Tight fitness deadline for Marsh
Shaun Marsh will be scrubbed from Australia's plans for South Africa unless he can prove his fitness for the tour match that precedes the first Test.
As the national selectors ponder a possible replacement in the event that Marsh does not recover from a calf ailment, ESPNcricinfo has learned that the left-hander will be ruled out of Test calculations if he is unable to present himself fit to play in the four-day warm-up match in Potchefstroom, due to begin on February 5.
The tour schedule is typically tight, as the first Test begins in Pretoria on February 12 before the second follows only three days later. The selectors are understandably reluctant to nurse any player through the vital first week of the trip, leaving Marsh with only a day or two at best to complete his recovery from the injury he sustained in the field during the final ODI against England in Adelaide on Australia Day.
Instead of flying out with the majority of the touring party on Wednesday, Marsh remained in Perth for rehab work, with the Western Australia physio Nick Jones, who is liaising with his national team counterpart Alex Kountouris. Australia's captain Michael Clarke was unsure whether any deadline had been put in place for Marsh or Jackson Bird, who has returned to bowling in Tasmania after complaining of a jarred back, and can be expected to fly out before the end of the week.
"I spoke to the physio yesterday about Jackson, he bowled well yesterday and they wanted to see how he pulled up today and he has to bowl again today," Clarke said. "Shaun was seeing the physio in Western Australia the last conversation I had with Alex [Kountouris] so they're going to see how he goes over the next couple of days I'm sure, and fingers crossed they're both going to be on a plane sooner rather than later to South Africa.
"I don't know how long they're giving both players. Ideally I would like them to be on this plane now, but that's not realistic. You've got to give them every opportunity, they're an important part of our squad, they're two very good players, and I'm positive they'll both come up ok."
Should Marsh be ruled unfit, he is likely to be replaced in the tour party by Phillip Hughes, who narrowly missed selection for the initial squad, rather than the Ashes batsman George Bailey. The selectors have already been forced to replace one player in the original 15, James Faulkner requiring knee surgery and replaced by Moises Henriques.
Australia boast an enviable record in South Africa, having not lost a series on the veldt since reunification. The 1994 and 2011 tours ended in drawn Test series, while the 1997, 2002, 2006 and 2009 tourists all enjoyed away victories. While the current South African side is undisputed as the world's most accomplished, Clarke noted the similarity of conditions in Australia as a source of considerable comfort to his men.
"A lot of teams in Test cricket are having success in their own backyard, but the greatest challenge is to be able to win away from home, so that's what we face right now," Clarke said. "We're playing against a very good opposition ... wicket wise, temperature wise and country wise there's a lot of similarities, so that'll help us become accustomed to conditions. But when you're playing in front of your home fans we've seen the benefit of that this summer and that's obviously going to help South Africa. We've got to be on top of our game."
Clarke was untroubled by the mishmash of cricket played by his touring party in the lead-up to the trip, as some followed their Ashes success with the ODI series against England, others moonlighted in the Twenty20 Big Bash League and still others played the first two days of second XI fixtures for unfamiliar states before their departure.
"It's only two weeks ago we were playing the last Test match, so I think guys have enough Test cricket under their belt now to be ready for this first Test match," Clarke said. "The four-day game will certainly help get any cobwebs out if there are any, but guys have been playing whether it's one-day cricket or the second XI competition.
"Guys have enough cricket under their belt, it's now a matter of adjusting to conditions as soon as we get there and continuing to play the same brand of cricket we've played this summer, with the same intent and the same attitude, that's the key for me."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here