In future Border-Gavaskar series there will be a fifth Test. However, in a way, we get one this time too. Australia and India will meet again in early June to decide the World Test Championship title.
There will be precious little time for either side to prepare given the IPL runs until late May, but you can make the case that Australia have it better. A number of their players will have county cricket stints beforehand, including key batters Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith, while fringe players get the A tour of New Zealand and the potential of further training at home.
By and large, selection for Australia’s best XI will not be an overly taxing affair provided injuries don’t play a major part. There are probably nine spots nailed down already. But those final two are ticklish decisions.
What next for David Warner?
David Warner will return to Australia colours this week in the three-match ODI series in India, having recovered from the fractured elbow he suffered in Delhi. But his Test future is as clouded as at any time, barring the immediate aftermath of the ball tampering.
He has an underwhelming record in the UK where he averages 26.04 from 13 Tests without a century. The double-century he forged in his 100th Test against South Africa – a remarkable innings – is threatening to look like an outlier in the closing stages of his career.
He appears likely to feature in the WTC final, but beyond that there feels less certainty. Ricky Ponting recently suggested that it could become a selection playoff for Warner to decide whether he at least starts the Ashes that follow in the English summer.
After Ahmedabad, head coach Andrew McDonald was reasonably firm on the final but left the rest more open-ended. Warner’s endpoint in Test cricket may not be in his own hands. It is not beyond the realms that he starts the Ashes but does not finish it should England’s quicks reprise their round-the-wicket success of 2019.
“I think you work through that conversation, and how each player finishes is always differently,” McDonald said. “Some want to go out in a certain way, and others are okay with potentially being dropped out of sides. But at the moment Dave’s fully in our plans for the World Test Championship, he’s coming back for the one-day series, he’s recovered from his injury there, so we’ll see Dave back in Australian colours on the 17th and we’ll go from there.”
Even if Warner reaches the next home summer (where his home Test at the SCG will not be the final match of the season this time) there is little doubt that his Test career will end in the next 12 months, so there will need to be a replacement sooner rather than later.
Matthew Renshaw batted in the middle order in India, and unconvincingly so, but is viewed as the leading candidate at the moment. By pure weight of domestic runs Cameron Bancroft is making a strong case although there may be other complexities involved. Marcus Harris could consider himself unfortunate to have been dropped in the 2021-22 Ashes when someone had to make way to keep Usman Khawaja in the side. Travis Head was excellent after being promoted to open in India but will remain a middle-order player outside the subcontinent.
Josh Hazlewood vs Scott Boland
The other big selection decision that will likely need to be made is who slots in as the third specialist quick behind Mitchell Starc and captain Pat Cummins. However, that is assuming that Josh Hazlewood can put an end to his run of injuries which, along with conditions-based selection in Asia, has limited him to four Tests in two years.
Hazlewood left the India tour after not recovering from Achilles injury sustained in his comeback Test at the SCG against South Africa when he pounded in on soft turf caused by problems with the covers. He is a wonderful Test bowler but needs to stay on the park.
“Injuries are unfortunate and it’s part of fast bowling,” McDonald said. “So two separate injuries, a side injury and an Achilles injury. When he does come back though, what we saw in Sydney is he’s still world-class. I think Scott Boland adds to depth there, we’ve got Lance Morris, unfortunately Jhye Richardson who is of great interest as well suffered a recent injury as well, but we feel as though those fast bowlers as a collective can help each other navigate through what the Future Tours Programme holds.”
If Hazlewood is fit for the WTC final it will be a close-run thing between him and Boland, although before the SCG match against South Africa he stated his belief that the pace-bowling hierarchy was still in place – and he was, indeed, selected ahead of Boland. Either of them should be a handful in England during early June.
Having said that Starc will be locked in, there may just be question posed as to whether he is the ideal type of fast bowler for early-season England. He only played once in the 2019 Ashes. However, since the start of 2021-22 season he has taken 51 wickets at 27.27 and he also has a role in creating rough for Nathan Lyon.
There is unlikely to be much difference between Australia’s WTC squad and their Ashes group, but the ICC will put a limit of the number of players for the final. For the 2021 edition it was 15. So let’s assume there are four extra spots to fill.
Todd Murphy would appear locked in as the back-up spinner after his outstanding tour of India. One of Hazlewood or Boland will be a spare quick but there will be another as well. Uncapped Lance Morris has been around squads at home and abroad, but selectors may just ponder if he’ll quite be the right fit for June conditions. Michael Neser could well come into the frame.
Will they want a specialist wicketkeeper in reserve? It’s long way to fly someone from Australia at short notice. In India, Peter Handscomb, who is very capable with the gloves, filled the role and would be an option again. He would obviously cover the spare batter position, too. If an out-and-out keeper was wanted, Josh Inglis would lead the way, although Jimmy Peirson should push him close.
Australia’s possible WTC final squad (if 15 named): David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins (capt), Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Scott Boland, Todd Murphy, Peter Handscomb, Michael Neser/Lance Morris