Australia Stumped by Ashes Squad Selection.

A bloated squad full of injured players desperately trying to prove their fitness before the First Ashes test begins in Brisbane next Wednesday, a coach struggling to find his best eleven, age beginning to catch up with senior members of the squad. This is a very familiar story for those who have followed England’s disastrous recent Ashes’s trips Down Under. Only this time it is Australia’s turn to be beset by these problems.

Preparations for the home side could not be going worse, as they look to continue their 24 year unbeaten home record against the English. During their heyday in the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s even the most avid Australian fan knew that they would never again see a side that contained the talents of Hayden, Waugh, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, but the lack of quality replacements for these world class players has left Cricket Australia in turmoil. This current crop of players has the dubious honour of trying to fill the boots of a side that many consider to be the greatest test side ever.

Of the Australian side that lost 2-0 in India, who are admittedly a formidable unit at home, doubts remain over the form and ability of various members of the squad. Marcus North’s hundred in the second test was the only time that the middle order of North, Michael Clarke or Mike Hussey passed fifty in their 12 innings on tour. Ben Hilfenhaus who was a revelation on the tour to England last year, was ineffectual, and Nathan Hauritz, playing on pitches made for spinners, struggled to make any impact.

It is this lack of form and fitness that has persuaded the selectors to name such a large squad. So much hinges on the current round of Sheffield Shield matches taking place this week. Test staples like Michael Clarke, Doug Bollinger, Ryan Harris and Simon Katich are all in a desperate race for fitness ahead of the Brisbane opener. As England proved time and again during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, selecting players in the hope that they will be fit for a gruelling test match schedule does not work. Players such as Darren Gough, Graeme Thorpe and Andy Caddick were all selected for tours whilst still trying to prove their fitness, decisions that came back to haunt England massively as they broke down early in the tour. Obviously it is different for Australia as they are the home side and as such can easily pick players to cover, but it does not help squad unity to have players dropping in and out regularly, especially as those on the fringes are hugely inexperienced in the test arena. Replacement Spinner Xavier Doherty averages 48 with the ball in first-class cricket, and the batting cover consists of the untried pairing of Callum Ferguson and Usman Khawaja. So much will depend on getting key members of the squad fit and in form before the opening test.

Squad unity could be England’s greatest weapon in this tour. England coach Andy Flower has publically declared that the warm-up games are not an excuse to give all the tourists a game; they are for his test eleven to acclimatise and settle. This appears to be bearing fruit already as in the tour opener England beat Western Australia convincingly and followed that up with an encouraging performance against South Australia. The confidence of a secured spot in the side seems to be helping those England players who have struggled of late. Alastair Cook hit an unbeaten century in the second innings against South Australia, and Kevin Pietersen looks to be rediscovering his commanding best. England’s bowling attack is acclimatising quickly too, which is crucial as only Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar have toured Australia before. Having not being part of the attack that was despatched all round Australia four years ago, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Steven Finn bear none of the mental scars that have haunted previous England bowlers returning Down Under.

Despite all their poor preparation, this Australian side can never be written off. As the side from the 2006/7 Ashes campaign showed, the Australians are at their most dangerous on the back of defeats and facing this constant criticism will only serve to harden their resolve to prove their doubters wrong. When fully fit, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke are world class batsmen, and Mike Hussey was averaging over 70 in tests until two years ago. Ricky Ponting has shown time and again, not least in his heroic 156 in the Old Trafford test in 2005 that he is at his best when the pressure is on. Ponting is also the only Australian captain ever to have lost the Ashes twice, losing them a third time is not an option for him.


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