Joe Burns, Steve O’Keefe, Mitchell Swepson, Kurtis Patterson and Usman Khawaja are among a host of cricketers fighting for Test spots in the second half of the Sheffield Shield season, which resumes in two days’ time.
Australia will likely take a 14-man squad to Bangladesh for their upcoming two-Test tour, and performances across the final four rounds of the Shield should have a major influence on the makeup of that group.
Starting from Friday, Queensland play Tasmania at the Gabba, South Australia face Western Australia at Adelaide Oval, and NSW tackle Victoria at the SCG.
The likes of Khawaja, Patterson and Swepson will get also get a chance to impress for Australia A against the England Lions in a four-day, pink-ball match at the MCG starting on February 22.
Australia are on a hot streak, with a 9-2 win-loss record across their past dozen Tests, including clean sweeps of New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
What’s more is that eight of those nine wins were thrashings by an innings or more than 245 runs.
This commanding run means the selectors shouldn’t feel the need to make significant changes to the starting line-up against Bangladesh.
Yet in the Shield there still will be hot competition for the squad’s three reserve spots, as well as pressure on incumbent opener Joe Burns, and a bowl-off for the second spin spot in the starting XI.
Australia consistently field two spinners in Asia. In fact, on their last tour of Bangladesh, Pat Cummins was the lone quick in the second Test, supported by slow bowlers Nathan Lyon, Ashton Agar and O’Keefe.
That unusual selection was prompted by the circumstances, though, with star quicks Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood unavailable to play.
O’Keefe and Agar could again be in contention. Agar was excellent last time in Bangladesh, taking seven wickets at 23 and contributing with the bat. He has, however, had a horrendous Shield season to date, averaging 136 with the ball, and may not play again for Western Australia due to limited-overs international commitments in South Africa and New Zealand.
O’Keefe, meanwhile, is quietly having a terrific Shield campaign, with 14 wickets at 18 so far. If the left armer continues his fine form, the selectors could be swayed by his experience and success in Asia, where he has taken 28 wickets at 30.
The main rival for the second spin spot against Bangladesh is leg spinner Swepson, who toured Bangladesh with Australia last time, and was also included in the squad for their most recent Test, against New Zealand at the SCG.
After averaging a hefty 37 with the ball across the previous two Shield seasons, the Queenslander has bounced back this summer, taking 12 wickets at 27.
As I argued recently, O’Keefe is a far better option than Swepson in Bangladesh.
The amount of spin and variable bounce on offer in Bangladesh means ultra-accurate finger spinners like O’Keefe are better suited to the conditions than more aggressive, but far less precise wrist spinners such as Swepson.
If the selectors pursue a horses-for-courses strategy, that could place Burns under added pressure.
His only Test series in Asia, against Sri Lanka in 2016, saw him average eight from four innings and then get axed. The Queenslander underwhelmed this summer, averaging 32 from five Tests, but deserves a longer run in the team.
His spot will surely come under scrutiny, though, if he labours in the second half of the Shield season while a rival flourishes.
That competition could come from within his own team. On Australia’s last Test tour of Asia, against Pakistan in the UAE 16 months ago, fellow Queenslander Khawaja was outstanding as an opener.
Playing the spinners with great skill, Khawaja made 229 runs at 76 for the series. That included one of the best performances of the modern era – an epic double of 85 and 141 in the first Test in Dubai, spending nearly 13 hours at the crease.
But if Khawaja is any hope of making the upcoming tour, he will need to rebound strongly from his shocking start to the Shield season, having averaged just 20 in the first six rounds.
Yet, if he can get on a roll, Khawaja still looms most likely to unseat Burns.
Australia will also be looking for a reserve batsman, which means Khawaja’s versatility will keep him in contention, while prolific NSW runmaker Kurtis Patterson could also be in the mix.
Patterson was unlucky to miss the Ashes tour last year after making 30 and 114* in his only two Test innings, against Sri Lanka a year ago. Then injury curtailed his Shield campaign this summer, limiting him to just one innings in the first six rounds.
Now the tall left-hander is fit again and ready to press for Test honours.
With young gun Will Pucovski continuing to suffer issues with concussion, Patterson and Khawaja are the leading contenders for the reserve batsman spot. Performances in the Shield over the next six weeks should have a major impact on the makeup of that squad.