Ahmed, Agar 'Ashes contenders' - Inverarity
The legspinner Fawad Ahmed remains in contention for a late Ashes call-up despite being named in the Australia A squad to tour Africa while England and Australia battle for the urn. The national selectors have chosen a 16-man group for the trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa in July and August and they have included both Ahmed and the left-arm spinner Ashton Agar, while batsmen Shaun Marsh and Aaron Finch have also been picked despite struggling in the Sheffield Shield last summer.
Steven Smith, who is serving as vice-captain to Brad Haddin on the ongoing Australia A tour of England, will lead the side on the month-long trip, which features a three-day game against Zimbabwe in Harare, followed by two four-day matches against South Africa A. There is also a limited-overs section of the tour and Australia A will play at least four 50-over games during a one-day tri-series featuring South Africa A and India A in Pretoria.
A number of changes were necessary from the squad in England, given that the selectors chose to use that trip as a chance for several Ashes squad members to adjust to the conditions ahead of the official start of the Test tour. The fast bowlers Josh Hazlewood and Gurinder Sandhu have been called up from outside the group in England, as has the wicketkeeper Tim Paine and the trio of Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Nathan Coulter-Nile, who played in the Champions Trophy.
Ahmed and Agar, both of whom are in the Australia A team in England, were both named but the national selector John Inverarity left the door open for either man to be added to the Ashes squad. Agar, a 19-year-old left-armer who impressed the selectors when he travelled with the Australians in India earlier this year, has taken 4 for 61 and scored a half-century in his two Australia A matches in England so far, while Ahmed took 1 for 65 in his only game.
"If we decide to expand the Ashes squad and expand it with a spinner, then Ashton Agar and Fawad Ahmed are the two contenders for that position," Inverarity said. "They're both included in this squad and we look forward to them getting more opportunity in this environment."
Finch was named vice-captain of the squad and while there is no question of his claims to a place in the one-day group - he was comfortably the leading Ryobi Cup run scorer last summer with 504 runs at an average of 84 - he will be equally desperate to impress in the first-class games after being overlooked by Victoria for most of the 2012-13 Shield campaign.
The disparity between Finch's short-form and long-form results was one of the great mysteries of the domestic summer, for in four Shield matches at the start of the season he made 0, 34, 1, 8, 9 and 16, and he did not play a Shield game after he was dropped in November. However, Finch did break into the ODI side during the summer and scored heavily as captain of Australia A against the England Lions in a one-day series in February and March.
Like Finch, Shaun Marsh had a domestic campaign that featured few runs in the longer format but plenty in coloured clothing. Marsh was the top scorer in the Big Bash League with 412 runs at 58.85 and in the Ryobi Cup he made 215 at 53.75, but his Shield summer was poor and brought only 152 runs at 19 in four appearances. Marsh turns 30 next month and needs a big tour to prove to the selectors that he has more to offer at international level.
"Shaun at the moment is very fit and focused," Inverarity said. "This will be a really good opportunity for him. There's a lot of cricket there and … it is a really good opportunity for him to kick-start his career a bit."
The inclusions of Marsh and Finch after such disappointing Shield campaigns highlights the lack of batting depth in Australia's domestic game, although Callum Ferguson and Joe Burns could consider themselves unlucky to have been overlooked. Ferguson had a productive season in the Shield and Ryobi Cup and Burns, after a slow start, finished the summer well, although the selectors might have decided he would gain as much from his ongoing county stint with Leicestershire as an A tour.
The Tasmania batsman Jordan Silk was the only non-Ashes squad member to miss out from the Australia A team in England. The fast bowler Pat Cummins will travel with the squad as a development player, much like he has in England, although Inverarity said there could yet be a chance of officially adding him to the squad.
"Pat is progressing very well," Inverarity said. "Currently he is with the Australia A tour in England in a development capacity. He has trained very hard, he's very fit and very strong. Dennis Lillee worked with him and he has refined his action a little to put less stress on his body and we're very keen that he ingrains those habits before we put him into a contest in the field, to ensure that he doesn't revert to old habits under the pressure of the game. It could be that we're ready to give him a run in a couple of games there."
Australia A squad Steven Smith (capt), Aaron Finch (vice-capt), Ashton Agar, Fawad Ahmed, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Alex Doolan, Josh Hazlewood, Moises Henriques, Nic Maddinson, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine (wk), Gurinder Sandhu, Chadd Sayers, Pat Cummins (development player).
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here