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It's a scary thought ... but what if Australian selectors are right to play long game with Test team succession plan?

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13th December, 2023
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Amid all the criticism that has been directed at the Australian selectors, one question hasn’t been raised too much – what if they’re right?

Their reluctance to end David Warner’s career early and their disregard for concerns about the ageing nature of the current team haven’t backfired as yet. 

They managed to retain the Ashes despite Warner again failing to fire and even if the veteran opener struggles in the three-Test contest with Pakistan, it’s hard to see Australia not sweeping the series. 

The selectors were lambasted for picking a World Cup squad containing just one frontline spinner in India, an extra batter after Ashton Agar was injured, ejecting Alex Carey early and sticking with a nucleus of multi-format players who looked tired early in the tournament after the Ashes. But they won it all.

No one in the Test team that will line up at Perth’s Optus Stadium on Thursday will be under 29, which raises questions about when fresh legs will be brought in to replenish the ranks. 

With Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja saying they have no plans to retire, Nathan Lyon publicly declaring he wants to tour England again in 2027 and the pace trio of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc declaring that Tests will be the last format they give up, it could be extremely hard for fringe players to get an extended chance to cement a spot. 

Not knowing exactly when the 30-something stars are planning to ride off into the sunset makes it hard for selectors to look too far down the track. 

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Position by position, looking at each of the 11 spots and how they could play out over the next five years, there could be as little as four or five spots up for grabs in that timeframe, apart from fill-in roles here and there that Scott Boland, Todd Murphy and Michael Neser have occupied in recent times. 

There’s a possibility that when Warner retires, Marnus Labuschagne will be bumped up to opener so Cameron Green returns to the middle order. No new player required there. 

Khawaja will play on until at least the end of next summer’s five-match homestand against India. By that stage, it would likely be too late for Marcus Harris or Cameron Bancroft to get a recall so the younger option of Matt Renshaw or Will Pucovski, if he has rebuilt his career sufficiently at first-class level, would be favoured to establish a rare long-term role. 

Labuschagne and Travis Head, both 29, have built up enough credits to ink them in as mainstays for the next five years barring a dramatic drop in form. 

INDORE, INDIA - MARCH 03: Travis Head of Australia bats during day three of the Third Test match in the series between India and Australia at Holkare Cricket Stadium on March 03, 2023 in Indore, India. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Travis Head bats. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Smith is 34 and his likely dream farewell would be two summers from now in a home Ashes series, although after the vitriol that has been directed at Warner for stating he wants an SCG send-off months in advance, don’t expect his Blues buddy to say anything of the sort. 

Green is considered an integral middle-order building block while Mitchell Marsh’s time as the first-choice all-rounder in the Test team is unlikely to go any longer than a couple of summers given the 32-year-old’s history with injuries and red-ball form. 

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That eventually leaves a spot or two for the likes of Aaron Hardie, Nathan McSweeney, Teague Wyllie, Campbell Kelleway and Ollie Davies to fight over. 

There are very few young middle-order batters in the Shield ranks who appear on course for the Test arena, which underlines why the selectors will have no qualms if Smith and Marsh keep filling that role for a few more summers. 

The wicketkeeping slot is crucial and a lot will depend on how Alex Carey bounces back this summer after the Ashes dramas and World Cup axing damaged his confidence. 

At 32, the super-fit South Australian has the potential to retain the gloves long term but with Josh Inglis rising in estimations and four years younger, the Western Australian gloveman could get a chance sooner rather than later. 

Alex Carey of the Redbacks during the Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and Victoria at Adelaide Oval, on December 01, 2023, in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

Alex Carey. (Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

Former Australian keeper Brad Haddin has repeatedly said he believes the Test format is Inglis’ strength. But the job is Carey’s for as long as he keeps performing as he’s seen as a key member of this current group which has been together for several years. 

In the bowling department, Lyon is more than capable of churning out his arcing off breaks over and over for the next few years as he targets unfinished Ashes business on the next UK tour. 

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Murphy is the heir apparent and the recent investment in Tanveer Sangha’s development is bad news for the chances of Mitchell Swepson and Matt Kuhnemann adding to their handful of Test caps. 

And then there’s the Big Three. 

After the T20 World Cup next June, Starc and Hazlewood in particular will start to be more open about their plans for dropping a format or two at international level. 

The blueprint laid out by Stuart Broad and James Anderson of eschewing the white-ball workload to extend their Test longevity is one that is likely to be followed by Australia’s fearsome threesome. 

And that’s all but certain to mean Boland, 34, and Neser, 33, are going to be battling to get many more chances. 

Even young express quick Lance Morris and his Western Australian comrade Jhye Richardson aren’t guaranteed to get much more than deputising duties over the next few years. 

Jhye Richardson celebrates.

Jhye Richardson. (Photo by Mark Brake – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

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Starc is 34 next month and Hazlewood hits 33 while Cummins is 30 but has reduced miles in his legs (and back) after plenty of time out of the game early in his career when he went nearly six years between his first and second Test appearances. 

Apart from an 18-month stretch when side strains sidelined Hazlewood, the incumbent trio have been durable despite the demands of bowling fast across three formats and if their workload is reduced to just Test duty, they may not roll into the retirement lounge until close to the end of this decade. 

Looking at the team over a long-term view, the selectors may indeed be right that there’s no need to rush in new blood because the drop-off in incumbent players could end up being a very lengthy process. 

Nearly as drawn-out as the saga surrounding Warner’s controversial exit. 

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