North handed more breathing space
There's a popular line in Australian cricket that goes "it's harder to get into the Test team than out of it". Usually it has applied to the batsmen and the current top six, which falters almost as often as it purrs, is benefitting from almost untouchable status.
Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, is not plotting any changes to the line-up for the two Tests in India in October, and would be happiest if the order didn't alter until after the Ashes. That's despite a couple of batsmen - Ricky Ponting and Marcus North - losing power since being defeated by England last year, Michael Hussey edging closer to the end, and Shane Watson being employed as an out-of-position opener.
In the early 1990s, the Waughs were sometimes called the koala brothers (not to their faces!) because they were seen as protected species. Back then Mark and Steve were in their 20s and their best was in front of them. Instead of being on the endangered list over the past year, Marcus North, a 31-year-old, remains in the top tree. Admittedly he is clinging on, but every time he is on the verge of tumbling his powerful admirers prop him up.
Hilditch wants North to be a long-term player and he will be given a chance in India to secure an Ashes role. "He's a very experienced cricketer and we're going to lose some experience in the next six months to two years, so if he was playing really well and gave us some experience, that would be our ideal outcome," Hilditch said. "But Marcus would be aware, as any cricketer is, that he needs to perform well and obviously his consistency is something that we'd be looking for him to improve."
For a professional batsman who has impressed for more than a decade, North has a rare ability to hit or miss. But it's not just his tendency for small scores - he has 21 or fewer in 19 of his 28 Test innings - that is a concern. It's also the times when he makes runs. After a fabulous Ashes series, North has registered only four half-centuries against the weaker opponents of West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand.
Most tellingly, those successes came when Australia's innings were already set up. He entered at 4 for 253 to score 79 against West Indies and his 68 in the same series came after starting at 3 for 277. In New Zealand, where he excelled under immense scrutiny, he walked out at 4 for 176 to post an unbeaten 112, while his 90 in the next game began at 4 for 247. Apart from the century in Wellington, the runs were at the easier end of the Test scale.
With Australia's batting line-up showing regular brittleness - 160 at The Oval, 150 against West Indies in Perth, 127 in Sydney and 88 at Headingley - they need the No.6 to be capable of stability. In those four innings North scratched 8, 1, 20 and 16.
Against Pakistan in England he displayed the flail and fail method, appearing more like a nervy rookie than a senior pro with four hundreds in 17 Tests. "He's proved he can play international cricket," Hilditch said. "We've been preparing for this Ashes since we lost them last time, that's why Marcus has been in the side, he has been part of our longer-term planning for this Ashes series coming up.''
Watson's aggressive approach is made for the middle order and he is the logical choice to drop down whenever a middle-order space appears. After starting with seven fifties and a century in his first eight matches as opener, Watson's life has become tougher and he is less comfortable when the new ball swings, which is something England do well.
Hilditch is reluctant to shuffle the order, even though he sees Phillip Hughes as a long-term opener, but is confident a double switch to the top six can be done smoothly - if absolutely necessary. "You can make changes, I don't think you need to go away and say you can't," he said. "But the reality is we don't see changes being made. Shane Watson has been extremely successful at the top of order, he averages very close to 50 opening, which is a marked increase of where he was down the order."
Hilditch also does not want to break up Watson's partnership with Simon Katich. The pair averages 54.95 runs an innings, which currently places them behind only the Lawry-Simpson and Brown-Fingleton combinations in Australia's history. "It's been a very good partnership," Hilditch said. "Obviously Shane can bat anywhere in the order, but he certainly seems to be grabbing the opening spot."
One person returning after a long-lay who has a place waiting for him is Peter Siddle. Siddle has not played since a stress fracture was diagnosed in his back in February and is planning to return with Victoria at the Champions League in September. If that goes smoothly he will be expected to face England at the Gabba on November 25.
"He's certainly part of our Ashes plans, and has been since the last Ashes," Hilditch said. "He's got to be back bowling well and performing, nobody automatically comes back in. Certainly fully fit, we see him in the top echelon of fast bowlers." This is a panel that keeps faith in those who have served them ably in wins and losses.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo