The summer so far has highlighted five dilemmas facing our Test side.
In no particular order, the first four are:
• No in-form Test quality opening batsmen to replace David Warner or Will Pucovski
• No batsmen ready to replace Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head or Cameron Green
• No obvious Test captain candidate
• Question marks over the successor to Nathan Lyon
When looking at the squad to tour South Africa, it’s scary that we have only three batsmen considered capable of replacing any of the top seven – Marcus Harris (Test average 23.77), Moises Henriques (Test average 23.42) and Alex Carey. We’re in serious trouble if any of the batting order gets injured.
Then we come to replacing Tim Paine. I’m a real fan of Paine’s captaincy since he took the reins three years ago, but there are more than a few who think it’s time to move on. It’s clear that given his age, at some point soon, another captain will need to be found.
Many are suggesting we need to do that before the Ashes, but there are simply no suitable candidates. Australia does not give the captaincy to bowlers, rightly or wrongly. They could hardly give it to whoever replaces Paine as keeper, and of the batsmen, only Smith has the right credentials at present to be considered. It’s questionable, though, whether he’d want the job again and whether he’d be able to cope with role, given previous events.
Then there’s the question of a replacement for the GOAT. Lyon had an underwhelming Test series for a variety of reasons, which has led many to suggest his days are over and he should be replaced. The number one candidate is Mitchell Swepson, but there’s no guarantee he’s a Test quality option right now.
Yes he has killed it in Sheffield Shield cricket this summer, but he was belted badly by the Indians in Sydney, not only going for well over five an over, but losing control, which only made things worse.
The squad for the South Africa Test series has been announced and none of the issues previously mentioned have been addressed. The ICC Test schedule right now only has Australia possibly playing a Test in England, assuming the side makes the Test Championship final, then no more Tests until the Ashes, which will presumably start in November.
This leaves Cricket Australia (CA) and the selectors with the fifth dilemma – can the Test team afford to go into an Ashes campaign with so many serious issues left unaddressed?
The simple answer is no they can’t. More to the point, there is the best part of ten months to do something about it and my suggestion is to create an Australian A squad to play a series of games against another top ranked country, preferably India.
I would include the following players: Sam Whiteman, Sean Abbott, Daniel Hughes, Michael Neser, Ben McDermott, Mitchell Swepson, Nic Maddinson, Jhye Richardson, Kurtis Patterson, Jack Wildermuth, Travis Head (c), Ashton Agar, Josh Philippe, Adam Zampa, Josh Inglis, Tanveer Sangha and Bryce Street.
In an ideal world, this squad would tour the sub-continent, but in the current COVID world, that’s asking a lot. There should be no reason, however, why this group could not play four or five four-day matches in Darwin, Cairns or Townsville against India A from August onward.
They could also play some practice matches against the current Australian Test squad in late September/early October, which would lead nicely into the start of the Shield summer or, for those involved in the T20 World Cup, provide some useful practice prior to that tournament starting in October.
The squad make-up is specifically designed to find out whether these players can address the four issues mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Travis Head’s main role is to captain the side because I see him as the likely successor to Tim Paine, assuming Paine retires in the next 12 months.
The attack is spin heavy for a few reasons. These are the current candidates to be Australia’s next spinner. It will also force Head to be creative, both with how he uses his bowlers, but also with field placements and the composition of his teams.
The batsmen are all players who have either played Tests and should be re-considered or guys whose Shield form warrants consideration.
I’d also like the tour games to be a little innovative with bowlers using red balls in the first innings and pink balls in the second, just to see how both batsmen and bowlers cope. It would also be useful for Kookaburra, SG and Dukes balls to be used, but that might be a step too far.
There’s no guarantee this suggestion will address the issues mentioned at the start of this article, but right now, Australia cannot afford to do nothing. The problems are serious, especially with the batting, so Cricket Australia should be actively looking at any options that will help identify more Test quality cricketers.
Yes there would be a financial cost but this should be seen as an investment in the future, rather than a burden now.
The alternative is simple – do nothing and hope that all turns out well. As custodians of the game in Australia, it would be negligent of Cricket Australia to do nothing, so hopefully they do something while they have time.