Eye on the Ashes (hopefully): who could push their Test claims in the Sheffield Shield?

© Getty Images Jhye Richardson, Travis Head and Michael Neser will be in action © Getty Images

The Australia domestic season remains very piecemeal at the moment with only a handful of games confirmed and two states – Victoria and New South Wales – still unsure when they will start due to Covid-19 border closures.

However, following the opening Marsh Cup game on Wednesday the Sheffield Shield will begin in Adelaide on Friday so, in the spirit of positivity and in the hope that there will be plenty more cricket in the next few months, it’s a chance to assess which players could have the chance to make a case for the Test side. There’s at least one batting spot up for grabs and maybe two, plus the likelihood that extra quicks are needed.

Some who could be in the frame but are part of the T20 World Cup squad will have very little, or no, opportunity to play first-class cricket before the squad is selected. Mitchell Marsh has opted to stay focused on white-ball cricket rather than play South Australia this week, although team-mate Josh Inglis will feature while Mitchell Swepson (Queensland) is expected to play Tasmania.

While it seems doubtful players will get as much Shield cricket as had been hoped for before the Test season – which now seems unlikely to feature Afghanistan in Hobart – here are some names who will be up for discussion.

Travis Head (South Australia)

Despite losing his Test place against India last season, and then his Cricket Australia contract, he is probably the favourite for the No. 5 spot. Having been named in the squad for the postponed tour of South Africa, he finished last season very strongly in domestic cricket where he made 893 runs in the Sheffield Shield although did not have such a good time in county cricket for Sussex where he did not make a fifty in six Championship matches.

Usman Khawaja (Queensland)

There is potentially a vacancy at the top of the order (more on that in the names to follow) and it could be that the experience of Khawaja, who averages 96.80 in five Tests opening the batting, again attracts the interest of the selectors. A strong school of thought remains that given this isn’t the strongest era of Australian batting that he should have already returned since his omission during the 2019 Ashes. He recently attempted to put to bed any talk of a rift with coach Justin Langer.

Marcus Harris (Victoria)

The incumbent Test opener (if you can remember all the way back to January) is actually Harris after he replaced the injured Will Pucovski for the final match against India in Brisbane. With 10 months between Tests it remains to be seen how much that counts for, but Harris did himself no harm with a productive county season for Leicestershire with three centuries in eight matches. However, as with all players from Victoria and New South Wales it remains uncertain when he’ll actually get the chance to bat.

Will Pucovski (Victoria)

He marked his Test debut against India with a half-century at the SCG before damaging his shoulder in the field. It led to him needing reconstructive surgery and though he is currently able to bat without issue his fielding is likely to be impacted for most of the season which could make it difficult to select him in the Test side.

Alex Carey (South Australia)

Tim Paine is confident of being fit for the Ashes but as with any major surgery there is the risk of complications. Inglis’ development perhaps makes the wicketkeeping succession a little less clear cut but Carey likely remains the frontrunner (he averages 51.66 in first-class cricket over the last two seasons) and having been left out of T20 World Cup squad could get a run of matches depending of what the schedule looks like beyond the opening round. Looked in great touch in the first Marsh Cup game.

© Getty Images Alex Carey has an impressive first-class record © Getty Images

Sean Abbott (New South Wales)

Abbott’s plans for the off-season didn’t work out when he suffered an injury in his first match with Surrey and was soon a plane back home which also meant he wasn’t an option to bolster Australia’s depleted limited-overs squads. He is fit to start the season (whenever that is for New South Wales) and last summer was part of the Test bubble, although he may struggle to push ahead of the other pace-bowling options barring a spate of injuries.

Michael Neser (Queensland)

There isn’t much more Neser can do to push his claims for a Test cap – it is now just a question of whether he is next in line should the Big Three be broken up. With a degree of hindsight he should have come in to freshen up the attack for the final Test against India last season and with an acknowledgement that rotation will need to be part of this summer that elusive cap could be his.

Jhye Richardson (Western Australia)

Richardson made a promising start to his Test career with six wickets in two matches against Sri Lanka (and averages 23.74 in his first-class career) but through a combination of injury and limited-overs selection has not played a first-class match since November 2019. Having slipped out of Australia’s T20 plans he now has a chance to refocus on his red-ball game to keep himself in the frame as an Ashes reserve.

James Pattinson (Victoria)

He was part of the Test bubble last season before an unfortunate injury at home sidelined him. At peak form, he remains one of the best fast bowlers in Australia and will certainly come into mix should his body hold up and Covid-19 allows him enough opportunity to impress. He recently told cricket.com.au that this could be his last chance. “This year is a big one for me, if I can crack in and try and get an opportunity at Test level. Then if not, then I probably wouldn’t mind just looking to try and enjoy my cricket somewhere towards the back-end of my career.”

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