Watson closes in on Ashes call-up
The majority of Australia's cricketers are facing a sleepless night, with selectors instructing them to wait by the telephone from 9am on Wednesday to learn their Ashes fate. Few of the prospective 16-man touring party have received advance notice of their Ashes status by Andrew Hilditch's panel, prompting much tension and trepidation among contracted players contacted by Cricinfo.
So guarded is Cricket Australia ahead of Wednesday's squad announcement that coach Tim Nielsen would not even confirm whether the squad would consist of 16 players. "It could be 15, 16, one or 25," he said. "We have obviously given our input, but we will all find out tomorrow."
The main points of contention remain the positions of all-rounder and reserve batsman. Marcus North and Shane Watson are understood to have the front-running for the all-rounders' posts, most likely leaving the well-credentialled Andrew Symonds, Andrew McDonald and Brad Hodge to contest for the final place in the squad.
Symonds on Tuesday received support from a powerful ally in Ricky Ponting, however with Australia spoilt for choice in the all-rounder stakes - and Symonds only recently returned from another extended stint on the sidelines - he faces an uphill battle. McDonald, too, has many supporters within Cricket Australia's corridors of power, although the addition of a third all-rounder at the expense of a specialist batsman could create problems if a member of the top-six were to endure injury or form setbacks in England.
Hodge, with a Test batting average in excess of 55 and a half-century in his most recent outing for Australia, could prove the solution. A surprise recipient of a central contract last week, the 34-year-old has extensive experience in English conditions and, after an unbeaten 71 for the Kolkata Knight Riders on Monday, gave further weight to the notion that age has not blunted his skill or desire. Selectors may also be drawn to his versatility - he is capable of batting anywhere in the top-order - and the additional veteran presence he would bring to a largely youthful squad.
The remainder of Australia's Ashes squad should be relatively straightforward. Cricinfo understands Australia's bowling set-up is all but confirmed, with Doug Bollinger looming as the unlucky omission. That should result in Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Stuart Clark, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus forming Australia's pace contingent, and Nathan Hauritz occupying the sole spin bowling position.
There should be no surprises, either, in selecting Australia's top-six batsmen - the incumbent line-up of Simon Katich, Phillip Hughes, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and North will get the nod. North, with only two Tests to his name, is looming as one of the most vital components of the Australian squad, with his finger spin likely to play an important role if, as is expected, selectors opt for an all-seam attack in several of the five Ashes Tests. Watson, too, would provide tremendous flexibility to the side if fully fit, and would allow Australia to field a deep batting line-up that could feature the highly capable duo of Johnson and Lee batting as low as nine and ten.
Brad Haddin will retain the wicketkeeping duties, with Graham Manou expected to be named his understudy on tour. Haddin served as deputy to Adam Gilchrist on the 2005 Ashes tour, and recently told Cricinfo of his desire to avenge the loss. "The only time I've been involved in an Ashes series, we tasted defeat," he said. "As exciting as it was to experience all the hype in 2005, it was still a pretty disappointing tour in a lot of ways. The memories are still strong from that tour. Some of the other guys had a chance to be part of the next Ashes series that we won 5-0, but I wasn't in that squad."
Whichever way Australia stack their squad, only a quarter of their touring party - Ponting, Clarke, Katich and Lee - can claim previous Test experience in England. Clark and Hussey played leading roles in Australia's 5-0 sweep of England at home in 2006-07, but both made their Test debuts after the 2005 Ashes series.
Blog with Alex Brown on the Ashes squad between 10.30am and 12.30pm (AEST) on Wednesday
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo