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Tim Paine lays down challenge for Australia's Test batting contenders

There are set to be five rounds of Sheffield Shield matches before the men's international season begins

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
State batters should be "licking their lips" at the prospect of pushing for an Ashes batting spot according to Test captain Tim Paine with vacancies in Australia's top order.
ESPNcricinfo understands that more than half the Sheffield Shield, which is scheduled to return to its full 31-game season after being truncated by the pandemic in 2020-21, is due to be played before the first Ashes Test with six rounds taking place ahead of the BBL.
The last of those will run concurrently with the Afghanistan Test in late November so in all likelihood it leaves Test contenders - and others looking for pre-series form - up to five matches before switching to Australia colours. For those who don't make the initial Test squads, it's also understood there will be an Australia A vs England Lions match taking place at the same time as the first Test at the Gabba.
There were only three specialist Test batters named in the central contracts list earlier this year - David Warner, Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne - along with allrounder Cameron Green. Fitness permitting all four seem certain to start against England although Warner and Smith may yet miss the Afghanistan Test beforehand due to quarantine after the T20 World Cup.
It means there are likely two batting spots vacant in the Ashes and potentially more for the Hobart encounter against Afghanistan, a match that could yet have a big say in the final shake-up.
"[It should be] very competitive, there's a few spots up for grabs there's no doubt about that," Paine said as international tickets went on sale ahead of the new season. "We are lucky that we get four or five Shield games before the Afghanistan Test, and some away in the T20 World Cup, so they'll be opportunities for guys to press their case in the first few rounds of Shield cricket. The Afghanistan Test will be an important game as well if some of our guys are not here.
"It will be up for the guys to grab their opportunity and think every batter around the country will be licking their lips at the moment thinking there is an Ashes series in Australia with a couple of spots up for grabs."
Will Pucovski remains favourite to open alongside Warner if he recovers from the shoulder reconstruction he underwent following an impressive debut against India at the SCG. If he suffers any setbacks Marcus Harris, who is the incumbent from the Gabba Test and has impressed in county cricket for Leicestershire, could be in the frame.
The No. 5 spot cycled between Travis Head and Matthew Wade against India before both lost their central contracts although Head had been named in the Test squad to tour South Africa. However, he has not yet been able to back up a prolific season for South Australia with meaningful returns for Sussex and it feels the middle-order race is very open.
Paine will be hoping that there isn't another batting vacancy to fill and that Smith is able to fully recover from his elbow problem having recently admitted he would miss the T20 World Cup if it ensured he was at full capacity to face England.
Paine acknowledged Smith being in prime shape for the Ashes would be his priority but is confident the batter will make the best decision.
"What's important to me is he's fit to go, whether that's the T20 World Cup or the Ashes," Paine said. "From a selfish point of view I'd love him to be 100% fit, if that means he misses that tournament then Steve is a professional, he'll know where his body is at.
"Clearly he's the best player in the world and if you take the best player from any side out, it creates a bit of a hole. Fingers crossed his elbow comes good. He's been dealing with it for a while now, but as he gets older probably a bit harder to keep pushing through it.
"It's important now that he's got the time that he takes it and tries to get it 100% right, not just for the Ashes but to try and prolong his career for another four, fix, six years."
While those not in the T20 mix will have a substantial build-up to the Test season that won't be the case for players at the World Cup who, if they aren't available to face Afghanistan, will start in Brisbane without any red-ball preparation.
"It's part of modern-day cricket. You have to be able to chop between tournaments and formats," Paine said. "Normally those players doing it, the three-format players, are the very best at it and are used to doing it. I don't see it as a huge issue.
"We know the conditions here in Australia. If we can get a few games into those guys would be ideal but they are really experienced and either way our team will be ready to go."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo