Australia's selectors pulled no surprises when naming a 14-man squad for the first Test of the home summer against Pakistan in Perth. There were some queries surrounding a settled Australian team as it progresses into the next phase of the World Test Championship cycle after a 2-2 start against England in the away Ashes series during the winter. Here are the major questions and how they were answered.
Managing Warner's exit and life thereafter
David Warner appears on track to get the Sydney Test farewell he desires after he was named alongside Usman Khawaja as the only openers in the first Test squad. It is greater assurance than he had during the tour of England and even last home summer where Marcus Harris was an ever-present tourist and potential replacement as the selectors were careful never to guarantee Warner's place beyond each Test.
Warner did score two half-centuries in the Ashes series including one in his last Test innings and had a better series in terms of starts than the selectors were anticipating. He made 24 or more in eight of his 12 Test innings in England, including the WTC final, but failed to convert any of them into centuries or even 70-plus scores. His ODI World Cup form was sublime and so the selectors believe he is the man to open in the first Test.
The question for them is whether the opportunity cost of giving Warner his desired send-off is going to hinder the team down the road. The selectors have stressed that they view each Test in isolation and that they will pick for the here and now rather than the future. Chairman of selectors George Bailey stated as much after selecting Warner for the first Test against Pakistan.
"Ultimately, we still think he's in our best 11 players to win the first Test," Bailey said. "I think Test cricket, in terms of the way that the World Test Championship points is set up, each Test is critical. There's points on the line for each and every game. So our focus is very much on picking the 11 that we think can do the job and obviously there's roles within that for each individual and how that how that actually structures up the team as a whole and we think David is the right person for that for this Test."
That said, three Tests, and up to six innings, against an undermanned Pakistan attack that will be severely challenged in Australia could be invaluable for another opener to gain some momentum in the role as opposed to just two Tests against West Indies in mid-January ahead of the two-Test New Zealand tour in March. Australia then don't play another Test until India tour their shores in the home summer of 2024-25. Harris, Matt Renshaw and Cameron Bancroft have all had a good look at Test cricket previously. But all are vastly improved players now and a clear, lengthy run at the role would be better for than the alternative.
However, the selectors don't appear to believe any have made an overwhelming case at domestic or Australia A level to warrant an early call-up and coach Andrew McDonald even queried publicly whether the batting order could be reshuffled after Warner's exit to accommodate two allrounders.
Marsh versus Green or Marsh and Green
Mitchell Marsh keeping Cameron Green out of Australia's Test team was not a scenario the selectors foresaw prior to the Ashes. Marsh himself thought he going to England on holiday and was only set to play if Green got injured. Green did get injured, picking up a hamstring niggle, and Marsh took his opportunity, making a stunning century at Headingley and contributing with the ball as well. It left the selectors in a quandary.
They dropped a spinner to make room for both Marsh and Green at Old Trafford but it left Australia badly unbalanced. They then made the tough call on Green for The Oval. Now they're in a bind. Green's upside remains extremely high and five home Tests against Pakistan and West Indies would help his progression immensely. He is also a far more valuable and durable bowler than Marsh in Australia and is the best gully fielder in the world. But Marsh's form with the bat is irresistible and he deserves to stay as the incumbent. It appears likely the selectors will reward Marsh's incumbency and make Green bide his time.
The one issue they have is if they want to blood Lance Morris at some stage, it will be harder to do it with Marsh as the allrounder than Green. The Ashes was the first time Marsh had played back-to-back first-class games in four years. His body barely handled the bowling load and he had to be carefully managed through the ODI assignments prior to the World Cup as a result. The last time he played more than three Tests in an Australian summer was 2015-16. Morris almost exclusively plays in a five-man attack for Western Australia, which allows him to bowl shorter and more impactful spells. That means the rest of the overs need to be made up by the allrounder, which Green is more suited to doing.
The other scenario that McDonald hinted at was Marsh and Green playing together at some stage. He mentioned it in the context that it could happen if Marnus Labuschagne was moved up to open when Warner finishes and Green slotted in at No.4, where he averages 65.09 in first-class cricket and has made four of his nine centuries. But Labuschagne averages 56.81 at No.3 in Test cricket and has made 11 centuries there. It would be a major gamble to disrupt an order that has been very settled and very successful.
Bailey confirmed that Green remains firmly a part of Australia's plans and they would find a way to get him back in when the opportunity arises. "I think there's some flexibility around where he can bat so that's another great feather in his cap," Bailey said. "It's hard to sort of project where you see the summer going. There's plenty of things that can happen that are out of your control, but I imagine that won't be too long before we see him back in the Test team."
When and how to blood the next generation of Australian quicks
Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc have cemented their legacy as one of the great all-format fast bowling trios. Their durability has been a blessing for Australia, yielding a T20 World Cup, a World Test Championship and a World Cup in the space of two years. But as grateful as Australia are for their indefatigable service, it has also been somewhat of a curse as there have been few opportunities to blood younger fast bowlers.
Scott Boland took his opportunity when Hazlewood was injured and kept him out of the WTC final when Hazlewood was slightly underdone. But Boland is 34 and older than the big three. Michael Neser, 33, is another who has been in the mix to play but is the same age as Starc and older than Hazlewood and Cummins. Jhye Richardson, 27, is a great hope for the future but he hasn't played a Test since his maiden five-wicket haul in the Ashes in December 2021 due to a torrid injury run.
Morris, 25, is the one they hope will be the like-for-like for Starc as the strike force with extra pace to complement the metronomic accuracy of the others. But Starc has hardly missed a Test in recent years due an amazing run of fitness and performance. He was squeezed out of the first Ashes Test after a slightly off-colour performance in the WTC final and due to surface-suitability reasons but stormed back to be Australia's leading wicket-taker in the series while battling groin soreness. He wants to play every game. The selectors either need him to miss through injury or soreness to give Morris a chance to taste Test cricket.
Morris has had his own injury issues and has been carefully managed at domestic level this summer to be fresh for the Test summer. But life on the fringe has the potential to leave him undercooked if his chance arises. Australia's selectors would also rather play Morris if Green is in the XI, with or without Marsh, as it will free up Cummins to use Morris more sparingly.
Bailey confirmed that Morris would be unlikely for the Perth Test given the big three will be fit. But he said there is value in having Morris in the squad.
"It's unlikely given the three we've got but that's not to say there's no benefit to having him in the squad and around and being part of that group," Bailey said. "I think there's enormous benefit for Lance to be in the Australian squad, to be around most fast bowlers to be around, Dan Vettori and Andrew McDonald, and just having access to that and being a part of it, so whenever that opportunity does arise, he feels as comfortable as he can and hopefully he can make that transition to just rolling out and playing as easy and as comfortable and as a Test debut may be."