Until a week ago, nine players were certainties in the Australia XI for the first Test match against England starting in Brisbane on 23 November. The two contentious spots were that of the No 6 and the wicketkeeper.
David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Peter Handscomb and the bowling group of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon were the only certainties. To an extent, as was Matt Renshaw, the 21-year-old opening batsmen who had shown plenty of resilience and application in his six Test matches on the spin-friendly conditions against some world-class spinners.
To be more specific, Renshaw had scored 492 runs at an average of 37.8 from his seven Tests this calendar year. His last Test innings in Australia was a mammoth 184 against Pakistan at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He was a shoe-in for the first Test in Brisbane.
But things have gone sour for Renshaw rather quickly. His six outings in first-class cricket yielded 70 runs, which, given his ability and history, might have been sufficient for an Ashes berth, but it was the form of Western Australian opener Cameron Bancroft that led to Renshaw being forced out of the team. To make matters worse for Renshaw, five out his six dismissals were identical. His inside-out bat swing had led to him being caught behind on numerous occasions. As an opening batsman, one of the prime objectives is to know where your off-stump is; sadly for Renshaw, he had lost his judgement.
To be fair, the selectors were harsh on Renshaw, but in Cameron Bancroft they had an in-form opener ready for Test cricket. To make things easier for selectors, Bancroft plays in a similar manner to Renshaw. But rather than his style, it was the manner in which the right-handed batsman scored 76 and an unbeaten 86 against a New South Wales bowling line-up compromising of Starc, Hazelwood, Cummins and Lyon, that helped the selectors take notice of his temperament.
Bancroft backed that effort up by scoring an unbeaten 228 last week and the fact that Renshaw failed again three days ago was enough for the selectors to sway towards Bancroft.
But if the selectors had a goal to pick the team based on form, the decision to pick Tim Paine is one of the most obscure selections in over a decade.
Paine played a Test in 2010, and in his most recent outings for Tasmania, he stood at point, not even donning the gloves for his state side. To make it even more bizarre, Paine’s first-class record is abysmal. He has only managed one century in his 158 outings. While he did score an unbeaten 71 two days ago and also scored a half-century against England in the tour match in Adelaide last week, his selection has left the whole of Australia mystified.
Apart from his form and lack of match time behind the stumps, Paine will turn 33 next month and with selectors taking a drastic call on nurturing young cricketers last year, it seems they have contradicted themselves by picking him.
Matthew Wade had to be dropped due to his deplorable record with the bat and Peter Nevill simply didn’t do enough to be counted as certainty. In a country that has been blessed with wicketkeepers, it is hard to believe Australian cricket had to pull a rabbit out of the hat for such an important series.
One other strategy that Australia seemed to have deviated from is the role of the No 6. Under the tenure of coach Darren Lehmann, Australia have preferred an all-rounder at the No 6 slot, but the inclusion of Shaun Marsh means it is back to the six frontline batsmen strategy.
Selection decision was made easier by the fact that seam-bowling all-rounders such as Hilton Cartwright, Moises Henriques and Marcus Stoinis produced a series of of low scores in the Shield matches leading into the Ashes. Cartwright was tipped to be next long-term option, but he bagged a pair against New South Wales last week and only managed one fifty in his six innings, prompting the selectors to strengthen the batting with six frontline batsmen.
Western Australia coach Justin Langer has openly stated that Shaun Marsh is in the best form of his life, but Marsh’s previous forays into the Australia line-up have proved otherwise. Despite being pleasing on the eye, Marsh does not have the numbers to warrant a place. In his six first-class outings this year, he has averaged 39.33, and the fact that he has been recalled in the Australian line-up on the eight occasions highlights the deficiencies in his game and the selection process.
Overall, it is a side that has been picked on mixed results. From six state teams, only Bancroft was begging to be picked with his stellar numbers and form. The fact that Australia cannot find emerging batsmen at six and have to revert to aging Shaun Marsh is a major concern. Tim Paine might catch everything behind the stumps, but can he score enough runs down the order? Remember, it was Brad Haddin’s heroics with the bat that ensured Mitchell Johnson had enough runs to play with to blow away the English batsmen.
One thing in Australia’s favour is their bowling. In Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Lyon, they have an attack capable of taking 20 wickets on any pitch. Perhaps that is the safety net that has allowed the selectors to take calculated risks with Marsh and Paine. Only time will tell.