Hughes, McGain and North get call-ups
Andrew Hilditch's selection panel has placed the defence of Australia's No. 1 Test ranking in the hands of its most inexperienced touring party in recent memory. The uncapped trio of Phillip Hughes, Bryce McGain and Marcus North have been added to an already green Australian line-up for the three-Test tour of South Africa, as selectors attempt to restructure the team for the future and contend with an horrific injury toll.
Hughes earned the nod over his more seasoned state team-mate, Phil Jaques, in the race to partner Simon Katich atop the Australian order. Jaques is still suffering the after-effects of back surgery while Hughes, 20, has plundered 891 runs at 74.25 this season, including four centuries.
"We have gone through immense change in the last couple of years with many of the true legends of Australian cricket leaving the game," Hilditch said. "We are also enduring an unprecedented run of injuries to many of our contracted players. That being said, with all this has come great opportunity as the side rebuilds.
"It is one of the most exciting things I have had the pleasure of doing since being a selector in naming Phillip Hughes in the Test touring squad. Phillip has been given the fairly daunting task of filling the shoes of one of Australia's greatest batsmen Matthew Hayden. Phillip is a young man who has had an outstanding debut in first-class cricket for New South Wales."
Hughes will likely be joined by McGain as a fellow debutant in Australia's starting XI for the first Test in Johannesburg. At 36, McGain would become Australia's oldest Test debutant since Bob Holland in 1984, although Hilditch said it was no certainty he would be the leading slow man.
"That's going to be very much dependent on the conditions," Hilditch said. "I've got to be very conscious of the fact that Nathan Hauritz has done everything asked of him in the Test matches. We then took him out of the one-day squad for him to go back to domestic cricket and get some longer spells before South Africa and went back and played a very important role in their recent [Sheffield] Shield victory.
"[Bryce] is the premier legspin bowler in Australia, there's absolutely no question about that. Our major concern was it's not long since his shoulder surgery. We obviously had to watch carefully last game where he bowled very well in the second dig to take five wickets. He's 36 years of age and the reality is he's still fairly young in cricketing terms and we think he'll do a really good job."
North, a left-hander, represents the third new inclusion in the Test squad, and will be Australia's spare batsman on the tour. He has scored 8778 runs in 125 first-class matches for Western Australia, and also offers handy right-arm offbreaks, which Hilditch said contributed to his selection.
"Five of his seven Shield games have been on very difficult wickets to bat on, in Perth and in Queensland," he said. "He's playing very well, he's in good form. He's been bowling some very good offspin as well for WA and if he was to get an opportunity it would be to bat at the No. 6 spot and we think the fact that he'd give us some bowling in that top six is very important as well."
Australia's probable starting XI will have a combined 277 Tests experience entering the first Test at the Wanderers on February 26 - Ponting accounting for 128 of those - and nine changes from the corresponding Test three years ago.
Australia's selectors were spared an 11th-hour selection dilemma when Siddle fell heavily in Wednesday's domestic one-day game between Victoria and South Australia. Victorian team medical staff cleared Siddle of serious injury, paving the way for him to to be named in Australia's rookie fast bowling unit alongside Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus. The selectors are already missing Brett Lee (ankle) and Stuart Clark (elbow) ahead of a series in which South Africa will challenge them for the No. 1 ranking.
"There is probably no greater challenge in world cricket at present than playing South Africa away," Hilditch said. "South Africa has an extremely strong side and will be extremely tough, particularly in home conditions. The tour represents an exciting challenge for the squad which contains a very good blend of experienced, proven international batsmen and some of our outstanding young talent.
"We have the utmost faith in the young group of Australian cricketers coming through. Whilst the next 12 months will undoubtedly be extremely testing and challenging, we are confident that the new breed of Australian cricketers will hold Australian cricket in a strong position moving forward."
The suspension of Andrew Symonds and injury to Shane Watson resulted in the Victoria allrounder Andrew McDonald holding his place. Symonds, meanwhile, will be named on Thursday in Queensland's one-day and four-day sides to play Victoria and South Australia, respectively, and faces a steep climb to reclaim his Test place ahead of the Ashes series.
While Australia's selectors contend with injuries and suspension, Mike Procter's South Africa panel has been buoyed by the news that Graeme Smith and Ashwell Prince are well advanced in their recoveries and will be available for the first Test in Johannesburg from February 26. Mickey Arthur, the coach, said Smith was recovering well from the torn elbow tendon that inconvenienced him for the majority of 2008.
"He has had the second blood injection in his elbow, and the experts say he is ahead of schedule," Arthur said. "He met us upon our return to South Africa and seems very confident that he will be right to play the first Test."
Australia Test squad Phillip Hughes, Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting (capt), Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Marcus North, Andrew McDonald, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Hauritz, Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger, Bryce McGain, Ben Hilfenhaus.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo and Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer