With Australia’s Test XI for Brisbane named four days in advance, it shows that some clarity of thought has been retained within the camp after a turbulent couple of weeks. As with any home contest, the Ashes series is Australia’s to lose, and even more so given how ropey England’s 2021 has been. But expectations exist to be upset, and this is largely the same Australian side soundly beaten last season by India after dominating the first Test, and that hasn’t played since.
Starting at the top, no one manifests being unproven like Marcus Harris. He has earned his spot in the manner always prescribed: 5,001 runs averaging 51 in first-class cricket outside Tests in the past five years before this season, which he started with another Sheffield Shield ton. If anyone will be sympathetic to the domestic haymaker it will be selector George Bailey, with the grass from his playing days still lodged in his spikes.
But while Harris can boss Junction Oval, he hasn’t clicked in his 10 Test appearances. He topped the team for runs in his first series in 2018-19, but it was a modest tally in another loss to India. He was poor against a mild Sri Lankan attack to follow that, gave barely a whimper in England for the 2019 Ashes, lost his place, then returned for one match without impressing least season. It’s up to him to disprove the impression that the domestic lion is an international lamb.
His opening partner does have a commanding record, but David Warner will be a bit of an unknown quantity to start this series. When he and Steve Smith received their long suspensions in Cape Town in 2018, a year without a Test match sounded like a lot. Tack it on to the pandemic era though, and there is a gouge out of each of their careers. In not much less than four years since his ban began, Warner has played 12 times. Smith has played 14. Both are certainly good enough to pick up after the latest delay, but it does increase the degree of difficulty.
Perhaps this will be the summer that establishes Marnus Labuschagne for good. His breakout period in 2019-20 was exceptional – no Australian has scored more across five home Tests than his 896 runs. His sophomore year against India was solid, though at times when he could have taken charge he didn’t convert good scores to great ones. That said, he twice did enough to set up what should have been wins, only for India’s fifth-day batting to thwart him. His lead-up domestically has been full of confidence. At some stage someone needs to take the mantle from Smith.
Like Harris, Travis Head is a left-hander with a compulsive looseness outside his off stump. But there is something about his returns that makes selectors stay interested. Head might always look like his wicket is imminent, but he almost always manages to put a score together first. Only five times in 31 innings has he been out in single figures. In between times, his 20s, 30s and 50s have helped form important partnerships more than once.
If England’s bowlers can work their way this far down the order in good time, they will fancy themselves to apply pressure. All-rounder Cameron Green is a towering talent, but only played four Tests for Australia before having to wait a year. He’ll almost be starting afresh, is yet to score key runs in a match and is still waiting for his first Test wicket. Alex Carey will be keeping wicket on debut, with all the attendant pressure that brings. Both have a task ahead of them.
And so Australia will be hoping to gather enough runs, while relying in large part on their old firm of bowlers. Patrick Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, the four who authored the 4-0 result last time England visited. They will be trying to recreate history, though the world has changed. Cummins is captain now. Hazlewood is bowling as well as ever. Starc and Lyon sputtered last season as the wickets ran out, but again the long layoff means there is no form line.
In the end, all involved will hope that the occasion of the Ashes will be enough to bring out anything in them that may have retreated to latency. The alternative, that the occasion overwhelms them, does not bear thinking about. But if anyone is having a poor run, those on the sidelines will be just as keen to enter the fray. Things can change quickly in a series like this, and no one can be sure of much. To name your team without waiting until the coin toss is surety enough.