Australia’s domestic Sheffield Shield tends to open sleepily, with spring sunshine warming the few diehard fans that turn up to regional venues but auditions for coveted Ashes places have given the start of this year’s tournament additional spice.
Australia may be comfortable on their own pitches and confident of fending off an England side likely to be without all-rounder Ben Stokes, their most valuable player, for at least part of the five-test series.
However, the question of who will bat at six in the order has become an increasing bugbear for a team desperate for a quality all-rounder of their own while also needing some starch in the middle after a worrying string of batting collapses.
Queries over the best man behind the stumps have also grown in volume since the incumbent Matt Wade was dropped for a single one-day international in India earlier this month and then reinstated in the next game.
With less than a month before the first test kicks off at the Gabba on Nov. 23, the opening matches of the first-class Sheffield Shield will also be a battle-ground for the pacemen as they look to replace the injured James Pattinson as first understudy to Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.
One player desperate for red ball form will be Victoria state’s Glenn Maxwell, who scored a fine century at number six against India in March but has failed to surpass 50 in seven test innings since.
With selectors keen to have a part-time bowler able to provide relief for the pacemen over the course of a long campaign, Maxwell’s ability to soak up some overs with his off-spin would be valuable.
The hard-hitting 29-year-old is under pressure from Western Australia’s uncapped Marcus Stoinis, a medium pace-bowling all-rounder who has averaged 86.25 in his eight ODIs and impressed during the recent tour of India.
Another Western Australian in Hilton Cartwright is also a contender after his surprise selection at number six for the second test against Bangladesh in Chittagong last month. “In an ideal world you’d want someone like a Ben Stokes who can give you the ideal balance, bat and bowl,” selector Mark Waugh told Sky Sports Radio earlier this month.
“But I think your number six as it stands is probably going to be a batsman and ideally he bowls a bit.” The wicket-keeper position has troubled Australia since Brad Haddin’s retirement after the last Ashes in 2015 and Wade’s reinstatement at the expense of Peter Nevill in the last home summer proved divisive.
Seemingly favoured for his niggle over the more subdued Nevill, Wade has not justified his selection with the bat and compiled just 17 runs from his three innings during the two-test tour of Bangladesh.
Nevill, considered a technically superior keeper to Wade, will captain New South Wales in the absence of regular skipper Moises Henriques as he looks for a weight of runs to dislodge the incumbent Tasmanian.
South Australia’s uncapped Alex Carey, who posted an all-time record 59 dismissals in the 2016-17 Shield season, is seen as a dark horse to dislodge the seasoned campaigners.