Team performance chief Pat Howard has put batsmen around Australia on notice that the No. 6 spot in the Ashes batting order will be decided by their performances in Sheffield Shield rounds over the next month.
Howard drew parallels between the race to seal one of the few uncertain spots in Steven Smith's Test XI and the selection flurry that followed last year's innings hiding by South Africa in Hobart - a fifth Test loss in a row that led to the resignation of the selection chairman Rod Marsh. He said that a host of players now had the chance to do what Pete Handscomb and Matt Renshaw had done then, earning their way into the national team through timely run-making.
The search for a more stable middle order is key to Australia's chances this summer, after a debilitating build-up of collapses over the past two years that has placed undue pressure on Smith, David Warner and Usman Khawaja to make runs at every opportunity or risk the rest falling away. Howard said the Shield rounds would be key to finding out who had the mental wherewithal to take up that spot, whether it would be an allrounder like Marcus Stoinis or any number of batsmen currently on the fringes.
"The No.6 one I'm really positive about. It's a really open race, much like it was between Hobart and Adelaide [last year] and there's pressure on the domestic competition to perform," Howard said. "We want the players to know there is pressure and if you can turn up here at the start of the Sheffield Shield season there is an opportunity and [you can] put yourself in the frame. It's a batting role first and your skills after that are more than welcome. Looking for that and then that multi-faceted ability obviously won't hurt.
"We're doing work in that [mental] space and it doesn't happen in six seconds. No correlation between this statement and anything in Tests, but in limited overs, Marcus Stoinis averaging 85 or 90 batting at six and he hasn't played a game in Australia yet. There are players who are trying to put their hand up and step forward.
"Often, what you see in domestic cricket is they'll be batting up the order and then the opportunity to play in the Test match will be further down. All of them are very good players. We've all seen them and score runs, we know they're capable so that mental conversation is absolutely right and that's where we're putting that focus."
Howard revealed he had spoken with Usman Khawaja following the batsman's complaints about selection policy on the recent tours of India and Bangladesh, where he was omitted for all but one of six Tests after an outstanding home summer. "I've spoken to Uzzie this week, so absolutely understand and I think one of the things, if you want to be a good player at Test level, you're going to have to be good against spin," he said.
"Five of the nine Test-playing nations are very spin-friendly, so if you want to be playing all the Tests all the time, obviously [spin has] got to be part of your mix. The Ashes is at home, it's a place Uzzie has had an outstanding record and so have the others and as he said, it's reasonably stable, the side we'll be putting out there, and I agree with that, there are a couple of opportunities."
Looking further ahead, Howard conceded Australia had let slip a long standing as the world's pre-eminent ODI country, two and a half years on from lifting the World Cup on home soil. "I really think that's fair and we want to make sure we address that," he said. "In the Test format I'm really positive whilst we've had some mixed results, I couldn't be prouder of some of the growth and some of the players.
"Nathan Lyon, his efforts in Bangladesh were absolutely outstanding and I think the selectors and Nathan in particular, should be really praised for his efforts there. But ODIs we have some gaps there at the moment we need to address and we're aware of that. We're very good at home, and that's great and nice, but the next World Cup is not at home.
"It's on small grounds ... so we're actually happy to address that and deal with that and actually have to chase down big scores because we expect there will be big scores in the World Cup in 2019, thinking a couple of years ahead. We need to evolve. It's not crisis time, but we have to make sure. We've won four out of five last World Cups, Australia have a huge legacy here and we have to make sure we're very focused on making sure we turn up for these."
Howard had little to say about the recent pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association, stating only that all organisations needed to review the way they conducted business at key times. The players were left out of contract for more than a month during the dispute, but Howard said he had been comfortable re-entering the Australian dressing room on recent tours following the signing of a fresh MoU.