Jon Holland has bolted into contention for a shock Test recall if he can overcome a finger injury in time for Australia’s series opener against Sri Lanka in Galle on Wednesday.
Australia received a major boost on Monday, with Mitchell Starc cleared to return from a cut finger after a lengthy centre-wicket training session.
Bowling for the first time without tape on his finger since slicing it open almost three weeks ago, Starc ran in for around an hour and was able to grip the ball without the wound reopening.
Travis Head is also pushing to play and completed fielding and batting tasks as officials wait to see how his hamstring pulls up on Tuesday before making a call on his availability.
But it is the role of fourth bowler that shapes as the point of most contention, with left-arm orthodox Holland and incumbent legspinner Mitchell Swepson vying to play.
Coach Andrew McDonald on Monday indicated Australia would go with two slow bowlers, on a ground where finger spin has traditionally had an advantage over wrist-spinners such as Swepson.
“We haven’t made that decision, and Mitch Swepson is definitely in the selection frame,” McDonald said.
“We’re talking about the direction the ball is spinning and the value of accuracy of finger spin against wrist spin, which at times can be less accurate.
“Traditionally, finger spin has done well here, it would be going against the statistics to say it wasn’t.
“But there also hasn’t been a lot of wrist spin played here.”
Holland, who has nine wickets from four Tests at 63.8 apiece, took 20 wickets at 32.10 in the Sheffield Shield last summer, after missing the start of the season with a finger injury.
He has not played for Australia since the 2018 tour of the UAE, and has barely been part of a national squad since.
If Holland does win out, it would mark an incredible bolt from the blue given he was not even part of the Australia A squad in Sri Lanka a fortnight ago.
With selectors opting to give Matthew Kuhnemann experience in Asia, Holland was only called in when Ashton Agar was hurt early in the one-day series.
He did not bowl at training on Monday as he rested his sore finger, but McDonald indicated he would play ahead of Kuhnemann if he recovered in time and a finger-spinner was preferred.
Holland’s rise follows a remarkably similar path to his Test debut in Galle six years ago, when called in mid-series as injury cover during Australia’s 3-0 loss.
He took five wickets in two Tests at 54.8 on that tour, after a preparation hampered by coming out of a Victorian winter with limited bowling behind him.
McDonald is confident it would be different this time.
“We know what Jon can do, hence why he has been called into the squad,” McDonald said.
“He’s always been there or thereabouts with domestic performances.
“He was called in late, was he a little underdone when he got into the (Australia) A series? There’s no doubt about that.
“But we feel like he can bowl himself into the form we need him to.”
Steve Smith is ready to embrace the pressure of spinning Sri Lankan wickets, knowing the challenge of difficult pitches brings out the best in his batting.
Currently amid the biggest century drought since before his first ton in 2013, Smith is ready to do it the hard way again in the two Tests in Galle starting on Wednesday.
Because, by his own admission, that’s when he thrives.
Of his 27 Test hundreds, more than half have come with him as the sole century-maker after coming to the crease with Australia far from in command.
Four of those have also come on the sub-continent, where he averages 50.08.
“When the pressure is on that is when I go to another level mentally,” Smith told AAP.
“The longer I have played the better I have got better under pressure.
“When it’s difficult, it’s when you want to stand up and help your team get out of whatever sticky situation you are in.”
Nowhere have Australia’s batters been placed under more pressure than in Sri Lanka in the past decade.
They were thrashed 3-0 on their last tour in 2016, with Smith the only regular bat to average above 30.
And if there is one thing Smith has missed more during the pandemic than the volume of batting, it’s playing in difficult away conditions.
Since the end of the Bradmanesque 2019 Ashes series, Smith has played just three Tests on foreign soil, all of which came on lifeless Pakistan decks earlier this year.
In that time he has scored only the one century, still averaging 39.88 but well down on his mark of 68.97 between mid-2013 and the end of the 2019 Ashes.
“It was a shame we couldn’t play any Test cricket away for some time,” Smith said.
“I love playing Test cricket away. Everywhere you go presents a different challenge.
“I have missed batting on wickets that are spin friendly.
“They’re so exciting, they’re fun, there is always something happening. I think it’s great for the game to see something like that.
“You have to be switched on, particularly as a batter. You don’t get too many second chances, be really focused and really proactive.”
Proactivity will be the name of Australia’s game this series.
Australia have spoken about the way they were worked over by the now-retired Rangana Herath in their 2016 3-0 loss in Sri Lanka, allowing him to bowl into a rhythm and constantly hit the same length.
This time Andrew McDonald’s men want to go at the spinners more, adopting a defend-with-attack mantra with the bat.
“The more you enable them to settle and bowl that one length, that is where you can get yourself into trouble with the ball that skids or the one that spins,” Smith said.
“You play a bit of cat and mouse.
“Sometimes you might preempt coming down the wicket and putting some pressure on, or sitting a bit deeper in the crease.”
Australia want their pace bowlers to stand up as a point of difference in Sri Lanka with Mitchell Starc ready to roll out the same blueprint that helped him star in 2016.
Australia will enter Wednesday’s first Test in Galle with Starc and Cummins as the two frontline quicks, while Cameron Green will act as a genuine third seamer.
Meanwhile, Sixty-six images of Shane Warne will watch over Australia’s cricketers in Galle as they fight to retain the trophy named in the late legspinner’s honour.
Two months after his sudden death, Australia and Sri Lanka will play for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy that they have not won on foreign soil since 2011.
Wednesday’s first Test will also be dedicated to the Victorian, with a moment’s silence to be observed before play and Warne’s brother Jason expected to be in attendance.
Warne was loved worldwide, but in few places is that admiration greater than in Galle, a city he helped rebuild after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.