Andrew McGlashan in Sydney
For a long time, Sydney has marked the end of Australia’s Test summer, series often won and occasionally lost, but this season is different. After the three ODIs against India there is a two-Test series against Sri Lanka and they are shaping as vital matches in determining how the Test side may shape up later this year.
On a basic level, they are matches Australia simply cannot afford to lose. History would suggest that shouldn’t be a concern for a visit of Sri Lanka (13 Tests, 11 losses, two draws in Australia) and they should come out on top, but, as is blatantly clear, these are not normal times in Australian cricket.
Sri Lanka will arrive having lost four of their last five Tests (including three at home) and without key batsman Angelo Mathews, but there are so many issues with the Australia side that nothing can be ruled out with confidence.
One of the problems for Australia in those two matches is the immediate need to lift the confidence of a brittle side, but also to make some decisions for the longer term. It is a juggling act Tim Paine acknowledged before the final Test against India.
And there is a selectorial limbo to take into account. On the day Australia were being asked to follow-on for the first time in 31 years, it was hard to ignore the juxtaposition of Steven Smith and David Warner shaking hands at the toss in their opening games of the BPL.
It is looking increasingly likely – to the point of certain – that the pair will return as soon as they are available and they are already being inked in to the Ashes squad. That means Australia are currently selecting Test squads with these two major figures hovering over the calls they make about the batting line-up.
It impacts all the incumbents barring Usman Khawaja who is the best of the rest. Even Marcus Harris, a rare shining light against India, won’t quite know where he stands although a century against Sri Lanka would surely lock him in. It’s less clear for the likes of Shaun Marsh, Travis Head and Peter Handscomb: between them they have made 525 runs at 27.63 with three fifties. And is Marnus Labuschagne at No. 3 really long-term thinking?
And that’s where the Ashes, even though it is six months away, has to be in the selectors’ minds. Are they the players who will succeed in England? Sri Lanka’s pace attack is handy, but it’s nowhere near India’s. If Australia come through unscathed and a couple of the batsmen mentioned above manage hundreds they would have to go to the Ashes.
“The top four pick themselves with Warner and Harris to open the batting and Khawaja at No. 3 and Smith at No. 4, but then it gets tricky around five and six,” former selector Mark Waugh told Fox Cricket. He’s probably right, but nothing feels that simple in Australian cricket right now.
If the selectors truly believe the others are the best available (outside of Smith and Warner) then they must be held accountable to that view, but if there is a thought that any of Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns, Matthew Wade or even Glenn Maxwell will be in the Ashes mix they need to be considered for Sri Lanka.
Yes, there is the back half of the Sheffield Shield season to be played out but the signs are that it doesn’t always hold much sway.
Then there is the issue facing the likes of Mitchell Marsh and Aaron Finch following their Test omission. Depending on how the dates for the one-day series against India and Pakistan are locked in, there is every chance they won’t play another first-class match this season. That would also impact any other one-day players trying to secure a Test spot, like Marcus Stoinis for example who has been endorsed by both Mark Waugh and Shane Warne for the allrounder’s role.
The other dilemma is that the India series has created more questions than answers because the bowling attack has been left with far less of an aura than when it started. That could be an easier issue to overcome than the batting, because there is no doubt the incumbents are all world class, but there is still a valid debate to have about Mitchell Starc and to a lesser extent Josh Hazlewood.
It still feels highly unlikely, barring injury, that this won’t be the bowling attack that faces England at Edgbaston on August 1, but the selectors also need to decide about what is below them. Chris Tremain has been around the squad this season, Jhye Richardson comes with big plaudits and Peter Siddle is the regular 12th man.
Those, however, are marginally less vexing issues than the top order. In a series where Australia’s highest individual score was 79, it’s impossible to say progress has been made. Whether anything is much clearer after the Sri Lanka series remains to be seen. In reality, Australia’s Test ambitions revolve around two batsmen currently playing T20 in Bangladesh. That just about sums it up.