Lopsided Australia in search of balance
Were Australia's selectors to be required to choose their XI for the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge today, and be compelled to do so purely on accomplishment and current form, they would include at least six bowlers, one wicketkeeper and, at most, four batsmen. As the tour proper begins in Taunton after the abortive Champions Trophy campaign and the shadow-boxing of Australia A, the imbalance in the visitors' resources is that stark.
John Inverarity and his panel do have the good fortune of another two weeks and two four-day matches to assess the suitability of their players for the task to confront them in Nottingham. But it cannot be ignored that at the same time they are thinking about narrowing down their pace bowling options, there is an equally urgent need to expand the number of batsmen in a confident mood.
So it is that the training and tour matches to come against Somerset and Worcestershire are eagerly awaited, for the clarity they should provide in addition to match practice. In the case of the bowlers, it will be a question of who stands tallest in their chosen fixtures. Regarding the batsmen it is likely to be more a matter of who is left standing, either through solid form or perhaps, in the case of the captain Michael Clarke, merely the appearance of stability after another episode in a painful and damaging saga of back complaints.
Inverarity has revealed something of his plan for running the squad through the county matches. Of the six available pace bowlers, three will play at Taunton and the rest will charge in at Worcester. Among seven available batsmen, five will play in each fixture, and two will have a match each. This leaves the sixth place in the order open to most conjecture, and it may yet be filled by any one of Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson, David Warner, Steve Smith, or even Brad Haddin, should the bold option of four bowlers plus Faulkner be entertained.
"Plenty of runs and plenty of wickets in regards to the four-dayers, and then plenty of training and the guys getting accustomed to being in England," Clarke said of his priorities for the two warm-up weeks. "A lot of the guys haven't been in England, especially some playing in the Champions Trophy, so I'm really excited, I'm looking forward to the guys getting together on Monday and we start our preparation for that first Test match."
Having played against Gloucestershire for Australia A, Ryan Harris has expressed his desire to don the creams against Somerset, and then rest up ahead of Nottingham. James Pattinson and Peter Siddle may join him after sitting out in Bristol, leaving Jackson Bird, Mitchell Starc and Faulkner to swing into the final lead-up match. The variables of their preparations, bowling styles and levels of maturity will all be considered carefully.
For Harris, the thought of another match to regather his rhythm after an Achilles problem is welcome indeed, even if his body creaked with the soreness of most 33-year-old athletes after a sound five-wicket match haul was banked in Bristol. There was the admission of a few indifferent spells in among the incisive ones, especially at the start of Gloucestershire's second innings after Australia A were razed for 111. Bowling again so soon, Harris admitted he had attempted to fight fire with fire when, as Gideon Haigh once noted, it is generally best to fight it with water.
"I don't know if it was warming up well enough or not ... but I think the other thing was we bowled well in the first innings with patience," Harris said. "We probably attacked too much trying to take wickets and that was certainly my idea. I was trying to blast the batsmen out, which can obviously go the other way, and they scored lots of runs off me ... but I rectified that in my next spell, which was good.
"We go into the camp tomorrow with the rest of the boys and no one has talked about the first Test squad with me or anyone yet, but if I was to play the first Test it would be ideal to bowl another 20, maybe 25 or 30 overs in Taunton and then have a couple of days to wind down."
One sighter the Australians may get this week is against the incumbent England Test opener Nick Compton, who endured a difficult recent home series against New Zealand after faring somewhat better against the same opponents during the winter. Harris and the rest of the bowlers have not yet hunkered down to the video analysis sessions likely to take place before Trent Bridge, but like Bird the Queensland fast man has simple, repeatable thoughts in mind.
"It's not rocket science, we've just got to do a similar thing to most batters and keep it nice and tight," Harris said. "Cook is going to be a big man for them, hopefully we remove him early. He's had a good two years and if he gets away they really thrive, but we can't focus all on him. I thought we bowled pretty well in Australia when they were over there [in 2010-11], they just batted out of their skins. If we're consistent hopefully this time we will get a few more nicks and lbw and bowled dismissals."
One factor that should prove informative is the Taunton surface itself, known as one of the purest in England. Batsmen who put their minds to it will have the chance to accumulate large scores without the undue risk of a treacherous seamer, and bowlers will be forced to work more diligently for their wickets than the sporting strips of Belfast and Bristol required. Inverarity will hope that by this time next week the number of viable batting options is closer to the standard six than it is right now.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here