The news that Travis Head is out of the fourth Ashes Test at the SCG after testing positive to COVID-19 is a bitterly disappointing outcome, for both the Australian team and for Head himself.
Leading the way for runs in the series for the victors, thanks mostly to his outstanding run-a-ball 152 in the first Test at the Gabba, Head is fortunately asymptomatic and is expected to be cleared to play the fifth Test in Hobart.
However, as we saw when Pat Cummins’ withdrawal from the Adelaide Test after being a close COVID contact opened the door for quicks Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser, opportunity and chaos are two sides of the same coin. Having added a number of new faces to the squad as a precaution, there are now several paths the selectors can go down in replacing the in-form South Australian.
Here are the five leading candidates to come into the Test team in Sydney.
Pro: A senior figure around the Australian squad with plenty of Test experience, Khawaja seems a perfect fit as a like-for-like replacement for Head in the middle order.
Deemed by many a better prospect to partner David Warner opening the batting instead of Marcus Harris, the latter’s half-century in the Boxing Day Test has all but shut the door on that path back into the side for Khawaja. With several tours of the subcontinent waiting in the wings, where he has often found himself on the outer in years gone by, this could be the Queenslander’s last chance of reviving his Test career.
With a batting average of above 50 in Australia, including 171 the last time he played England in a Test at the SCG, and having been the number one back-up batter for the entire series to date, Khawaja is the most logical choice.
Con: With the Ashes already secure, and Head’s absence from the fourth Test likely to be a one-match arrangement, COVID-permitting, the Aussie selectors could be forgiven for giving someone younger the whiff of Test cricket exposure now, in case they’re needed in years down the line.
At 35 years old, Khawaja, despite some stellar Sheffield Shield form, is closer to the end than the beginning. Already 3-0 ahead in the series, perhaps getting experimental with Head’s replacement is the way to go?
Pro: Yes, he’s played one red-ball match this summer, but Marsh’s superb run of form with the bat has swept both the T20 World Cup and BBL in the last few months.
A brutal ball-striker when up and running, the ‘Bison’ has already managed a century and an 86 for the Perth Scorchers this season, while he was player of the match against New Zealand in the T20 World Cup final. Head’s series has been built upon free-wheeling innings in which he has scored at nearly a run a ball; Marsh is undoubtedly better suited to that role than the (usually) more circumspect Khawaja.
Scores of 33 and 60 not out for Australia A against the England Lions also prove his form can transcend short-form cricket. England’s lack of quality spin-bowling options, and Marsh’s dominance of them with two tons in their last tour of Australia, makes them an ideal match-up for him to resurrect a Test career that until recently looked dead in the water.
Con: Marsh’s Test average of 25.20 is hard to ignore, but with Cameron Green showing great promise for Australia in his old all-rounder’s spot, it’s hard to see the Western Australian slotting in as a batter alone in Sydney.
While his form is outstanding, it would be hard for him to be selected with such minimal first-class from to go off. In addition, those looming subcontinent tours will make selectors wary of backing Marsh in as a long-term option, despite making some rapid improvement against spin bowling in the shorter formats.
It would be a risk, and even in a ‘dead-rubber’ match, World Test Championship points notwithstanding, it’s hard to see the selectors going that left-field with Green still at number six.
Pro: Since moving to Victoria, there have been few more prolific Sheffield Shield run-makers than three-Test wonder Maddinson, who has been added to the Test squad alongside Marsh and Josh Inglis as Cricket Australia wait for other COVID tests to come back.
He averages 64.2 across three first-class matches this summer for both the Vics and Australia A, including a stellar ton at the MCG against a Nathan Lyon-led NSW bowling attack.
Named captain for Aus A against the Lions was another show of faith from the Aussie selectors in Maddinson’s potential. Having picked him amidst a major form slump in 2016-17 that saw him crash land in his first Test go, who could begrudge him the chance to make amends?
Con: Younger than Khawaja, a more proven batter than Marsh and in great domestic red-ball form, the only mark against Maddinson’s name is that it has taken him this long to gain entry to Australia’s Test squad in the first place.
Khawaja is clearly ahead of him in the pecking order, and if selectors go down the route of replacing Head with another specialist batter, it would be a bold move to parachute Maddinson in ahead of the series-long next man in line.
Pro: The third new addition to the Test squad alongside Maddinson and Marsh, Inglis’ form over the last few Sheffield Shield seasons has been outstanding.
He averaged a whopping 73 in the 2020-21 competition, blasting three centuries, while his strike rate of 85.02 was the best of any of the top 40 run-scorers.
He even usurped Test gloveman Carey as Matthew Wade’s backup wicketkeeper for the T20 World Cup in November, showcasing the esteem in which the selectors hold him for national duty.
Thought by many, including Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting, as a viable alternative to Carey to replace Tim Paine as Test keeper at the start of the summer, could this be Inglis’ chance to gain a toehold?
Con: Inglis may have become a victim of his own short-form success. Thus far in five games in the BBL, he has scored just 27 runs, as a month without cricket in the UAE on standby at the World Cup took its toll on his form.
He scored just six playing for Australia A against the England Lions. You simply couldn’t pick him over Maddinson or Khawaja, or indeed any number of specialist batters around the country, on those numbers.
In addition, bringing him in could have the undesirable effect of increasing the pressure on Carey, who still needs time to settle into Test cricket. It would be far from ideal to see his biggest rival stand alongside him, right in the selectors’ line of sight.
Now here’s where things get interesting.
Pro: Australia, through misfortunes of both injury and COVID cases, have seen a plethora of bowling options arrive and impress in the three Tests thus far. Fitting in Jhye Richardson and Hazlewood after they both missed the Boxing Day Test, alongside captain Cummins, Mitchell Starc and reigning player of the match at the MCG Scott Boland, will be a massive challenge.
Then there are the growing calls to debut leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson in the next two Tests as a spin partner for Nathan Lyon, with the Queenslander almost certain to be used at some point across tours of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India in the next 12 months.
Five doesn’t go into four – unless, of course, you add a fifth bowling spot.
Then you can factor in Starc, in the form of his life with the bat. Since January 2019, he is averaging 35.54 with the bat – better than all bar Joe Root of England’s current top seven. Coming in at number ten on day two of the Boxing Day Test due to Nathan Lyon’s rise to nightwatchman also arguably cost the Aussies more runs for Starc, who finished unbeaten on 24.
India, the number one Test side in the world, now favour picking five bowlers, with Ravichandran Ashwin slotting in at number seven in their recent Test against South Africa. If they can do it, why not Australia too?
Doing this would allow the Aussies to manage their gun quicks expertly, while also either providing opportunities for Hazlewood to regain match fitness, Boland to improve on his whirlwind debut, or Swepson to at last earn a baggy green cap.
Cons: This might actually be a decent proposition if Australia, like India, had a more stable number six and seven.
Unfortunately, Cameron Green’s stellar form with the ball, which gives the Aussies their fifth bowling option regardless, hasn’t extended to his batting this summer; while wicketkeeper Alex Carey is still coming to grips with Test cricket, and shouldn’t be expected to be a Rishabh Pant-style keeper-batsman even when he does.
With World Test Championship points so precious – Australia’s narrow miss of the last final will surely still sting – it’s hard to see the Aussies doing something so bold, especially when their current strategy of Green as the fifth bowler has proven so successful.
Did we miss anyone else who could be a factor for the New Year’s Test? Will further COVID cases among the Test group mean every single one of them get in regardless?
We’ll have to wait and see.