Ashes 2009: Who Will Make Australia's Squad?
There are all sorts of things going on this week, not least the conclusion of the Indian Premier League, the end of the Friends Provident Trophy group stages, World Cricket League Division Seven but as we continue to count down to the Ashes series, the announcement on Wednesday of Australia's touring squad is what I'm going to be looking out for.
History leads me to expect the selectors to name 16 players for the five-Test tour, the first of which begins in Cardiff on 8th July. Engalnd, coming off the back of some impressive performances, if not results, in the last 12 months, are slowly building confidence while Australia will be heartened by their trip to South Africa, where they did what England did five years ago prior to the Anglo-Australian clash.
Dead certs for the trip include captain Ricky Ponting, vice-captain Michael Clarke, key batsman Mike Hussey, wicket-keeper Brad Haddin and fast bowlers Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson but who else are the selectors likely to go for, and who would England prefer not to see arriving on their shores in late June?
Openers: Phillip Hughes has been in scintillating form for Middlesex which is a massive positive ahead of the series and even though he has not faced many of the players he will be coming up against in the Tests, he will be nicely accustomed to English conditions.
He will be joined at the top of the order by Simon Katich, his New South Wales team-mate and a man who reinvented himself after losing his place in the team shortly after the 2005 defeat and has now cemented his place at the top of the order. So much so, in fact that Phil Jaques no longer holds a central contract. I don't expect a third opener to be named in the squad, chiefly because Chris Rogers, capped last year against India, is in England playing for Derbyshire and Hussey is an option should an emergency opener be required.
Batsmen: Ponting, Clarke and Hussey pick themselves and have done since the last Ashes contest, when an injury to Shane Watson allowed Clarke the chance to get back in the side. He took it, and has not looked back. His left-arm spin could also be an asset, especially against Pietersen. Hussey was in the limited overs squad in 2005, having to wait until after the 2005 Ashes loss to get his chance and while he has been going through something of a lean patch in the last few months, his record, experience and knowledge of English conditions mean he cannot be left out.
Marcus North, a man who made a century on debut in South Africa, looks set to take up his place as first reserve and I wouldn't be at all surprised should the selectors spring a surprise if they choose to name a fifth specialist non-opening batsman.
Could Brad Hodge, a man surprisingly given a central contract, or Callum Ferguson, a man who is clearly being groomed as a key player for all forms of the match for Australia, earn their place on the trip? Australia have historically selected players on the fringes of the side to give them experience, such as Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist in the past although they could go the other way completely, and decide to stick with six batsmen, safe in the knowledge that in Rogers and Adam Voges of Nottinghamshire, they have adequate reserves already in the country should injury strike.
Wicket-keepers: Brad Haddin has made the wicket-keeping spot his own since the retirement of Gilchrist and will take his place as first-choice behind the stumps. For me, the choice of his reserve comes down to Gary Manou and Luke Ronchi. Manou is the safe bet, given that he has just been handed a central contract, Ronchi the exciting option who has already shown that he can hit the ball as hard as anybody in international cricket. Either way, unless Haddin gets injured or suffers a remarkable loss of form, they won't play a Test.
All-rounders: Choose from Shane Watson, Andrew Symonds, Andrew McDonald, or some combination of those is the poser for the selectors. Watson and Symonds both have first-class experience of playing in England, Watson is the man in form, McDonald the man in possession. The wording of Cricket Australia's statement regarding Watson's recovery from injury, when they made it clear that he would be fit for the ICC World Twenty20 and the Ashes (my italics) makes it seem to me that they want him in the squad. He has come on leaps and bounds in both disciplines in the previous 12 months, really kicking on from his 2008 Indian Premier League performance. The advantage he has is that he could be pressed in action as an emergency opening batsman should the situation require it.
Spinner: With some talk of England playing both Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, particularly at Cardiff, which is taking plenty of turn, this is a bad time for Australia to be struggling to find top line Test spinners. In 2005, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill both toured, but this time around, it would be a bold move indeed for them to go with the same policy. Nathan Hauritz has to be the favourite, given how he has impressed in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain, Beau Casson, or the part-time spin of Simon Katich and Michael Clarke are the other options.
Pace bowlers: Fortunately for the tourists, the situation is nothing like as bleak in the fast bowling department. Lee and Johnson will form a potent opening partnership and both men are fresh following an injury layoff (Lee) and a break (Johnson). Both possess express pace and Johnson, who England have not faced before, has that element of surprise in his favour. If fit, Stuart Clark, another man who has experience of English conditions thanks to his time with Middlesex and Hampshire, is a more than useful choice as first change with his nagging accuracy that many have compared to Glenn McGrath. He offers the experience from which two from Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger, Brett Geeves and Steve Magoffin should learn plenty during the tour.
In 2005, the make-up of the touring party was thus: two openers, five batsmen, two wicket-keepers, one all-rounder (Warne), one specialist spinner and five pace bowlers. Two spinners would appear unlikely this time around, which opens the door for Symonds to join Watson as a second all-rounder and a third spin option with his off breaks. Put it this way, England would rather face the unknown and relatively inexperienced McDonald than Symonds, a man who his taken them apart on more occasions than they care to remember.
The Ashes begin on 8th July at the SWALEC Stadium, Cardiff with the Australian squad announcement on Wednesday 20th May, 11am local time in Sydney. John Pennington, the 'voice' of Cricket World® Radio, writes a weekly column for CricketWorld.com which appears at the start of the week.