Uncapped legspinner Mitchell Swepson is one of four specialist slow bowlers chosen in Australia's Test squad for the arduous tour of India in February and March, as the visitors seek to end a wretched recent record in Asian conditions. Swepson is joined by Nathan Lyon, Steve O'Keefe and Ashton Agar, while allrounder Glenn Maxwell has also been recalled to a 16-man squad heavy on spin options.
Mitchell Marsh has also returned to the squad after being axed early in the home summer, and will provide a valuable extra seam-bowling choice in a squad featuring only three specialist fast men - Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird. Marsh's stronger bowling won him a place ahead of batting allrounder Hilton Cartwright, who had played in Australia's most recent Test in Sydney.
Shaun Marsh was named as the sixth specialist batsman in the squad, alongside the five who played in the Sydney Test, while wicketkeeper Matthew Wade was retained despite struggling for impact with the bat in Tests since his recall this summer. Peter Handscomb, the No.5 batsman who filled in behind the stumps when Wade was ill in Sydney, will also serve was backup wicketkeeper.
Although the squad is heavily weighted towards spin, there was no room for Victorian left-armer Jon Holland, who played two Tests in Sri Lanka last year and is the leading Sheffield Shield slow bowler this season with 27 at 18.48. Swepson, whose cause has been championed by Shane Warne, is the only member of the squad yet to play Test cricket.
He made his first-class debut last season and picked up 17 Shield wickets at 37.94 from six games for Queensland during his maiden summer, and was even more impressive when called up for Australia A during the 2016 winter. In three first-class games against South Africa A and India A in Queensland last year, he collected 14 wickets at 19.35.
"He is an exciting young legspinner, gives the ball a very good rip," the interim chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, said. "He's a wicket-taking legspinner. At the end of the day, you've got to take wickets to win Test matches, and given the opportunity we feel that he could play a part over there. If he doesn't, he'll gain a lot from the experience of being there."
Hohns said South Australia legspinner Adam Zampa, who has made his name in Australia's ODI and T20 sides over the past year, was "reasonably close" to selection, but Swepson was preferred as more of an attacking option. Hohns said although O'Keefe and Agar were both left-arm orthodox spinners, they were dissimilar enough that Australia had four distinct spin choices.
"Nathan Lyon and Stephen O'Keefe one would expect would be our two frontline spinners," he said. "The other two are there for backup, or if we need a third spinner, if the conditions suit that type of bowling ... Yes, there are two left-arm spinners there, but they're both different types. We've got Stephen O'Keefe, who is a lot shorter, and we've got a tall left-arm spinner who gets good bounce.
"It was certainly nice to see Lyon bowl well in the last two Test matches here in Australia. He did go through a period of time where he possibly … wasn't bowling that well. But to see him bowl in Melbourne and then back that up in Sydney, we don't have any great concerns about his bowling at the moment."
On Australia's most recent tour of India, in 2013, Lyon was axed after the first Test in Chennai, but returned to the side for the final two Tests of the series and finished as Australia's leading wicket taker. Australia's 0-4 loss in that series started a run of nine consecutive Test defeats in Asia, and in India specifically they have not won a Test since 2004.
A key to reversing that trend will be finding batsmen who can occupy the crease for extremely long periods. Handscomb and Matt Renshaw are yet to play Tests in Asia, while of the other four specialist batsmen in the squad, David Warner averages 33.16 in Asia, Steven Smith averages 41.57, Shaun Marsh averages 78.60 and Usman Khawaja averages 19.16.
Khawaja's form in spinning conditions is particularly concerning. He has played nine first-class games in Asia, for both Australia and Australia A, and after scoring a century in the first of those matches - a tour game against the Sri Lanka Board XI in 2011 - he has not passed fifty in any of his following 14 innings. His struggles against spin led to his axing during last year's tour of Sri Lanka.
"We see Usman as one of our best five or six batsmen," Hohns said. "He's included because of that, and we would expect Usman to do everything he possibly can to improve his play. He wasn't great in Sri Lanka, and he knows that and understands that, so we want to see him improve his play in those conditions against spin bowling. He's one of our best batsmen, so there's no reason why he can't do the job."
The presence of Shaun Marsh in the squad adds a level of intrigue to the selection of Australia's top order, for although Marsh is yet to play Test cricket in India, he has had success on two tours of Sri Lanka and was the in-form incumbent opener before injury allowed Renshaw to debut this summer. The tour will be a steep learning curve for Renshaw, 20, but Hohns said at this stage Renshaw was a "front-runner" to open with Warner after making 184 against Pakistan in Sydney.
"I guess it points in that direction at the moment," Hohns said. "Once again, we'll have to see - there is a practice game in Mumbai before the first Test match. There's the UAE practice match. We'll assess that at the time. But at the moment, he's done extremely well and probably is a front-runner, yes."
The Australians will embark on a training camp at the ICC's Academy in Dubai before heading to India, and a tour match in Mumbai will then help them acclimatise to the Indian conditions. The first Test begins in Pune on February 23.
Australia squad Steven Smith (capt), David Warner, Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell, Matthew Wade (wk), Mitchell Marsh, Ashton Agar, Steve O'Keefe, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Nathan Lyon