Contenders, pretenders and bolters chasing Test spots
With three weeks to go before Australia's Test summer gets underway against India, a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over nearly half of Justin Langer's XI.
Barring injury, Langer is able to note down a solid seven names in pen: captain Tim Paine, his world-class bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins, as well as batsmen Usman Khawaja and Aaron Finch.
Finch is only a latecomer but showed enough on Australia's recent Test series defeat to Pakistan that he's a sure thing in a brittle batting line-up.
Australia's horses-for-courses approach to subcontinental tours revived the Test careers of veteran Victorian duo Peter Siddle and Jon Holland, while offering a debut to legspinning Queensland batsman Marnus Labuschagne - but none are likely to feature this summer against India.
It does, however, leave four spots in Australia's top six that are firmly up for grabs: with incumbents Travis Head and the Marsh brothers potentially joining Labuschagne on the outer for the first Test in Adelaide starting December 6.
Ahead of the fourth round of the Sheffield Shield starting on Friday, we've run the rule over the strengths and weaknesses of the incumbents, the contenders and even a bolter or two.
2082 runs @ 35.28
A conundrum, as one of Australia's most experienced but out of form Test players. You don't have to be an Australian selector to know what Shaun Marsh's biggest failing is: he simply gets out too early too often. It's well known that both Marsh brothers get as nervous as any batsmen before they go out into the middle. The 35-year-old has played 61 Test innings, and 25 have seen him dismissed for a single-figure score, meaning that 41 per cent of his innings result in a score less than 10 - compared to the Aussie average of 27 per cent (of batsmen 1-7 since 2000). And while his record against spin (averaging 56.52) is immense, India is likely to rely more heavily on their quicks this summer - and Marsh tends to struggle against seam (averaging 27.34).
1200 runs @ 26.08
The younger Marsh brother, and perhaps an even more puzzling dilemma. Mitchell Marsh is the all-rounder who delivers in both batting and bowling - but so sporadically that you're always forced to ask the question whether either could keep him in the XI at all times. Marsh made great strides in Australia last summer - tightening up his technique, but in his career so far he's played 14% false shots, bang on the Test average.
122 runs @ 30.5
Looked to have leapt to the front of the queue when he overtook Glenn Maxwell as the team's subcontinental specialist on the recent Test series loss to Pakistan. That came off the back of sustained excellence for the Adelaide Strikers and some strong ODI form. But he failed to shine, and has since struggled in the recent ODI series against South Africa. A glance at Head's domestic record shows consistent success - but of the moderate variety. He's averaged over 40 for the past two seasons but has never gone above 50 in a Shield season. Seven first class tons in six summers is also not a great return.
Yet to play Test cricket
Has been forced to deny rumours of a feud with Langer, who gave him a parting shot when the durable opener walked out on Western Australia two years ago. Langer said Harris was "mediocre with flashes of brilliance", a barb when Harris moved to Victoria - but it appears the pair have buried the hatchet at the right time. After two consecutive Shield seasons where he averaged 40+, Harris has stepped it up a level this season, averaging 118 after a stellar start to the season while an unbeaten 250 against NSW certainly shot him into Test contention. Since the start of the last Shield season, nobody has more runs than Harris - and of the top 25 scorers in that time, none have played fewer false shots than Harris' 9 per cent.
636 runs @ 33.47
Seen as the man most likely, after being unceremoniously dumped from the Test team ahead of last year's home Ashes campaign, Renshaw has mounted a compelling case for a recall. He Renshaw was a success in his first Test stint, and established himself as having a world-class defensive game. The average opening Test batsman is dismissed every 71.3 defensive strokes, but for Renshaw that figure is 103, roughly 50 per cent more solid than your standard Test opener. In his Shield career, Renshaw averages 94.83 against spin in the Shield, which for an opener shows that once he gets through that new ball period he is perfectly capable of cashing in against the first, second and third change bowlers.
829 runs @ 43.63
Handscomb was taken out of the firing line last summer, after England duo Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad seemed to work out his unusual technique - and made the brilliant start to his Test career seem a distant memory. In fairness, better batsmen than him have suffered such a fate. More of an issue is the fact that they seemed to establish a clear weakness in Handscomb's game, a severe vulnerability to full and straight deliveries. In Test cricket, top seven batsmen average 18.19 against balls that would hit the stumps from seamers; Handscomb averages 6.25. That could weigh heavily on selectors minds, even allowing for his bright start to the Shield season.
919 runs @ 36.76
If you're looking at this purely on the basis that weight of runs, Burns deserves serious consideration. Since the start of last season only Marcus Harris has scored more runs than the versatile Burns - who has both opened and batted at six in Tests. But - and there's always a but - in his 14 Tests, Burns has been competent while displaying a clear weakness against full straight deliveries. His front pad became a giant billboard for accurate paceman chasing top-order wickets. In Test cricket, balls that would hit the stumps from seamers average 18.19 when they're bowled to top six batsmen. When they're bowled to Burns, they average 9.50.
Yet to play Test cricket
Through three rounds of Shield cricket Cooper averages an impressive 68.4 - with a competition-high two centuries. Cooper is quietly compiling a very healthy argument in his favour, but there is no evidence he'd be able to sustain this success for an entire Shield season, let alone flourish in Test cricket. He's only ever averaged over 40 in a full season once and that was in 2013/14.
Yet to play Test cricket
The son of former Australian Test batsman and coach Darren Lehmann has hit the ground running this season - plundering runs at an average of 74.5. With a strong pedigree, Test cricket could well be in the left-hander's future but it comes with a serious question marks at this stage. Because an average of 28.21 last year suggests that this is a purple patch for the young batsman, and that he won't be able to sustain it.
Yet to play Test cricket
A genuine bolter but one who could firm for a Test berth with a continuation of his strong form. Philippe - a Steve Smith clone in look and mannerisms - enjoyed an excellent JLT Cup campaign (236 runs at an average of 39.33, scoring at 7.22rpo) which has catapulted him into contention, even though his FC numbers do not stack up well at all. While he's only played seven matches, an average of 26.38 is hardly a compelling base from which to build a case for selection. In fairness, Philippe is clearly inexperienced, as shown by the fact he's never been dismissed by a spinner in first-class cricket - all 13 dismissals have come against pace.
ROUND FOUR FIXTURES
NSW v Queensland at Manuka, starting November 16
South Australia v Western Australia at Adelaide, starting November 16
Tasmania v Victoria at Hobart, starting November 17
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