Travis Head and Usman Khawaja have both been included in Australia’s 15-man Ashes squad for the first two Tests while Mitch Marsh and Matthew Wade missed out.
Head and Khawaja’s performances in a three-day intra-squad game featuring members of the Ashes and Australia A squads, starting on December 1 at Redlands, could determine who replaces Wade at number five.
T20 World Cup hero Marsh was named in the Australia A list from which a team will be chosen to face the England Lions in a tour match on December 9 – a day after the first Test gets underway at the Gabba.
Meanwhile, West Australian pacer Jhye Richardson has been selected alongside the regular fast-bowling unit of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc.
Uncapped Queenslander Michael Neser, who has returned to training after a hamstring strain, offers more bowling depth. Off-spinner Nathan Lyon’s position is assured, but leggie Mitchell Swepson is there as a back-up.
There are few surprises in the Ashes squad.
Marcus Harris, already publicly backed by chief selector George Bailey, will partner David Warner at the top of the order while run-machines Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith are locked in.
The middle-order battle between Head and Khawaja is the main talking point.
“Travis finished last summer strongly, second only to Cameron Green for runs scored, and has again started the season well. He drives the game forward and can put the opposition under pressure with his ability to score quickly,” Bailey said in a statement.
“Similarly, Usman Khawaja has been in great touch. He brings a calm, consistent and experienced component to the batting line up and is a proven run scorer at Test level. He also has the ability to bat across a range of positions in the batting order.”
At 27, and with a decent Test average of 39.75 after 19 matches, Head has age on his side compared to the almost 35-year-old Khawaja, who has been in vintage Sheffield Shield form.
But Khawaja boasts an outstanding record in Australia – averaging 52.97 after 24 Tests on home soil with six centuries and nine fifties.
Vice-captain Cummins backed Khawaja’s inclusion in the squad.
“He’s been a really strong player not only for Australia, but when he goes back and plays domestically he’s always right in that upper echelon and scores runs all the time,” Cummins said.
“Really good to see him back there, you know what you’re going to get. He had a really good Ashes series a couple of years ago here back in Australia, so if he gets the nod I’m sure he will slot straight back in.”
Talented all-rounder Cameron Green, who showed promise in his debut Test summer against India last season, has fended off Marsh’s challenge and will remain at six.
Elsewhere, captain Tim Paine should be fine to take his place following neck surgery.
The 36-year-old wicket-keeper will return through Tasmanian club cricket this weekend before backing up in a Second XI game against South Australia starting on Monday.
Bailey praised Richardson, who played two Tests in 2019 and snared eight wickets in his most recent Sheffield Shield match against Queensland.
“Jhye is seeing the rewards of concentrating on his red ball cricket in the build up to this series. We know he has an exceptional skill set and are excited about what he brings to the team now his body is back on track,” Bailey said.
Harris, the incumbent opener, will have another opportunity to prove himself at Test level.
“Marcus has been a consistent run scorer domestically and had a strong winter further developing his game with Leicestershire. He is a good player who will be looking to build a strong partnership with David Warner at the top of the order,” Bailey said.
“This group is well balanced to ensure we are prepared for the many challenges of an Ashes Series. It has a mix of experienced, proven performers and emerging, developing talent,” he added.
“We will take this 15-player squad into the opening Test in Brisbane and the pink ball match in Adelaide, after which we can reassess for the remaining matches.”
Australia A players could mount a case for Test selection later in the series. The likes of Marsh, Matt Renshaw, Nic Maddinson, Alex Carey, Henry Hunt and Scott Boland feature in the supplementary squad.
Australia A players will feature in the intra-squad match at Redlands before the secondary team is assembled for the tour match against the Lions.
Ashes squad for first two Tests:
Tim Paine (TAS) (c)
Pat Cummins (NSW) (vc)
Cameron Green (WA)
Marcus Harris (VIC)
Josh Hazlewood (NSW)
Travis Head (SA)
Usman Khawaja (QLD)
Marnus Labuschagne (QLD)
Nathan Lyon (NSW)
Michael Neser (QLD)
Jhye Richardson (WA)
Steve Smith (NSW)
Mitchell Starc (NSW)
Mitchell Swepson (QLD)
David Warner (NSW)
Additional Australia A players:
Sean Abbott (NSW)
Ashton Agar (WA)
Scott Boland (VIC)
Alex Carey (SA)
Henry Hunt (SA)
Josh Inglis (WA)
Nic Maddinson (VIC)
Mitchell Marsh (WA)
Matt Renshaw (QLD)
Mark Steketee (QLD)
Bryce Street (QLD)