The welcome return of Shield cricket
As the curtain is drawn on Australia's Test match obliteration of India, the only collective more relieved to see the end of it than the visitors from the subcontinent will be that of the Australian selectors. The end of the Tests also means the final of the concurrent Twenty20 Big Bash League, and the return of Sheffield Shield cricket that can provide a far more reliable arena for the assessment of players on the fringes of the national team.
For a period of more than a month, the home selection panel has had no relevant cricket to draw players from, nor a like competition into which to demote incumbents. The lack of Sheffield Shield matches being played across the series has left John Inverarity, Michael Clarke, Mickey Arthur, Rod Marsh and Andy Bichel in a peculiar bind, unable to consider changes to address any problems that spring up over the course of four Tests.
It is not a difficulty the selectors had avoided mulling over earlier in the piece, and Inverarity acknowledged his panel's difficulty in the week before Boxing Day. "Yes it is of concern, of course it is of concern," he said. "We're faced with the prospect of including a new player should there be injury or loss of form, a new player for the Test match in Adelaide, which begins about January 24, and that new player would not have played first-class cricket for six or seven weeks. That is a concern, but that is the situation and that is what we've got to cope with. For the preparation of a Test team the current situation is not ideal, but that's the way it is."
Even the most comprehensive series results could be achieved without strong contributions from each member of the XI, or the 14 as the team performance manager Pat Howard would prefer to call them, and this one too has not passed without difficulty. An otherwise even team performance has been unbalanced somewhat by the meagre contributions of Shaun Marsh and Brad Haddin. Both have held vital positions in the team, but have relied on others to keep the surge towards victory from slackening.
Marsh has had his poverty of runs covered by the rich scoring of other members of the top six, particularly the mighty efforts of Clarke, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. So well have they played that Marsh's 17 runs in six innings from the pivotal No. 3 spot has been a source of untold torment for the batsmen but only passing worry for his team. Similarly, Haddin's slim returns with the bat and less than assured showings with the gloves have been less critical for the abundance of strong displays around him. Any dropped chances have drawn fewer apprehensive glances for the fact that India's remarkably compliant batsmen would invariably offer up another soon after.
Stability is a quality that Inverarity and the rest have wanted to imbue, following a 2011 in which many names were tried and tested against the panel's expectations of performance and character. While the bowlers can expect to be rotated regularly, and have been, the batsmen and wicketkeeper carry positions that most selection panels are loath to change-up easily, as evidenced by the extended runs given to the likes of Ponting and Hussey in recent times. Marsh and Haddin are considered part of the team's core: Haddin is formally recognised as the vice-captain, while Marsh is entrusted with a position habitually occupied by a team's most complete batsman. They may remain a part of Australia's planning for the tour of West Indies, but require a chance to regain touch and rhythm before booking a spot on the plane.
Over the next few days, the selectors will decide upon the squad for the triangular ODI series that follows the Tests and two Twenty20 matches. Neither Haddin, nor Marsh, should be included in that squad, instead they should be directed towards representing their states in the Shield competition. Whether or not Haddin and Marsh need the remainder of the domestic fixtures - four first-class matches per state - can be dictated by how much form they can regather, and it is customary for the ODI squad to be refreshed at the halfway point of the competition.
Their absence would allow room for the inclusion of other players the selectors need to get a better look at, the Victorian gloveman Matthew Wade in particular, and also provide a suitable reminder to Marsh and Haddin that their continued time in the Test team will be dictated by their ability to find an avenue to better performance. In Haddin's case matters are complicated by the battered index finger of Tim Paine, long considered his ideal replacement. Paine's future is far from certain as he recovers from bone-graft surgery, meaning Wade's claims should be more closely examined.
Marsh's battles across this series have demonstrated the drawbacks of an injury-interrupted preparation, but also his longstanding struggle to find a more consistent return of strong performances. He has fielded well, never better than a sharp chance to his left to claim VVS Laxman near stumps on day four, indicating that his batting troubles are as much mental as hand-eye related. With Western Australia he would need to make runs in a range of conditions, as the Warriors venture to Brisbane and Hobart in addition to two matches at home in Perth.
By the time the West Indies tour begins, Marsh would have had the opportunity to right his ship with long innings under the gaze of the selectors, rather than a series of cameos in 50-over matches under the glare of television. Should the rut get deeper, the selectors have a month of Shield games from which to draw another name, whether it be Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson, or some other. It is a luxury they have not enjoyed at the heart of the summer.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here