batted between five and eight in all but two of those matches. His returns with the willow were unimpressive – 239 runs at 20, with a strike rate of 110 – but the lack of proven middle-order finishers in the BBL has clearly convinced selectors to hand Wade a chance to show he can adapt.
His presence also puts pressure on Carey. The South Australian has done a great job in ODIs but is yet to find his feet in T20s, averaging 14 with the bat after 25 matches.
If Carey struggles over the next few months, and Wade flourishes, it could give the selectors pause for thought. That would be particularly relevant if Marsh also excels, leaving the Aussies wondering how to squeeze both he and Wade into their starting XI.
Marsh remains a relatively unknown entity at T20 level, with 11 matches spread out over more than eight years. As a 19-year-old he made a barnstorming start to his international career, when he thumped four sixes against South Africa on debut in Johannesburg. Across his limited appearances he has averaged 22 with the bat and 26 with the ball.
In the meantime he has been a consistent star in the BBL, with 1242 runs at 35, at a solid scoring rate of 7.8 runs per over.
This season he has top scored for the Scorchers, with 382 runs at 35, at a swift rate of 8.7 runs per over.
Given the impressive strength and consistency of Australia’s top four, their final middle-order batsmen need to be capable of destructive cameos. Ashton Turner was trialed in this role briefly, but averaged just 14 from his seven innings.
Now the selectors have narrowed their focus on Marsh and Wade, who both have the power games required, but are yet to prove themselves as middle-order batsmen in this format.
It seems likely one of those two men will be in the Aussie middle order when the World Cup kicks off.
Australian T20 squad
Aaron Finch (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Alex Carey (vc, wk), Pat Cummins (vc), Mitch Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa
Australian ODI squad
Aaron Finch (c), Ashton Agar, Alex Carey (vc, wk), Pat Cummins (vc), Josh Hazlewood, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitch Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa