Australia have announced their squad for their upcoming Tests in South Africa, and while the three-match series is yet to be officially confirmed, the naming of the 19-member contingent threw open several points of discussion.
Australia are likely to tour South Africa for the series in March, which will run parallell to the T20I series against New Zealand, a clash that has complicated the selection and availability of players. The squad has only a few changes from the outfit that lost 2-1 to India in January, with Queensland bowler Mark Steketee among five uncapped players.
Squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mark Steketee, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner.
Captain Paine stays – as does pretty much everyone else
Perhaps the most talked-about man in Australian cricket at the moment, skipper Tim Paine, will now have to weather the storm in the wake of a volatile Australia-India Test series, where he was under increased scrutiny for his on-field performances and demeanour. While the criticism against the wicketkeeper continues to seep in, Cricket Australia have unequivocally backed Paine to continue donning the armband, with chief selector Trevor Hohns insisting that “Tim’s leadership was never in question”.
However, given the manner in which Australia relinquished their advantage in the series, there might have been a temptation to make major changes in the line-up. Instead, much of the squad carries the same look like the one against India, and the first XI could end up being reproduced almost exactly.
Time (finally) runs out for Matthew Wade
An underwhelming run of form which saw him play 14 innings without a Test fifty, eight of which came in the recent India series, have finally pushed Wade out of the Test squad. Tried in positions five to seven (and briefly as a stop-gap opener) since his Test return in 2019, Wade was under increasing pressure to justify his Test spot, especially with younger options waiting in the wings.
Wade did find a place for the New Zealand T20Is, but it will be interesting to see where the 33-year-old fits in Australia’s scheme of things for the future. In his absence, the No.5 spot is likely to be filled by Travis Head, who seems to be having a mini-tussle of his own with Wade for the middle-order spot. Since the start of 2020, Head and Wade have featured in only three Tests together. Head was left out partway through the India series, with Wade benefitting then. Now Head could profit from what might be the final curtain call for the sometime-wicketkeeper.
Apart from Head, Australia has other options in Will Pucovski, Alex Carey and Moises Henriques to complete their middle order.
Carey continues to rise through the ranks
In just under three years, Carey seems to have combined skill and maturity to be counted as one of Australia’s most dependable white-ball players. The credit he has built up has now won him a maiden call-up to the Test set-up. While Paine remains their first-choice keeper, Carey will act as the backup gloveman, and could also be a middle-order option. Promoted to the white-ball vice-captaincy in 2019, he is also being seen as a future skipper, a status endorsed by Isa Guha recently. One way or another, this seems to be Australia stepping up their preparations for life after Paine.
Where is Jhye Richardson?
The current leading wicket-taker in the 2020/21 Big Bash League, Richardson was primed to add further depth to Australia’s Test pace battery, but ended up getting a spot for the New Zealand T20Is instead. With Mitchell Starc’s dwindling form, the 24-year-old quick could have found a spot in the line-up ahead of others considering his recent form, but his selection also hinges on his fitness and workload, especially after a shoulder injury in 2019. He hasn’t played a first-class game in 14 months.
What next for Usman Khawaja?
Once a mainstay in Australia’s Test XI, Khawaja hasn’t been able to land a spot in the side after his meagre returns in the first half of the 2019 Ashes, where he collected six sub-fifty scores with a best of 40. In the 2020/21 Sheffield Shield so far, Khawaja averages 56.50 from five innings, but that wasn’t enough to warn him selection for the South Africa Tests. No longer a centrally contracted player, a spot for the New Zealand T20Is also eluded him. Much like his former teammate Shaun Marsh, Khawaja’s Australia career might well have quietly come to a close.