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Feature

Marcus Harris' unconvincing start unlikely to affect his place in the XI

The good thing for Australia - and Harris - is that the opening slot is one of the few question marks that surround the team

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
19-Dec-2021
Having done the hard work last night under lights, when Steven Smith opted not to enforce the follow-on, Marcus Harris had an ideal opportunity to make his first significant contribution of the series and quieten the debate around David Warner's opening partner.
Australia were already miles ahead, the sun was shining on a clear day, and the ball was nearly 20 overs old. However, he could only add two to his overnight score before edging Stuart Broad, who claimed him again from around the wicket.
It can so often feel that the players who could do with a little bit of luck don't get it. Harris has twice fallen to superb catches by Jos Buttler, while Marnus Labuschagne, who can't stop scoring runs in Test cricket, was dropped twice during his first-innings hundred.
Being an opener, it is Harris who has to face the bowlers at their best a lot of times. He has had to contend with two of the better passages England's same pace attack has put together in this match: the early exchanges on the opening day and then, the opening overs on the fourth. He couldn't get through either, gloving the pull down the leg side and then pushing forward to get an outside edge that Buttler pouched low to his left.
It continued an unconvincing start to the series after he fell for 3 in the first innings at the Gabba - edging into the cordon - and was saved from a duck in the short run chase when he got an inside edge against Chris Woakes.
He is highly likely to be given the chance to feature on his home ground at the MCG on Boxing Day. National selector George Bailey has talked of backing players and giving them a sense of stability. Pat Cummins named the first-Test XI three days before the start while the final selection calls were made well in advance, so the players didn't fret. But after 12 Tests, Harris averages 22.19.
Harris did all he could in the off-season to ensure he retained his place after coming into the side for the final Test against India last season by piling up the runs for Leicestershire and started this Sheffield Shield season with a century. If first-class players are to be rewarded, then Harris was - and still is - worthy of his place in the team.
However, there is a potentially telling statistic when it comes to Harris' returns in Australia: on the major Test grounds, he averages 33.47, while on the less used and outground venues, he averages 63.66. Generally, although not always, those smaller venues have slower, lower pitches that do not challenge a batter's technique the same way as Test pitches can do.
Then there is the debate about if it's not Harris, then who is it alongside Warner (and that's before anyone starts to think about filling Warner's shoes when he retires). It is not a golden era for Australian opening batters. Henry Hunt and Bryce Street are in the up-and-coming group; Street, who has shown the ability to bat an enormous amount of time, scored a century against England Lions earlier this month and Hunt is very highly regarded by many after strong returns for South Australia. If Australia had needed cover for Warner in Adelaide because of his damaged ribs, it could have been Street who was called in.
But both Street and Hunt are still early in their first-class careers (22 matches each) and there is the balance to strike between promoting players too early and rewarding good form. It could be that if another opener was needed in the Ashes, Usman Khawaja would fill the position despite not having done the role consistently - although he does average 96.80 from five Tests in the job.
The good thing for Australia - and Harris - is that the opening position is one of the few question marks that surround the team after the first two Tests. They have coped remarkably well in losing two frontline pace bowlers while Travis Head has cemented the No. 5 position, and Alex Carey looks a ready-made keeper-batter.
Yet, as Head and Labuschagne were taking runs off England's weary attack - which included the rarely seen offspin of Ollie Robinson - Harris would have been forgiven for watching on and pondering what could have been.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo