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DAMIEN FLEMING'S First Ashes Test XI: 'In an ideal world he doesn't play', 'the one we've waited years for'

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8th October, 2021
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I’m based in Melbourne where we have, unfortunately, just become the most locked down city in the world due to Covid. But after a few twists and turns it looks like we will get the Ashes series we all crave, so it seems as good a time as any to lock down my first Test team of the summer.

In picking my XI, with a few back ups in case, one thing becomes clear. Whereas the Australians’ bowling depth makes choosing starters difficult, we just don’t have the same depth in the batting.

I’ve left out Michael Neser altogether from my shortlist, and he looks like a Test class bowler.

I’ve gone with two young batsmen in Will Pucovski and Cameron Green, and we really need them to hit the ground running. Beyond the batsmen I’ve named, you have to look at Peter Hanscomb and Kurtis Patterson.

I’ve also chosen Matthew Wade as a starter but in an ideal world he doesn’t play. He’s 33 and averaging 30, and I think the selectors may opt for Usman Khawaja.

What does excite me is the promise of Pucovski and Green. They could potentially be stars for a long time and if Green can pick up some wickets then we have flexibility and can perhaps play a second spinner in Mitchell Swepson.

Green has great potential. He’s tall, has a genuine outswinger and a real bowler’s mentality.

The big question mark for me with the bowlers is around Mitchell Starc and how he starts the series. If the ball’s not swinging for him then he’s not going to retain his spot. If he’s not opening the bowling he doesn’t play, because he’s not a first change.

Here is my first XI, with alternatives in brackets in order I would choose them: David Warner, Will Pucovski (Marcus Harris), Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade (Travis Head or Usman Khawaja), Cameron Green, Tim Paine (Alex Carey as injury backup), Patrick Cummins, Mitchell Starc (James Pattinson, Jye Richardson or Mitchell Swepson), Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.

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And here’s how I see their strengths and weaknesses ahead of the Ashes.

David Warner

He’ll be 35 when the series starts but has retained his power square of the wicket, and at home continues to batter opposition attacks at a breezy pace.

He’s an amazing, explosive athlete in the field and with his running between the wickets. I’m hoping last summer’s bad run with injury was just an anomaly.

His match up against Stuart Broad is one the most anticipated clashes of the summer.
Raise the bat stat: Averages 63 in Australia, where he’s scored 18 of his 24 centuries.
Raise the finger stat: Stuart Broad has dismissed him seven times in the space of 104 balls, mainly from around the wicket cramping him for room.

David Warner.

David Warner has had a tough time of it since his comeback. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)


Will Pucovski

He has long been acclaimed as Australia’s most talented young batsman and certainly looked that way in making a composed 62 in his debut Test innings. Unfortunately a shoulder injury in the field finished his summer.

The Victorian right hander looks technically sound but needs to be careful falling across the crease to balls that straighten or bounce more than expected.

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I love his ability to score big and just loves spending time in the middle. This will also make him popular with the fast bowling cartel as they can put their feet up for longer in the dressing rooms.

Raise the bat stat: Has already scored three double hundreds in Sheffield Shield cricket.

Raise the finger stat: Has a worrying list of injuries and concussions.

Marnus Labuschagne

Being the face of Weet-Bix is a sign you have made it in Australia and the success story from 2019 Ashes has become a run-making machine.

The reconstruction of his career was the shift from being an off-side player to leg-side player while at Glamorgan in 2019.

Batting at number 3, he has found that great balance of stern defence and putting the bad ball away – often the good ball away. He loves batting with Smith which is great for their bromance but bad for bowling teams.

Raise the bat stat: Averaging 73 on home pitches.
Raise the finger stat: Nothing stands out yet, although fielders do tend to give him more chances than other batsman so far in his career.

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Steve Smith

A batting colossus guaranteeing the Aussies over 60 an innings. His uniqueness continues to bemuse bowlers particularly when in partnership with Marnus.

His form hasn’t hit the dizzyingly heights post the Jofra Archer hit in the last series, but he retains a ruthless streak and will look to annihilate the English attack.

Raise the bat stat: Averages 65 v England and 67 in Australia.
Raise the finger stat: Since his amazing 2019 Ashes series has averaged 20, 43 and 44 in his last three series.

Matthew Wade
I have so much admiration for Wade in the way he has reinvented himself from wicketkeeper to number 5 batsman. The highlight of this were his two excellent and crucial hundreds in the 2019 Ashes.

Ultra-competitive on the field and, in combination with his great mate Tim Paine, makes sure opposition batsman get plenty advice about their inadequacies.

But since that series, he has averaged 30 in nine Tests with a highest score of 60. So, for me, he hasn’t nailed his position and at 33 it could be time for the selectors to move on.

Raise the bat stat: The two Test hundreds v England in 2019.
Raise the finger stat: One century in 19 Tests at home.

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Cameron Green

At just 22, he is a precocious talent and could be Australia’s best player for years to come as well as the allrounder we have been searching for, or trying to manufacture, but never finding.

His batting technique looks excellent, and the next stage is to be able to go up the gears like he did in the second innings in Sydney against India.

I rate his bowling highly although he’s still searching for this first Test wicket. It will come and many more will follow as he has pace, bounce and a natural out swinger.

Once his bowling gets going it will free Australia to play two spinners in the right conditions.

Raise the bat stat: In his last 23 first class games he has scored 2090 runs at an average of 65 and his conversion rate is exceptional – eight hundreds to his four fifties. He just keeps batting.

Cameron Green

Cameron Green (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Raise the finger stat: That he hasn’t taken a Test wicket yet. It’s not far away.

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Tim Paine

Hopefully the skipper will recover in time after surgery. Overall, he has done a remarkable job as captain having to keep wickets, bat and captain a Test team.
One of the only captaincy hiccoughs was in the Sydney Test where he was too concerned with distracting Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin during their match saving partnership and ended up distracting himself. His quick apology showed maturity – everyone makes mistakes, just don’t make it a habit.
He has started the Ashes pre-talk early and needs to have a good series. Stylish with the bat, hopefully he can continue the aggressive nature of last year’s summer v India where he averaged 40 at strike rate of 58.

Raise the bat stat: Averages 2.3 dismissals per Test match, the highest of any Australian wicket keeper.
Raise the finger stat: Yet to score a Test 100.

Patrick Cummins

The spearhead of the fast bowling cartel and a superstar of the game. He is destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath in the pantheon of greatest Australian quicks.

Pat has a lethal combination of medium pace accuracy and fast bowling hostility. At times it looks like he could get a wicket with every ball he bowls, while batsmen seem to jolt when the ball hits the blade, surprised by the extra pace he generates off the pitch.

He’s not a big swinger of the ball but his seam bowling on barren Australian pitches has been awesome and when Paine needs a wicket, he throws the ball to Pat.

He’s been tipped as a future Test captain, which will bring one big issue – how he finds the equilibrium between bowling too much and not enough.

I hope his batting jumps back to the levels of the 2017-18 Ashes series where he averaged 41 and built handy partnerships with Paine, doing an important job batting number at 8.

Raise the bat stat: Strikes quicker than any Australian bowler – every 47 balls.
Raise the finger stat: Averaged 10 with the bat in last 15 Test matches.

Mitchell Starc

The big man just couldn’t find his rhythm last summer and was very poor in the final two Tests. That hurt double fold – he wasn’t bowling enough overs so he couldn’t get wickets but also, he couldn’t rough up the pitch for Nathan Lyon to bowl into.

His old ball bowling, if the ball isn’t swinging reverse, is limited as he isn’t overly accurate or bouncy and should use both sides of the crease more.

When everything is going right with his run up and action, he is lethal with new and old ball swing.
His dismissals always feature in the daily highlights with stumps flying. But if he is not swinging the ball and not opening the bowling, I don’t think he plays – James Pattinson does.

Raise the bat stat: Very good in the last home Ashes in 2017-18 with 22 wickets at 23.
Raise the finger stat: Only three wickets at 97 in 80 overs in the Sydney and Brisbane Tests last summer.

Nathan Lyon

Playing 100 Test matches is an amazing effort and he’s on the verge of 400 wickets (399) – incredibly more than the next three best off spinners – Ashley Mallett, Bruce Yardley and Colin Miller – combined (327).

He would be disappointed with his output last summer and would love to take his former groundskeeping experience to the SCG pitch and prepare it to spin a bit more this time around.

Raise the bat stat: Perth stadium has been a happy change. He has 14 wickets in 2 Tests there versus 15 at 47 at the WACA.
Raise the finger stat: His nine wickets at an average of 55 v India last summer was underwhelming and hopefully just a blip.

Josh Hazlewood

He’s like the bass player in a big rock band – doesn’t get a lot of attention but makes the whole attack tick with his pace, bounce and wickets.
He has that unique ability to make harmless-length deliveries rear spitefully and catch outside edges.
Hazlewood’s Glenn McGrath-like consistency means you can put him down for between 20 and 25 wickets at an average of 25 this summer.

Raise the bat stat: Has taken 57 wickets at 24 v England.
Raise the finger stat: Hard to find, but unlike McGrath he hasn’t scored a Test 50!
And here are the other contenders.

James Pattinson

Big, aggressive and skilful and known as the enforcer in the Test team, James could have played so many more Tests if not for injuries and positional pressure.
Teammates love what he brings, and his out swingers take four wickets a Test at average of 26 so he gets the job done.
He’s also a handy lower order batsman averaging 26. If he can play the whole summer he could score a Test 100.

Raise the bat stat: A strike rate of a wicket every 49 balls is a superstar stat. It’s just injuries and pressure for spots that hurts him.
Raise the finger stat: Injuries.

Marcus Harris
After a bright start against India in his debut series he has underperformed and can’t complain about opportunities he has been given.

He has a variety of shots and like Travis Head scores the bulk of his runs behind point and cover but that can lead to dismissals flashing at balls with minimal foot work.

He has worked hard on staying more side on and has continued to score a mountain of runs for Victoria to keep his name front and centre of the selectors.

I’d like a righthand batsman to partner Warner and blunt the effectiveness of Broad and Robinson to left handers, so ‘Harry’ may have to wait until Warner finishes to get back his spot.

Raise the bat stat: Coming off a very consistent county season where he averaged 54 for Leicestershire in 2021.
Raise the finger stat: His record against England in 2019 was poor.

Travis Head

Dropped after the MCG last Test against India after two starts again and failing to go on with it, the question is: will his next coming be the one to entrench himself in this Australian team?

A fluent stroke player like other South Australian batsman before him such as David Hookes, Darren Lehmann and Wayne Phillips, but can he change that trend and have a long tenure in the Test team?
He always seems to get a start but has scored just two hundreds in 19 Tests. The other big question is can he learn to apply himself and maintain concentration consistently to reach his full potential?
Also, he’s captained South Australia since he was 21, so his leadership experience could prove invaluable and provide another captaincy option in the years ahead.

Raise the bat stat: Has scored 1137 runs at an average of 75.80 since start of 2020-21 season for South Australia while, importantly, tuning seven 50s into four 100s.
Raise the finger stat: 17 of his 31 Test innings have been scores between 19 and 58.

Usman Khawaja
Yes, he is almost 35 but potentially one for this Ashes series to provide experience at number 5 with youngster Green at number 6. At his best, he’s a sublime player who average 53 on home pitches.
Raise the bat stat: Six Test hundreds at home
Raise the finger stat: Only averages 30 against England.

Mitch Swepson

The Queensland leg spinner is ripening beautifully, and his best years are ahead of him. Always a big spinner of his leg break but his accuracy, variety and control has improved greatly, often bowling Queensland to outright wins last summer.

If Green’s bowling starts to increase in volume and output (wickets) I would love to see Mitch play a Test this summer and he’s a must pick for the next sub-continent tour.

Raise the bat stat:
34 wickets at 26 last summer for Queensland including one 10 wicket haul.
Raise the finger stat: Hopefully a nasty neck injury doesn’t hold him back.

Jhye Richardson
The pacy Western Australian provides something different from the ‘land of the giants’ pace attack. He is shorter, zippier, skiddier and fast with a terrific bouncer.

His stock ball swings out, so could to a handy role bowling into the breeze. I would love to see him bowl in England next tour.

Raise the bat stat: 67 first class wickets at 24 in a short first class career.
Raise the finger stat: Injuries.

Damien Fleming will be writing for The Roar during the Ashes series.

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