The Investec Ashes 2013 July 29, 2013

Australia left with ifs and buts

The tour match at Hove wasn't enough to identify a definitive Australia XI for Old Trafford. A few individual performances stood out, as did the catching, which was dreadful
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As pleasant as Australia's seaside diversion was after the gloom of the Lord's Test, the three-day match in Hove provided few clear answers to their many selection questions. Guessing at the XI who will take the field at Old Trafford later this week requires a Kiplingesque amount of "ifs" and just as many "buts". Definitive? The only definitive observation to come out of the past few days has been that the team's catching has been dreadful.

It is not that nobody performed with bat or ball - Steven Smith scored an unbeaten hundred, Ed Cowan and Phillip Hughes both made fifties, Jackson Bird challenged the Sussex batsmen - but that none of it means very much. How much stock could the Australians really take from a three-day friendly against a weakened county side on a bouncy surface that won't resemble that at Old Trafford, with a laughably short boundary on one side?

That the squad has been split across cities - and even continents, for David Warner has been in Africa - has not helped clarify matters. The team management decided that the openers, Shane Watson and Chris Rogers, would gain more from working in the nets at Lord's under the guidance of batting coach Michael di Venuto and fielding coach Steve Rixon than they would from playing Sussex. Peter Siddle was with them.

Warner will rejoin the squad in Manchester on Monday, having just mauled South Africa A for 193 in Pretoria. How do the selectors gauge his performance? It was on a small ground in a game where Glenn Maxwell also thumped a quick 155 not out and South Africa's Dean Elgar made a career-best 268. On the other hand, Warner was facing Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange, two wonderful young fast bowlers who have already thrived in Test cricket.

If Warner plays, where does he bat? And who misses out? Rogers and Watson seem certain to remain at the top of the order, which would mean one of Usman Khawaja, Hughes or Smith would have to make way for Warner. Smith scored an unbeaten 102 against Sussex, but is that enough to make him safe? Khawaja showed encouraging signs at No.3 at Lord's, but did little in the tour match.

Hughes tallied 122 across both innings in Hove and is Australia's leading run scorer on the tour, with 436 at 62.28. He made an invaluable 81 not out in the first innings at Trent Bridge, but since then has had three Test failures. Perhaps most importantly, he struggled against Graeme Swann's spin, and if the conditions at Old Trafford are as dry as expected and England include two spinners, he might be the man to miss out.

But what would such conditions mean for the attack? One spot is vacant due to James Pattinson's series-ending injury, but will it naturally go to a fast bowler? Or would the selectors consider using Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar as a dual spin attack? Neither man had much impact against Sussex and while it is true that the conditions were better for the fast men, Monty Panesar managed to claim three wickets.

Lyon struggled in his first spell and seemed low on confidence, but he did improve as the match wore on. He found some dip and drop, and tempted the batsmen at times. His one wicket could have been two, had Agar held on to a skied chance from Taylor. Agar, meanwhile bowled better early and picked up a few edges, but was outbowled by Lyon as the match progressed. His lack of wickets in the first two Tests cannot be ignored.

Including two spinners might be risky, but can Australia really afford to keep overlooking Lyon, who has claimed 76 wickets in his 22 Tests? There must be a temptation to push for Bird, given the way he swung the ball against Sussex and hit naggingly accurate lines. But how relevant will his form be if they arrive in Manchester to see a dusty surface and a fine weather forecast?

They cannot forget The Oval Test of 2009, when Nathan Hauritz was overlooked on a dry pitch and Stuart Clark struggled in conditions that did not suit him. There is more than a little bit of Clark in Bird, and likely more than a little bit of The Oval surface in the Old Trafford wicket the teams will encounter. Bird might have edged Starc out of contention, but who could really say for certain?

The only thing that is certain is that some remedial fielding drills are in order after the Australians put down roughly half a dozen chances against Sussex. And if they do that against England in Manchester, it won't much matter who the selectors have picked.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shaggy076 on July 31, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    Lyndon Mcpaul; I have no issue with Henriques playing but dont believe he has the record to be picked purely as a batsman and that is where we are weak. We need guys coming through that will get picked on there batting alone. I will discriminate against Maxwell, Maddinson purely on there batting records at shield cricket. Finch and Marsh its obvious if they are not picked consistently at shield level what the hell are they doing on an A tour. Ok to be a dasher if you average above 40 at shield cricket. Not sure why Joe Burns in particular is not there,

  • dummy4fb on July 31, 2013, 7:48 GMT

    @shaggy076.I am not sure that discriminating against people with some allround skill is wise. Who says players like Henriques and Maxwell dont have what it takes to hold down a spot with either batting or bowling? Henriques made 60 with the bat on debut in India in what were very trying conditions and then got smashed around with his bowling.This may show him that it is wise for him to make batting his primary focus.Also, just because Maxwell is a dashing shot maker, doesnt mean that he cant develop a sound technique. It is probably more common that talented shot makers will learn better defense in the longer form rather than naturally defensive players successfully learning to play shots. One only needs to look at the difference between Cowan and Warner to understand this. Ricky Ponting started out as a dasher with poor shot selection and then learnt proper restraint and sound defense to make his way back into the team. Players who are natural shot makers usually have a better eye.

  • Shaggy076 on July 31, 2013, 1:57 GMT

    Redbackfan; I think you have a great point there. Our batsman are struggling then the selectors pick an A tour involving all-rounders Henriques and Maxwell, then include two mature opening batsman that cant even make there state side in Finch and Marsh (both averaved under 20 last year), Maddinson who is in in/out the NSW side has the odd flash of brilliance but very odd. It would be better for the Aussies selectors to invest in players who may develop into test level players Liam Davis, Silk, Joe Burns, I think Callum Ferguson has better test credentials than many of those sent on the A tour. We had a perfect opportunity to develop cricketers but sent a pseudo one-day team to South Africa with the A team.

  • dummy4fb on July 30, 2013, 20:32 GMT

    @Joseph Langford. "LETS PLAY CRICKET THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE PLAYED!!! GO HARD OR GO HOME!!!" Yes I agree to a point but lets be P-A-T-I-E-N-T first; especially in our batting and then when opportunity strikes WE WILL CRUSH THEM LIKE ANTS!! As far as the bowling goes that attack of five pacers including Johnson and Starc would only make the English batsmen salivate and provide the Barmy Army with inspiration for a new song to this time be about both Mitch's. Unless the pitch is a green monster, the extra pace would only come onto the bat on these slow pitches and the width on both sides of the wicket would be feasted upon. The bowlers who England most fear are those such as Harris and Bird who have the control to bowl in that very narrow channel outside off with just a hint of movement either way.3 Good unnerringly accurate seamers and a decent spinner should be all that is necessary to get 20 wickets which is something we have lacked in our on the pitch team so far.

  • H_Z_O on July 30, 2013, 16:11 GMT

    @SirViv1973 Faulkner merited selection in the squad as a bowler (114 wickets at 21 in the last 3 Shield seasons) so I wouldn't read too much into that. They might well pick Wade to succeed Haddin, but if they do, it has to be for a better reason than so they can bat him at 6 and Faulkner at 7, surely?

    They'd be weakening their batting (right now they're 6-1-4 with Watson mostly in the side for his batting, at least in theory; Wade at 6 and Faulkner at 7 means it's more of a 5-1-5 split), strengthening the area of their side that's strongest (seam) and potentially hampering the development of another weak area where they have promising players (spin).

    Not saying they won't do it, but I wouldn't. If Wade plays, it has to be because he's the best keeper-batsman in the selector's eyes (whether he is or not is an entirely different debate).

  • dummy4fb on July 30, 2013, 10:50 GMT

    Dear Jayzuz,

    If you haven't noticed Australia has lost their past six Test Matches.

    In 3 of the last 6-Innings the last 5-Wickets have outscored the first 5-wickets.

    Over the last 4-Test Matches the first 5-wickets averages 1-run more that the last 5-wickets.

    The top order has been shuffled around like an U10 Saturday Competition, with no structure and stripped of confidence.

    Please tell me what positives we can draw out of the past 7-months.

    Australia are in the same position as in India after 2-Tests, either win the rest of the tests or fade away into the darkness. Play 5-bowlers!!! Open with Harris/Bird, then Johnson/Starc, then Siddle/XXX (Smith).

    Wade will keep and Clarke must sit half a meter closer to Wade and a meter behind.

    Warner, Cowan, Khawaja, Smith, Clarke, Wade, Johnson, Starc, Siddle, Harris, Bird

    LETS PLAY CRICKET THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE PLAYED!!! GO HARD OR GO HOME!!!

  • dummy4fb on July 30, 2013, 9:54 GMT

    my Australia XI for 3rd ashes test: usman khwaja,chris rogers ( his last chance),,micheal Clarke c,phillip hughes,steve smith,brad haddin wk,james Faulkner,ashton agar,nathan lyon,ryan harris and Jackson bird/peter siddle depending on conditions. prefect team

  • dummy4fb on July 30, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    Everyone who rubbishes Warner's technique would be wise to remember that he has averaged 39 in the toughest position in the batting order which means that with only 10-15% improvement in his overall consistency and he would be considered world class. People with short memories also forget that his breakout hundred was on an extremely sporting wicket in Bellerive where he carried his hand through absolute carnage with the rest of the batting order and almost guided Australia to victory singlehandedly.To just pigeonhole him after this as a 20/20 slogger is outrageously silly especially considering the lack of talent available at present in Oz. Warner's basic technique against pace is sound though his shot selection early in his innings needs to improve. He plays very straight though with hard hands. He is not overly nimble with his feet against spin and that needs to be worked on but his assets more than outstrip his liabilities as he is capable of taking apart any attack on his day.

  • hmmmmm... on July 30, 2013, 5:29 GMT

    Khawaja's 50 at Lord's is worth about 200 when compared to the tour match or the junior game in SA - I hope the selectors see that. Warner and Hughes are the same sort of "hit-or-miss-technically deficiant-can come off" player so should be competing for the same number 5/6 position not with a number 3.