Paine thrilled at captaincy chance
Tim Paine has spent his past two tours doing little but running the drinks, so captaining Australia A in Zimbabwe will be a welcome task. The squad flies out on Saturday for a triangular one-day series against the hosts and South Africa A, before a pair of four-day games against Zimbabwe, and the selector Greg Chappell will be there taking notes ahead of Australia's trip to Sri Lanka in August.
Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Michael Beer and Jason Krejza are among those who will be hoping to impress Chappell and win immediate promotion, while younger men like Nic Maddinson and Mitchell Marsh are just happy to be part of the tour. Paine himself is a unique case; he has four Tests to his name but knows he won't add to that tally in the near future unless Brad Haddin is injured.
That's the life of the backup wicketkeeper, as Haddin learnt when he spent the better part of a decade waiting for occasional chances to replace Adam Gilchrist. Paine was part of the World Cup squad but didn't play a match, and had one outing in the ODI series in Bangladesh that followed, and now he's looking forward to getting plenty of game-time in Zimbabwe.
"It can be frustrating but at the same time I loved every minute of both of those tours," Paine told ESPNcricinfo this week. "To get the chance to go to a World Cup was outstanding. Hopefully at some stage down the track I can go to another one and be the main keeper, that would be a great result. It can get a little bit frustrating sitting on the sidelines but at the same time I realise how lucky I am to be there."
Paine, 26, has come a long way in the space of a year; he won his first baggy green against Pakistan last July and impressed with both bat and gloves. He then went on to stand in for the injured Haddin on the October tour of India, where he posted two Test half-centuries and confirmed that he has the temperament and maturity to be a fine Test player.
The selectors certainly rate him highly. After leading the Prime Minister's XI in January, he was swiftly thrust into the national Twenty20 vice-captaincy behind Cameron White when Australia played England the same month, and he can further enhance his leadership credentials by steering an Australia A side with a mix of experience and youth.
"This tour and as much last year the Prime Minister's XI, they're both big honours to be named captain of those sides," he said. "I'm certainly thrilled to be given the opportunity. It's something I enjoy doing but it's something I realise I need to improve and want to improve. The more opportunities I get, the better I'll be."
Paine has Callum Ferguson as his vice-captain for the Zimbabwe tour, which will feature several interesting subplots as the competition for places in the squad for Sri Lanka intensifies. Hughes can seal himself as the immediate opening replacement for Simon Katich with one big score, while Khawaja also wants to impress and make sure he remains in the Test squad.
The spin bowl-off between Krejza and Beer in the four-day side could determine who gets the job for the first Test against Sri Lanka, with Beer not having won a Cricket Australia contract despite being the incumbent. Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus also want plenty of wickets as they prepare for Sri Lanka, and they won't want to be outbowled by fellow fast men Trent Copeland and Mitchell Starc.
And with several months now having passed for World Cup post-mortems, Australia's management and selection panel will be keen to see how the spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe, the allrounders Luke Butterworth and Mitchell Marsh, and the batsmen Aaron Finch, Nic Maddinson and Matthew Wade perform in the 50-over format.
The squad has been preparing for the past three weeks in Brisbane under the supervision of the Australia A coach Troy Cooley and his assistant Jason Gillespie, who will help the fast bowlers on the tour. Paine said the players were ready for some time in the middle against quality opposition.
"It's an important tour for everyone," Paine said. "There's two lots of guys, there are the guys who have played international cricket, who are looking to get either back into the team or on to tours, then you have the younger guys who are getting their first opportunity to play cricket overseas against international sides, so it's exciting for them.
"It has been very busy the last two or three weeks. We've been training every day, so it's been good for the boys to get back into it."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo