Marcus Harris, the Victoria opening batsman, has been rewarded for consistency over several seasons by vaulting into Australia’s 14-man Test squad for the first two Tests against India, while Peter Handscomb has also been recalled after a winter’s technical work as part of a team seeking to overcome the absence of the banned Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
The inclusion of Harris comes after consecutive seasons in which he has tallied 1,514 runs at 42.05 and followed up with 437 at 87.40 in four Sheffield Shield rounds this season, including an unbeaten 250 against New South Wales. His selection sends a strong message about the sort of sustained performances the coach Justin Langer is seeking, while also opening up the question of Australia’s opening combination.
Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja formed a successful union in the Tests against Pakistan in the UAE, before the latter fell prey to a knee injury he has only just recovered from in time for the final Sheffield Shield round. While praising Harris, Langer said he was still pondering how to array the batting order in Adelaide.
“I really like the synergy of Finch and Khawaja in the UAE. Like a lot of opening partners a bit of an odd couple about them, and often really good partnerships are like that,” Langer said in Melbourne. “You think about [Chris] Rogers and [David] Warner, [Gordon] Greenidge and [Desmond] Haynes… they’re very different and I just like that synergy and a good relationship. Uzzy’s very chilled out, Finchy is a bit more combative, they have a nice feel about that partnership.
“There’s a lot of talk about Finch can’t open in Australia and all that sort of stuff, I’m not sure about that. He’s opened all through [with the] white ball, did a really good job in the UAE, conditions might be a bit different, we’re not playing at the Gabba or the WACA either. That’s one of the things we’re mulling over at the moment, the perfect combination, we also respect that the Indians have got really good spin bowlers, we’ve got five left-handers in that seven at the moment potentially. All those things we’re going to play around with and make sure we get the best combination we can.”
Despite his strong words about Finch at the top of the order, Langer insisted he would allow Victoria to make their own call about where he batted in the Shield match between Victoria and Queensland in Brisbane from Tuesday. This means Harris will likely be accompanied by his usual partner Travis Dean at the top, with Finch slotting in further down.
“Marcus Harris has forced his way into the squad after an impressive start to the Sheffield Shield campaign for Victoria, and in recent times has performed in high-pressure matches, including Sheffield Shield finals,” the national selector Trevor Hohns said. “Not only has he made plenty of runs, he’s displayed the mental application we believe is required to compete at Test cricket.”
When he made the move from Western Australia to Victoria, Harris was farewelled with some curious comments by the then Warriors coach Langer, who referred to him as “mediocre with flashes of brilliance”, while adding that “our system isn’t for everyone”. However he has always maintained that his relationship with Langer remained strong, and on the day of his call-up received a message from the coach with the cheekily affectionate words “welcome to the brotherhood you little bastard”.
His call-up also leaves the left-hand opener Matt Renshaw on the sidelines once more, after he was left out of the Test team in the UAE. Marnus Labuschagne has also been dropped, but Travis Head retains his place. A late run by the Tasmanian Matthew Wade, now a specialist batsman alongside the Test captain and wicketkeeper Tim Paine, was not enough to win inclusion.
“Marnus Labuschagne played the last two Tests and looked really good at times, and there was talk about his legspin bowling as well. They’re all unlucky, but you can only fit 14 into the squad,” Langer said. “But you’ve got to reward performance and they’d be the first to say… Matthew Renshaw I think has got huge potential, but he hasn’t got the runs on the board at the moment.
“Marnus, the same, he’s come back and his numbers aren’t great for the first four Shield games, so he’ll be disappointed because no one works harder than he does. And Matthew Wade, we all know he’s a fantastic competitor, a really good competitor, doing well, but you can’t fit them all in.”
Looking over the remainder of the batting order, Langer declared that Head would “100%” play in the middle order in Adelaide, and also defended the retention of Mitchell Marsh – a poor tour of the UAE was followed by strong Shield displays from him. “Mitch Marsh is an incredibly talented player, I don’t get some of the criticism of him and his brother,” Langer said. “Test cricket’s a very tough school, and I think sometimes people forget how tough Test cricket is.”
Handscomb, who has worked extensively with the former Test opener Chris Rogers on his movement at the batting crease, is the extra batsman in the squad, nominally as cover for Khawaja, who will return from a knee injury in Queensland’s final Shield game before the Test. “We’ve been really impressed with the way Usman Khawaja has applied himself through his rehabilitation and he’s left no stone unturned in his bid to return in Adelaide,” Hohns said. “Barring any setbacks, all the signs are indicating he will be available for the first Test. We saw how well he performed against Pakistan in the UAE, and we hope he can recapture that form over the summer.”
A vast collection of fast bowlers has been assembled, with Chris Tremain, uncapped at Test level, and Peter Siddle standing in reserve behind the frontline trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Hohns added that the 14-man squad will be cut to 12 names before each of the first two Tests with the next round of Sheffield Shield matches acting as a mini Test-trial for those aiming to further their case.
“We will select a final team of 12 prior to each Test, and the two remaining squad members will be released to get important match time in the Sheffield Shield. We believe all players chosen deserve their selection in the squad, and we’re confident given the opportunity all will apply themselves well against India.”
“With another round of Sheffield Shield matches to play, players have the chance to strengthen their cases for selection before we finalise the 12 in the lead up to the first Test.”
None of the frontline pace trio of Cummins, Hazlewood are Starc are expected to make the trip to Perth for their state New South Wales’ final Shield fixture before the Adelaide Test, with back-to-back matches against India expected to stretch their endurance. “There’s no concern for Mitch, Pat and Josh,” Langer said. “They’ll be ready to go.”