Australia and England are taking contrasting approaches to selection for the first Test starting on Wednesday at the Gabba, with the hosts confidently naming an XI three days out from the toss and their opponents keeping options open.
The former represents a bold move by Pat Cummins, Australia’s newly appointed captain, and involves Travis Head being preferred to Usman Khawaja at No 5. Mitchell Starc also gets the nod despite calls for the up-and-coming fast bowler Jhye Richardson to replace the left-armer.
These were the two berths up for discussion in an otherwise expected Australia side. Alex Carey makes his Test debut behind the stumps but he was the only wicketkeeper in the squad after Tim Paine pulled out of the series due to the mental toll of having to stand down as captaincy last month.
Whatever the combination, Joe Root’s bowlers will likely welcome the omission of Khawaja, with the classy 34-year-old left-hander averaging 52 and boasting six centuries at home; certainly his punishing 171 at Sydney during Australia’s 4-0 Ashes win in 2017-18 remains burned on the retina of a good few present.
But while Head struggled for red-ball runs at Sussex during the recent English summer, and was dropped midway through the 2-1 home defeat by India last season, he will now return in a degree of good form after averaging 49 for South Australia in the first half of the Sheffield Shield season.
Khawaja’s figure during the current domestic campaign is in fact 16 runs higher. But, aged 27, Head is viewed as the long-term prospect and even possible future captaincy material for a team led traditionally by batsmen but who have turned to Cummins – a gamble given his bowling workload – due to a lack of alternatives.
Another approach would have been to ask Khawaja to open alongside David Warner – a role the Queensland captain has performed previously – but instead Victoria’s Marcus Harris starts the series. Again this appears an investment, with the left-hander yet to truly convince during his 10 Tests to date – he has two half-centuries – but five years younger and a specialist at the top of the order.
Starc’s position, meanwhile, has been the source of much public debate in Australia after a disappointing series against India 12 months ago, albeit one that should be viewed in the context of the the left-armer being unable to see his dying father, Paul, because of the team’s biosecure bubble.
Nevertheless that campaign, plus lack of Shield cricket caused by the clash with Australia’s recent victorious T20 World Cup victory, has led to Starc being challenged by the pacy Richardson amid a scorching start to the season for Western Australia that has returned 23 wickets at 13 from just four matches.
But Cummins and the Australia selectors have stuck with the attack that shared 87 of the 90 English wickets to fall during the Ashes series four years ago, with Nathan Lyon the spinner – one away from 400 Test wickets – and the captain confirming Starc will initially share the new ball with Josh Hazlewood.
“We had a really good centre-wicket session [on Saturday] and Starcy was fast and swinging the ball big,” Cummins said. “We weren’t surprised but it was really good to see. He got some of the best batters, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, saying he looked a handful.”
England had their first net session at the Gabba on Sunday but are holding off naming an XI as they look to assess the final pitch that is prepared and the weather forecast in Brisbane. If a truncated game looks to be in the offing, it may be they pick an all-seam attack. If so it would once again be harsh on Jack Leach, not least with the all-rounder Ben Stokes expected back in the team after his absence during the summer led to the return of Moeen Ali as the spinner. A final decision between Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow in the No 6 position is another talking point before Wednesday.
Speaking on Sunday at the series launch, Joe Root insisted “all options are on the table” here and called on his players to make history on tour, while also acknowledging his tenure as captain will be shaped by the coming weeks.
“If you look at how hard it’s been for English captains and English teams [to win in Australia] over the years, it’s been something that doesn’t happen very often,” Root said. “Of course it will define my captaincy, I’m not naive enough to think it won’t.”