Australian cricket's push to find younger batting talent has been harshly underlined by New South Wales' decision to drop last summer's leading Sheffield Shield run-maker Ed Cowan for the younger Daniel Hughes.
In what the Blues coach Trent Johnston described as the "toughest" selection call of his career, Cowan was left out of the XII to travel to Adelaide for the opening match against South Australia from Friday, despite leading all comers last season with 959 runs at 73.76 in nine matches. Among other things, Cowan's omission has definitively ruled a line through his name in terms of any future recall to the Australia side.
Rather than saying Cowan had been squeezed out by the inclusions of the Test captain Steven Smith and his deputy David Warner, Johnston made it clear that the 35-year-old had lost out to Hughes, 28, who made 543 runs at 36.20 in the Shield last season, also from nine matches. Hughes was one of the leading run-makers during the recent domestic limited-overs tournament.
"NSW is fortunate that we have a wealth of talent available for our first game," Johnston said. "It was always going to be a tough decision. We had to weigh up past form with current form.
"Ed has been outstanding during the Sheffield Shield over the past two seasons and has an excellent record against the pink ball. Daniel Hughes has been in terrific form during the JLT Cup so there were lengthy discussions. Finally we decided to go with Dan in that last batting spot. It wasn't easy. There were a lot of things we had to weigh up and consider."
Selection for the Shield rounds ahead of the Ashes has been done collaboratively between the coaches, the network of state talent managers and the national selectors - chairman Trevor Hohns, national coach Darren Lehmann, national talent manager Greg Chappell and Mark Waugh.
The most obvious example of this is how the workloads of the fast bowlers are tightly mapped out at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, but there are also discussions about which other players the selectors wish to see ahead of the international season. In 2012, Chris Rogers came close to losing his state contract to make room for younger players, before Victoria were informed that the national panel had an eye on him looking ahead to the 2013 Ashes tour of England.
Cowan, who can expect a recall when Smith and Warner return to the Test team, had more or less foreshadowed his own omission last week, stating he was "essentially no chance" of ever playing for Australia again despite his performances. He also noted how his former Tasmania team-mate George Bailey had been summarily dropped from the ODI team. "What percentage did I give myself last year? One or two per cent? I think you need to move the decimal place to the left. There's essentially no chance," Cowan told The Grade Cricketer podcast.
"The way the selectors have shown their hand, they're not that interested in necessarily always picking their best team in all formats -- before it was 'we'll play around with the T20 team and the one-day team'. I think Test cricket, sadly, has become a little bit like that as well. For the older guys who are performing, my gut feel is the door is probably shut.
"You could probably track the Australian ODI performance on a downward trend the moment they stopped picking George [Bailey] because he was too old, and picking guys who hadn't even represented their state."
Bailey is set to captain Tasmania in their opener, with both Tim Paine and the incumbent Test wicketkeeper Matthew Wade named in the Tigers' squad. The national selectors have indicated they see both glovemen as contenders to be part of the Test team next month.
Sheffield Shield squads
New South Wales: Steven Smith (capt), Sean Abbott, Trent Copeland, Pat Cummins, Moises Henriques, Daniel Hughes, Nathan Lyon, Nic Maddinson, Peter Nevill, Kurtis Patterson, Mitchell Starc, David Warner
Tasmania: George Bailey (capt), Gabe Bell, Jackson Bird, Alex Doolan, Jake Doran, Andrew Fekete, Ben McDermott, Tim Paine, Sam Rainbird, Tom Rogers, Jordan Silk, Matthew Wade, Beau Webster
Victoria: Pete Handscomb (capt), Fawad Ahmed, Scott Boland, Dan Christian, Travis Dean, Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris, Sam Harper, Glenn Maxwell, Peter Siddle, Chris Tremain, Cameron White
Queensland: Usman Khawaja (capt), Joe Burns, Brendan Doggett, Luke Feldman, Marnus Labuschagne, Michael Neser, James Peirson, Matt Renshaw, Mark Steketee, Mitchell Swepson, Sam Truloff, Jack Wildermuth