You might be forgiven for thinking Australia’s squad announcement for the tour of Sri Lanka was more like an Oprah show.
“You get a car, you get a car …” the lists were endless, the names plentiful.
If you were anyone, you were pretty much named in the squad
Between the Test, ODI, T20 and Australia A squads, 34 players were picked.
But even then, others will come back into calculations when Australia prepares for its Ashes defence next year, with Michael Neser’s medium-pace to swing back into contention.
The injury-plagued Will Pucovski, too, was looked over with the one-Test wonder encouraged to string matches together after his highly productive, though stop-start career.
Just as he smiled his way throughout his own career, national chair of selection George Bailey spoke with clarity and the conviction of a man whose every move has paid off in spades.
Yet some tough decisions were made, too.
Glenn Maxwell’s remains in Test exile, Marcus Harris was dropped and Ben McDermott, who enjoyed a breakout series against Pakistan in the white ball matches, was left out entirely and could not make the Australia A side either.
Bailey revealed the one day matches were a late addition to the two four-day matches and on form, age and currency, McDermott was not currently seen as a player on the fringes of the Test team and the returns of David Warner and co. had seen him unfortunately slip down the pecking order in the ODI and T20 sides.
White-ball captain Aaron Finch was backed to fight his way out of his long form slump, with Bailey acknowledging the skipper’s wider benefit to the team/
“Two parts to that,” Bailey began his defence, “I think his captaincy is really important, but there’s so much cricket between now and the World Cups that I’m just really confident that Finchy will get back into his groove.
“It’s one of those things, I don’t think you forge a reputation and the record that he has over such a long period of time to not know that there’s a helluva lot of talent and skill and, as I said, he’s really important player in that team, let alone the captaincy.”
Here are five burning questions from the Sri Lanka touring squad announcement.
More of the same, or will there be changes to the Australia Test XI?
George Bailey was adamant about one thing: rewarding the team that did the job in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, Pat Cummins’ side made minimal changes and left it until the last second to clinch victory and the series.
Only 12 players were used throughout the three-match Test series, with Josh Hazlewood making way for leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson to make his debut.
While Travis Head exploded with the bat in the ODIs, he missed out with the bat.
But given his starring role during the Ashes, it is unlikely he would be axed either to allow for an all-rounder like Mitch Marsh to play or for a third-spinner.
Swepson didn’t spin wonders, but he was not helped by dropped catches either.
The question is, will the conditions warrant two or, perhaps, three spinners?
“Obviously recent history in Galle suggests it’s going to be conducive to spin,” Bailey responded after being asked whether all three spinners could feature and what that would mean for Hazlewood.
“There’s a chance we go in with a similar sort of makeup to what we did finish with in Pakistan, with the extra spinner and one fast-bowler short.
“We know Hoff’s an absolutely quality bowler across all formats, so he’ll be there and ready to go.
“We might not get the conditions that we expect, so he’s always going to be a very important member of the Test squad.
“And absolutely, we have to be open to the possibility of playing three spinners. We’ve seen it done once in the past, a Test match in Bangladesh, and again we’ll just assess that.”
Left-arm orthodox spin has been highly successful in recent years in the subcontinent, particularly against right-handed batters, so Ashton Agar will be thought of, particularly given his usefulness with the bat.
But despite finishing with an unflattering two wickets at 133, Swepson remains the favourite to snare the second spinner’s spot alongside Nathan Lyon.
What could help Swepson’s case is if he features more in the two Australia A four-day matches, which take place at the same time as the five ODIs.
“Talking to both those guys, I know Swepo does like to be doing a little bit of red ball specific stuff,” Bailey admitted.
“Ash (Agar) is more comfortable that it’s about repeatability for him and he’s confident in his ability to switch formats pretty quickly, but I imagine both of them are just keen to be playing.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter where at the moment, they’re keen to play the game.
“There’s an opportunity for a number of the guys who are only in the Test squad to use those A games as a warm-up or as a tour game, but we’ll work with those guys individually with who needs that and who’s comfortable just preparing in the nets.”
Marsh is the bolter to come into the squad, but his chances aren’t helped by the fact the series is only two matches.
Should Australia turn to three spinners, Cameron Green could provide back-up to Cummins but they could be tempted to play Marsh ahead of Head to give them one more seam option.
Yet given Bailey’s desire to reward performance, it is unlikely Australia’s selectors would make such a big call given the consequences it would lead to.
Where to now for Maxi?
While there were reports earlier in the week that the Big Show would be parachuted back into the squad for the first time in 2017, Bailey hit them for six.
He acknowledged why the usual reports landed given his century in 2017 against India, but he also said the selectors didn’t lose sleep debating his position.
How close did he come?
Not very, according to Bailey, although he left the door ajar open for anyone – as any selector worth their weight would do.
“We thought the guys who did the job in Pakistan did a really good job on the back of doing a really good job over the summer, so there wasn’t too much discussion around others,” he said.
“But one of the really pleasing things for this tour is that we have reduced squad sizes a little bit, and we are hoping to get back to having that flexibility where if we do need to add to the squad, Glenn or another player, we have the ability to do that on an add-need basis as opposed to crystal-ball what you might need and announcing a squad of 20, which we’ve had to do the last couple of years.
“I think you guys have made the point over the last couple of days, we know Glenn’s had some red ball success in these types of conditions, looking forward to him getting back and playing a good block of cricket for Australia through the T20 and One-Day cricket and if he shoots the lights out, and anyone else does particularly well, there’s always going to be opportunities.”
At 33, Maxwell is seen as white ball specialist.
Should he wish to push for a Test recall, he will likely have to play Sheffield Shield cricket — a format of the game he only recently returned to after a long hiatus.
Australia will hope Head fires in the middle-order in the subcontinent to give selectors confidence he has what it takes overseas in Test cricket, but if he fails to do so it will leave the door open ahead of next year’s tour of India. Ping Maxwell.
Is Matthew Renshaw being groomed for a recall?
It’s a question many distant observers have asked in recent years: Where is Matt the Bat Renshaw?
Well, he’s not gone away.
The issue is he was dropped following Australia’s disaster in Bangladesh in 2017 and then made an unsuccessful return during the Sandpaper Gate scandal in 2018 and has since been out of sight and out of mind.
He didn’t help himself by dropping down the order where there are a plethora of middle-order batters, as opposed to the unsuccessful ones at the top.
He went from being a fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond.
But with two 35-year-olds at the top of the order, and Will Pucovski’s health not to be taken for granted, one could understand Bailey’s excitement to see Renshaw had made the move up the order for Somerset.
The early signs are promising too, with Renshaw hitting a glorious century this week filled with cover drives, drives down the ground and one phenomenal pull shot for six which looked more like the Ricky Ponting of old than Mathew Hayden.
“He can probably fit anywhere, certainly given his development over the last couple of years,” Bailey said on Renshaw.
“We know he can open, he’s scored Test hundreds, so there’s a skill-set that he has there.
“He got back to batting three at the back-end of the season for Queensland, he’s had some good success at No.5.
“As I’ve said to him over the last couple of days, (it’s) great to see him back at the top over in England.
“Once again, looking at scarcity of resources and where the hardest places to bat are, you want to look out for the guys who have the ability to bat at the top of the order and hopefully stay there for long periods of time as far as tenure goes, not necessarily balls faced.
“He said it’s taken a little bit of adjusting and it’s a bit of a different feel because after a couple of years at 5 he was starting to get used to it, but he’s enjoying the challenge.
“For him, it’s about scoring a mountain of runs and then if the opportunity arises he’s probably got a nice little advantage that he’s got that flexibility in his game.”
As for Pucuvski, Bailey added: “I don’t think the message has really changed, we’re really keen as a panel just to see Will back playing. Lots of consistent cricket, so nice to see him get back for the back-end of the Shield season and look forward to him, again, having a full-season of cricket and (we’re) not too concerned if that starts at grade level or Victoria.
Is Alex Carey out of the woods just yet?
The short answer is no.
The long answer: the jury remains out – and Josh Inglis, the back-up keeper, remains in the squad.
Given Bailey reiterated his desire to reduce the squad sizes that is significant, but it could also be down to the fact that in the Covid world, were Carey to contract the virus it would leave Australia without someone to pull on the gloves.
But it also means every day there’s a fine wicket-keeper batter waiting in the wings.
Carey’s stocks improved on the series of Pakistan, but questions remain about his wicket-keeping.
Two fine half-centuries in the second and third Test helped Australia’s position, but catches went down throughout the series and others sailed between him and the first-slip.
That issue can’t continue.
Keeping in the subcontinent has never been easy, but taking the chances that come are essential.
Watch this space.
Should we care about the Australia A series?
Given the contempt with which the Sheffield Shield competition is held, the prospect of two four-day matches is hugely significant.
Red ball cricket is the foundation for all three formats.
Techniques honed from hours of facing balls or sending them down, the initial success of the Big Bash has meant the Sheffield Shield has been allowed to fall by the wayside.
But the two four-day matches will give Australian selectors an opportune moment to see the best of the rest.
Renshaw’s footwork and shot selection will be tested; Henry Hunt will have a chance to see if he can make the leap from domestic cricket to the international game on foreign spoil; Nic Maddison can prove he is ready for a recall; and spinners Todd Murphy, Matthew Kuhnemann and Tanveer Sangha can gain some valuable experience on slow, spinning decks.
“It’s important, it’s really exciting, it’s a really important part of players’ development, both from an opportunity to experience foreign conditions, but hopefully also being around some peers and the step up from Shield Cricket,’ Bailey said.
“We’re always going to be balancing I think with our Australia A teams, making sure we have the next best in those teams and we can cover any opportunity that arise in the near future, but also about developing those skill-sets that we’re going to need in the future and we’ve talked about the opportunity for some of the spinners in that team as well, so it’s great to see it back.
“If we can look back at some of these ‘A’ tours, then hopefully what we’re seeing is players that are more ready to make the step up to the Australian team than what they were previously.”
As for Murphy, the 21-year-old is one of the real unknown quantities in the touring party, but put his name up in lights after taking seven wickets in the match against Tasmania in March.
“Really consistent, certainly the feedback, he’s probably played a little bit more one day cricket than his red ball, but experienced players have found him hard to get away in one day cricket,” Bailey said.
“He had that particularly strong game against Tasmania, but it’s as much about a scarcity of skill-set, you look around Australia, we don’t have a heap of well-established spinners, he’s certainly behind Nathan Lyon as far as off-spinners go, (but) he looks really promising, so it’s exciting to get him across there along with Tanveer Sangha and Matt Kuhnemann as well.
“It’s a little bit about exposing those rarer skill-sets but really important skill-sets for these types of tours.”