Clarke considers opening options
Michael Clarke believes Phillip Hughes is a strong contender to open the batting with Aaron Finch in Zimbabwe after his remarkable form for Australia A over the winter. The Australians flew out for the one-day tri-series with South Africa and Zimbabwe on Wednesday morning, and they did so without regular top-order batsmen David Warner, Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh.
Watson rolled his ankle at training on Saturday and Marsh is recovering from elbow surgery, while Warner is staying at home to prepare for the birth of his first child. The Australians played a practice match against Queensland in Brisbane on Tuesday and Warner, guest-starring for the Bulls, crunched 84 off 60 deliveries, while his likely World Cup opening partner, Finch, made 90 from 66.
But Hughes was also in the runs, scoring 57 from 41 deliveries to continue his strong form which included first-class scores of 100 not out and 243 not out, as well as an unbeaten 202 in a one-day game, all for Australia A over the past six weeks. His late inclusion in the ODI squad came only because of Watson's injury, and Clarke said he could yet open with Finch in Zimbabwe.
"I still think we've got options," Clarke told reporters at Sydney airport before departing. "Obviously we've got Hughes, he's in a purple patch at the moment, I don't think it's possible to have a better pre-season than what he's done. We've got Finchy who batted beautifully yesterday and has opened the batting for us.
"Hadds has opened the batting for us and Brad Haddin's numbers are very good as a one-day opener. He certainly gives us an option there. We will work out what we think is the best line-up for the conditions and the opposition we are playing and I think the wicket determines that more than anything else."
Haddin's last stint as an opener in Australia's one-day team came over 18 months from early 2010 to 2011, when he and Watson formed the preferred pair. They were the incumbents during the 2011 World Cup and Haddin's form during that tournament was strong - he was Australia's top scorer with 332 runs at 55.33, including four half-centuries.
Hughes has switched between opening and No.3 during his short ODI career and it would be surprising if he was not given a chance during the Zimbabwe series, given the lack of specialist batsmen in Australia's squad. The touring party is heavy on all-round options and in the absence of Watson, opportunities will be presented to several men.
"I think they'll see it as an opportunity to be a part of our one-day team, to try and get their foot in the door and cement their spot -- make it hard for the players that aren't on this tour to get back into the team," Clarke said. "That's how I'd like them to see it. Unfortunately there are only 11 spots and we've probably got 20 players in my opinion who are ready to be a part of that XI. Now it comes down to consistent performance.
"Some guys aren't available for selection but it's exciting for people like Mitch Marsh, Smithy comes into our one-day team, Phil Hughes gets an opportunity, Kane Richardson, Ben Cutting. There are a number of guys who have been given a chance, which is exciting. It's a good chance for them to grab their opportunity.
"The reason you train so hard and perform so well in first class cricket, your goal is to represent Australia so when you get this chance you've got to make the most of it. It's going to be a tough series. The conditions in Zimbabwe will be tough, the wickets will be quite slow, there's generally a little bit of spin there as well so I think we're in for a tough series and I'm pretty sure these young guys will stand up."
Australia's first match in the tri-series is against Zimbabwe in Harare on Monday next week.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale