Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns were both prolific scorers last Test summer, but face a battle to regain their positions this season © Getty Images
Mitchell Starc, Usman Khawaja, Joe Burns at the Gabba; Jackson Bird and Peter Siddle at the MCG; Shaun Marsh at the WACA – Australia’s selectors will have plenty to keep them occupied over the next few days as the Sheffield Shield season begins. A full round of matches – day-night games with the pink ball – starts on Tursday, and the squad for Australia’s first Test against South Africa is set to be named on Friday.
And while much of the squad is predictable, there are still a few decisions for Rod Marsh’s selection panel to make. Most notably, they will want to see Starc come through unscathed at the Gabba in his first match since having 30 stitches in his left shin following a training mishap in September.
Starc said on Sunday that although he expected to be unrestricted in bowling over the coming weeks, he had been advised not to dive or slide in the field, or he would risk reopening the deep laceration suffered when he slid into the base of a set of metal stumps. Test captain Steven Smith will lead Starc and his New South Wales team-mates against Queensland at the Gabba this week.
“I think he’ll do his best to stay on his feet as much as he can,” Smith told reporters in Sydney on Monday. “He’s bowled the last couple of weeks, he feels like the ball is coming out really well so a bit of game time into him [will be good]. I’ll take care of him and make sure he’s okay for that first Test match. It’s exciting to see him back on the park.”
Should Starc be passed fit for the Perth Test, which starts on Thursday next week, he will likely lead the attack alongside Josh Hazlewood, with spinner Nathan Lyon, allrounder Mitchell Marsh, and a third frontline fast man making up the bowling group. Bird is effectively the incumbent, having taken seven wickets against New Zealand in Christchurch in February.
Australia’s only Tests since then have been in Sri Lanka, where two spinners were used alongside Starc and Hazlewood. However, Bird could have competition from Siddle, who played in the first Test in Wellington on the New Zealand tour in February before being diagnosed with stress fractures of the back. Siddle played three Matador Cup games this month, but this week will mark his first-class comeback.
Siddle and Bird will both be in action in Melbourne, where Victoria take on Tasmania. On the other side of the country, Western Australia host South Australia at the WACA, where Shaun Marsh will be hoping to prove his fitness as he comes back from a hamstring problem. Marsh is David Warner’s incumbent Test opening partner, having made 130 in Australia’s most recent Test, in Colombo in August.
Marsh came in for that third Test after the selectors sprung a surprise by axing both Khawaja and Burns, who had been prolific scorers in the 2015-16 home Test summer and had each scored Test centuries in New Zealand in February. Khawaja said this week that he felt he and Burns had been made “scapegoats” for Australia’s collective batting struggles against spin in Sri Lanka.
“It’s a pretty big decision after just two Test matches,” Khawaja told the Sydney Morning Herald this week. “It was disappointing that Joe Burns and I were sort of the scapegoats for not performing. I just thought that I’d only played two Test matches in the subcontinent and I got dropped. I wasn’t the only person who wasn’t scoring runs.
“There was only one other person who scored a 50 in the first two Test matches at that time and that was Steve Smith. I only had two bad Test matches on tough wickets. I found it pretty fickle that the selectors dropped me for the third one. It was disappointing how that panned out. But I guess there’s some things you don’t have control over.”
Although Marsh’s inclusion in Colombo was a success the other – Moises Henriques at No.5 – was a failure, which should mean there will be room for at least one of Burns or Khawaja in the first Test against South Africa at the WACA. Since the Sri Lankan tour, Khawaja has played only three matches, scoring an unbeaten 82 in an ODI against Ireland in South Africa, and then 38 and 35 in the final stages of the Matador Cup for Queensland.
“Uzzie probably hasn’t got as many runs as he would have liked in the Matador Cup,” Smith said on Monday. “He’s come off a great summer here last year and he’s a quality player so I’m sure he’ll be amongst the runs soon.”
Meanwhile, in other Shield squad news, New South Wales batsman Nic Maddinson has been ruled out due to the delayed effects of concussion, having been struck on the helmet during Friday’s Matador Cup elimination final. Maddinson played in the decider on Sunday, but Cricket New South Wales doctor John Orchard said Maddinson began feeling unwell late in the final.
Maddinson will be joined on the sidelines by fellow batsman Daniel Hughes, who was also struck on the helmet in Friday’s elimination final. Hughes was substituted out of that game under Cricket Australia’s new concussion substitute rules, and did not play in the final.
Fast bowler Pat Cummins, who was again battling a stress fracture of the back during the off-season, made his return via six Matador Cup matches but has not been named in the New South Wales Shield squad. Cummins has not played a Shield game for more than five and a half years.
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