It was hardly going to be a state secret, but Justin Langer revealed Australia’s hand for the first Test against Pakistan at the Gabba two days before it starts, all but confirming that Michael Neser and Cameron Bancroft would sit out.
There remains a chance for things to go wrong, but in reality, the decision was made pretty simple once James Pattinson was ruled out after his code of conduct breach. Neser is a fine bowler, and with two day-night Tests this season his chance could still come, but the in-form Mitchell Starc slots back in alongside Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood – the trio that retained the Ashes at Old Trafford.
However, the bowling was never really going to be the issue. The tough choices were made a few days ago when the squad was named in the wake of Australia A’s collapse to 9 for 57 in Perth.
“I was disappointed for the guys that no-one banged the door down,” Langer said. “But I did say leading up to that game that it wouldn’t just be picked on that game, it’d be a whole range of things. I just came to realise that we’re going to have to show Pakistan great respect.”
Australia may have regained the services of Steven Smith and David Warner – both now set to play their first home Tests for 21 months – but as with last season when they were absent, there remains significant uncertainty around the batting. Joe Burns and Travis Head are those who have been given the first chance to bring stability as Langer balances the twin ambitions of immediate success and longer-term planning.
Burns’ last Test brought him 180 against Sri Lanka in Canberra and Head has only been absent for one game when he made way for Mitchell Marsh at The Oval, so there is plenty of logic around their returns. But it would not take long for questions to be asked if substantial returns aren’t forthcoming.
“We’re No. 5 in the world in Test cricket at the moment, and there’s a reason for that. One of them is that we don’t score 300-plus in the first innings enough,” Langer said. “Our batters are very aware of that. We understand there’s a spotlight on our batting at the moment and the boys have got to embrace that. They understand that and that’s part of the responsibility and privilege of being selected in the top six in the Australian Test team. We’re not going to shy away from that.”
Burns’ comeback recreates an opening partnership with Warner that has enjoyed success at Test level – four century stands and an average of 44.31 – with Langer hoping their contrasting styles and personalities can form a long-term alliance.
“He’s got a very good first-innings record as well, and I know Davey likes batting with him,” Langer said. “And I obviously have some understanding of how important it is for the openers to get on really well, and work well together and understand each other. I’ve said one of the things we need to do is get our top three cemented and get that as strong as possible because it’s a pivotal part of winning games of cricket. So I’m hopeful the odd couple will get out there and, like we’ve seen in the past, form a really good opening partnership.”
Meanwhile, Head remains Australia leading run-scorer since Newlands albeit Smith has done his best to overtake him in just four matches. A maiden Test hundred against Sri Lanka in Canberra capped a successful home summer amid a struggling batting line-up before a combination of a failure to build on starts and team balance cost him his place.
For a little while at the beginning of the season, it appeared Head may struggle to make the case for an immediate return, but a century against a strong New South Wales attack was enough.
“Runs didn’t come early, I probably missed out at Junction Oval and missed out here [against Queensland] but at no time did I doubt what I was doing, was making sure I backed what I’d been over the last 18 months and trying to get better,” Head said. “Fortunately, I was able to spend some time in the middle in Adelaide and finish not out in Perth.
“[It’s about] trying to continue the work I did last summer. I felt like I started the Ashes really well, but wasn’t able to post a score. I knew what was working and probably went away from that in Manchester which probably led to me missing out, but it was good learnings to work out the reasons why. I’ve looked at that over the last month, feeling I’m moving really well again. I continue to get better at the technical aspect, it’s still a work in progress.”
Though he won’t play, barring a late injury (or concussion substitution), Bancroft’s selection in the squad was the most contentious call given his first-class average of 17.67 for the season – and that was boosted by his 49 against Pakistan. Usman Khawaja‘s first-class season has been an equal struggle (average 17) but he averages 52.97 in Australia and has scored six of his eight Test hundreds on home soil.
“He knows what he has to do,” Langer said. “In this instance, we probably don’t need a 33-year-old like Uzzie [being around the squad] not playing the Test match. That’s what it comes down to. I’ve got great admiration for Uzzie, I think he’s a fantastic player, and I’m sure when he finds a bit of touch he’ll be pushing really hard to get back into the team.”
Will the Australia top six that starts the Test season at the Gabba on Thursday be the same one that finishes it in Sydney in six weeks?