Australia's Ashes squad: a team for the here and now
Two 35-year-olds recalled, one as vice-captain. Five openers. Three specialist batsmen averaging sub-30 in Tests in the past two years. An injury-prone 33-year-old fast bowler. Only one spinner. England could look at these facts about Australia's 16-man Ashes squad and wonder if it is a touring party or a touring wake. Certainly this is the weakest group Australia has sent on an Ashes campaign since the 1980s. Just as surely, there is little the selectors could have done to improve it. England remain firm favourites, but this squad is Australia's best chance of an upset.
The batting needed to be bolstered after the misery of the India tour; Chris Rogers has the technique and record to do it. An experienced and in-form vice-captain was desirable after Shane Watson stood down; Brad Haddin fit those criteria. Of course, reverting to two men whose Test careers appeared to be finished raises the issue of why there is so little depth in Australian first-class cricket, especially among young batsmen. Why did nobody but Rogers and Ricky Ponting score more than two Sheffield Shield hundreds last summer?
That is an important debate, but one for another day. What's relevant now is that John Inverarity and his selection panel have picked the best group they could. The squad is neither a throwback nor a forward gamble; it is a team for the here and now. And in a year featuring two Ashes series, what else matters but the here and now? Haddin and Rogers are past the age limit for Contiki tours but this is a trip that requires a couple of older, wiser heads, not just young men out for a good time.
Australia's awful batting in the post-Michael Hussey era in India and the uncertainty surrounding several of their top six meant that Rogers had to be included. He has spent the past nine years piling up runs in county cricket: no Englishman has made more first-class runs in England than Rogers since 2010. Perhaps he will open, perhaps he will bat in the middle order, but wherever he comes in he will inspire confidence in his team-mates - 19,000 first-class runs tend to have that effect.
Similarly, Haddin is a sturdy operator who will provide Clarke with important on-field support as vice-captain. It is easy to recall his irresponsible batting in South Africa in 2011 and the poor form that followed during the home summer against New Zealand and India, but equally it cannot be forgotten that in his two Ashes campaigns he has averaged 45.57 and he was one of the standout batsmen in the most recent Shield season.
Haddin, 35, will be the first-choice gloveman, which leaves Matthew Wade, 25, likely to be dropped. Little separates the two men on field and Haddin's importance as a second-in-command to Clarke has given him another opportunity. Had there been another obvious candidate for the vice-captaincy, things might have been different. But if Clarke's back gives way on the morning of an Ashes Test, nobody in this squad is better equipped than Haddin to take charge.
Wade has been a solid Test performer, but it's not as if he's Adam Gilchrist. It's not as if he's Robinson Crusoe either, in terms of having underperformed on the recent Indian tour. One of the few men who did thrive in India was Steven Smith, who is the omitted player who deserves the most sympathy. But Smith's success in India, where he averaged 40.25, was down largely to his footwork against spin. England is a different proposition, and Usman Khawaja was preferred.
All the same, Phillip Hughes, David Warner, Ed Cowan and Watson will be under pressure to perform early in the Ashes series, Hughes and Watson especially. In the past two years they have each played 14 Tests, Hughes for a batting average of 28.46 and Watson for 24.11. Watson will bowl in the Ashes but it's runs he most needs. As the best all-round option he had to be in the squad, and should start in the XI. But his chances are running out.
Watson's presence as an allrounder meant there was no room for Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell, who figured in the Indian series. Such bits-and-pieces players were luxuries Australia could not afford. James Faulkner, who is in the squad, cannot be characterised the same way, for although he averages 29 with the bat he is viable as a frontline bowler. Tasmania have been the best Australian state team for the past three years and Faulkner has been their player of the season in each of those seasons, with Sheffield Shield wicket tallies of 36, 36 and 39.
Faulkner might not start in the XI but he will be a strong backup option. In fact, the makeup of Australia's attack for the first Test is hard to predict, for all of the bowlers in the squad can make a strong case for selection. The batsmen should perform better in England than in India, but it is the bowlers who really hold Australia's hopes. In swinging and seaming conditions, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Jackson Bird, Ryan Harris and Faulkner form an imposing group.
The recall of Harris, 33, was neither surprising nor unwarranted. Although he missed most of the home summer after having shoulder surgery, he reappeared late in the Shield season with a rush of 19 wickets at 22.26 in three matches. Injuries have kept Harris to only 12 of a possible 35 Test appearances since his debut in 2010, but he is a match-winner when fit. Even if he is rested more often than he plays, he can still be a key man.
Certainly the selectors expect more of the pacemen than they do of the sole spinner. Three Tests ago, Lyon was dropped in Hyderabad but now he is the only slow bowler considered required on a five-match Ashes tour. The conditions are unlikely to warrant a second spinner, but by naming 16 men the selectors have left themselves room to add another player if required, perhaps Ashton Agar if he performs well on the Australia A tour of England that precedes the Ashes, or Fawad Ahmed if his passport is fast-tracked.
Whatever happens, they have given themselves the soundest squad they could have to begin the series. It is not a Dad's Army, but nor is it a troop of callow cadets. Without doubt it appears a sturdier outfit than the one that toured India, though that's not saying much. The pace bowling is strong, the spin serviceable and the leadership improved. If the batting holds together, and Rogers will help in that respect, a sneaky upset is not impossible. Improbable, yes, but not impossible.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here