Australia have named a shipshape 13 for the Boxing Day Test against India. (AP Photo)
It's time for Cricket Australia (CA) to lick their team into shape, and in naming a shipshape 13 for the Boxing Day Test against India, the caretakers of Australian cricket have initiated the running repairs that their once impregnable status warrants.
But the cover of a book invites your intrigue. Something similar has happened with the announcement of this Australian squad. CA – who by habit designates only 12 for a home Test – has named an extended squad of 13. While this one additional player won’t ensure Australia's salvation, it definitely emanates signals that 'mates' in Australia could lose sleep over.
Before dissecting that list, a run-down of Australia's miserable 2011 is a must to attach reason to CA's caution. Australia’s slide this year, which began with an Ashes humiliation at home, has become critically vertical – just like a sinking Titanic – with their first home Test defeat to New Zealand in 26 years.
Sandwiched between those two pieces of history was an equally discomfiting World Cup exit in the quarter-finals and the fourth-lowest Test innings score of all time, a lowly 47 against South Africa in Cape Town. And with a hungry India ready for a four-Test bout, it doesn't get much tougher for a team that keeps inflicting new wounds upon itself before old ones have healed.
An outfit that once piled on individual and team records by the day can now only hallucinate about it looking at Ricky Ponting's figures, which for the last two years haven't swelled at a rate that earned him comparisons with Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in the last decade. But despite a clamour for Ponting's head, the Australian selectors have given him another chance – a decision based on numbers and one that reminds of the mistake India committed with Harbhajan Singh.
But Ponting is not alone in the Australian boat carrying out-of-form batsmen. Phillip Hughes – pitted to fill Justin Langer’s shoes not too long ago – has understandably lost favour after four failures against the Kiwis. In contrast, Ed Cowan has hit four centuries in as many domestic outings, with the last one – 109 in a practice match against the touring Indians – booking him a place in the 13 for the Boxing Day Test.
India won't mind that, provided Zaheer Khan is in the pink. Two left-handers in David Warner and Cowan at the top will nicely whet Zak's appetite (read testimonials by Graeme Smith) and the unease for the hosts extends into No. 3 and beyond.
Ponting is dry as never before. Michael Hussey's old-age wrinkles are getting prominent. Brad Haddin is a failure or two away from getting the chop. On that note, captain Michael Clarke's 166 runs in South Africa and 161 against the visiting New Zealanders, including a century in each series, make him the leader of the middle order. And though Shaun Marsh's return from injury brings with it a much needed fillip, he last played a month and a half ago in Cape Town where Australia scored 284 and 47 in their two innings to lose the Test by eight wickets inside three days.
In such a scenario, Shane Watson's injury could be a body blow, especially due to the balance he lends with his all-round skills. It's difficult to see Clarke opting for Daniel Christian to make up for that balance. Instead, it's almost certain that the Aussies will go in with seven batsmen, including vice captain and wicketkeeper Haddin.
Just like with the batting, Australia's bowling too is nowhere near an apple-pie order. James Pattinson and Peter Siddle pick themselves to rattle the Indians with pace and bounce but Pat Cummins' injury-forced exclusion couldn't have been more ill-timed, for he could have produced the sweet chin music that Indians dislike the most. Cummins' loss has turned into Ben Hilfenhaus' gain. The Tasmania pacer grabbed 27 wickets in his last 10 domestic appearances to earn a recall, which is in part due to injuries to Cummins, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris. Hilfenhaus will be in direct competition with Mitchell Starc, who played in the series against the Kiwis with moderate success of four wickets in all.
By the look of it, though, Siddle will still be considered the leader of the pack but it's Pattinson who could turn out to be the surprise package for the Indians. He, like Cummins, is capable of crashing through speed guns by bowling around and above 90mph consistently. And the teenager's 14 wickets, including two five-wicket hauls, in the two-Test series against New Zealand must have lifted the sagging spirits in his team.
There is only one pedigree tweaker in the 13 – the groundsman turned offspinner Nathan Lyon. His offbreaks were spotted by the Redbacks' Big Bash coach Darren Barry that fast-tracked his Test debut, which came to fruition with a five-for against Sri Lanka in Galle. Since then, Lyon has taken 22 wickets in seven Tests and is primed for the job against India. And Clarke's part-time offspinners will at best provide a breather for Lyon against the in-form Indian batsmen.
To sum up, it's a squad where the focus has been on fully-fit players who can last the distance. Leading up to the selection, Watson said he can bat but not bowl. However, selectors refused to pay heed and instead retained Christian. The approach could also be the result of skipper Clarke and new coach Mickey Arthur having a vote in selection.
Clarke, Arthur and their comrades have a job to take Australian cricket out of the hole it finds itself in. And of the 13 who have huddled up in Melbourne, Warner, Clarke and Pattinson look spick and span to accomplish the task.
Australia (1st Test squad):
Michael Clarke (capt), Brad Haddin (vice-capt), Dan Christian, Ed Cowan, Ben Hilfenhaus, Michael Hussey, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, James Pattinson, Ricky Ponting, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, David Warner.