David Warner is running out of time to outpace his rivals in the Ashes selection race, writes Katya Witney.
Cricket Australia announced an expanded list of players who had earned men’s central contracts last week. On the list was Marcus Harris, who has not played Test cricket since January 2022. The somewhat out-of-the-blue inclusion of Harris has thrown further speculation on whether Warner will retain his place at the top of Australia’s order for the Ashes this summer.
When the contracts were announced, George Bailey – Australia’s National Selector – furthered the speculation over Warner’s Test future, saying: “We’re three formats across all of those contracts, trying to fit that in is first and foremost the job. But I think Dave, like any player is, is at the mercy of selection.”
The Warner selection dilemma is far from ‘like any other player’. His status in the game means he has far more credit in the bank than anyone other than Steve Smith in the Australia side. But even that considerable credit is almost at an end.
Since the winter of 2021/22, Warner’s form has significantly dropped off. Although he passed 90 twice in the first two Ashes Tests of that season, he failed to pass fifty in any other innings in that series. In 32 innings since 2020, Warner has only passed three figures once, in a double-hundred blitz against South Africa last December. His other scores in that series read 0, 3 and 10. Since January 2022, he averages 26.39 – the lowest of any Test opener who has scored at least 500 runs in that period.
To compound those stats, Usman Khawaja’s surge of runs means he sits at the top of that list, averaging 62.27.
“I’ve always said I’m playing to 2024,” Warner said after returning from India last month. “If the selectors feel that I’m not worthy of my spot, then so be it, and I can push on to the white-ball stuff.
“It’s easy pickings [for critics] when you’re 36 going on 37. I’ve seen it before with the ex-players as well. So for me, if I’m taking pressure off the rest of the other guys, and no one’s worrying about the rest of the team. I’m happy to do that.”
While Warner hasn’t been dropped yet, his injury in India opened the door for those who could push him into red-ball retirement. Travis Head impressed with an unbeaten 49 in Indore and 90 in Ahmedabad after a spectacular Test summer in Australia. Set against the backdrop of Warner failing to pass 15 in any of his three innings in the series, Head was crucial in Australia avoiding defeat in both of the final two Border-Gavaskar matches.
Those conditions in which Head scored his runs both in Australia and India are a far cry from those that await in England, and Head is not expected to open come June. But, by passing the test in India, he highlighted the multiple options Australia have beyond Warner.
The more likely option is Harris. Despite his absence from the Test squad, Harris has given a snapshot of the value he could bring to Australia’s Ashes campaign through his performances in the County Championship. In 18 matches, he has seven centuries and averages over 50. He hit 148 in Gloucestershire’s first match of the 2023 season after a watchful half-century in his first innings.
Harris was called up as a replacement for Cameron Bancroft during the 2019 Ashes but, like Warner in that series, was undone by England’s seamers. He only made it into double figures in two of his five innings. It was a similar story when England visited Australia 18 months later, although he managed one half-century on home soil.
But all of that was pre-County Championship success and that has to count in his favour – especially as Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and several other hopefuls look for pre-Ashes form in the competition.
Matt Renshaw is also among those with more recent long-format runs than Warner. After leap-frogging Harris as the preferred backup option against India, he failed to impress in the middle order with four runs his combined contribution across three innings. But, this week he scored his second consecutive century for Australia A against a New Zealand A bowling attack which included Scott Kuggeleijn and Logan Van Beek. After that innings, he made a pointed reference to how his performances could affect his Ashes chances: “The pitch is really similar to what you would expect over in England, so it’s a really nice challenge for us over here.”
As Harris, Renshaw and the rest secure first-class runs, Warner is captaining Delhi Capitals in India. The three half-centuries he’s scored so far have done little to allay fears over his form. Questions over his strike rate in those innings and a scratchy presence at the crease are far from the image of Warner in his masterful pomp.
However, regardless of what he does in the rest of the IPL, he will most retain his spot for the World Test Championship final in June. Speaking before Australia’s ODI series in India last month, head coach Andrew McDonald said: “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.”
There are only five days between the final against India and the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston and it seems likely that Warner will be given at least that match to make his claim for the rest of the series. The last time Warner played a Test at Edgbaston, he returned two runs from his first innings and eight in his second before Stuart Broad filled in the rest of his card for the series. If he starts in a similar fashion this time around, it’s unlikely he’ll be given the rest of the series to find redemption.