Australia’s selectors have produced a stunning surprise by picking promising Victorian batsman Will Pucovski in the Test squad for the upcoming two-match series against Sri Lanka.
Pucovski will join recalled Queensland pair Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns in the 13-man squad, with Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb and Mitch and Shaun Marsh all making way in another batting overhaul following Australia’s first-ever home Test series loss to India.
All three batsmen will play the pink-ball three-day warm-up match against Sri Lanka from January 17 in Hobart in order to fine-tune their preparations for a possible Test call-up in Brisbane, the summer’s lone day-night Test. Incumbent No.3 Marnus Labuschagne has also been listed in the XI in a practice fixture that may well have some bearing on which batsmen ultimately gain selection in the Test side.
Australia squad for first Test against Sri Lanka: Tim Paine (c/wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Will Pucovski, Matt Renshaw, Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle
“Joe Burns has had strong performances in first-class cricket this season, and we believe he can contribute strongly if given the chance in the series,” said national selection panel chair Trevor Hohns.
“Matt Renshaw is a player with the ability to make big scores, and at 22 years old has 10 first-class centuries. He also performed extremely well in England during the County season. We see him as a long-term prospect as a Test player and have confidence in his ability to bounce back following a string of low scores early in the Shield season.
“Will Pucovski is an exciting young player who is making his mark in the Sheffield Shield. He is another player with a track record of making centuries.
“We look forward to him joining the squad and congratulate him on his first national call-up.”
The biggest talking point to emerge from the squad list is Pucovski, the 20-year-old who made a remarkable 243 against Western Australia in the JLT Sheffield Shield last October, before taking what was labelled at the time an “indefinite break” from cricket for treatment on a mental health-related illness.
The gifted right-hander, who dominated at under-age level before making his debut for Victoria, has suffered several concussions during his career that have slowed his progression.
He was hit on the head three times last season having also copped a blow fielding at short leg on his Shield debut in early 2017.
His double hundred was his second triple-figure score in his seventh first-class match, and after making one and 67 in his Shield comeback in December, his average sits at 49.00 – the highest of any active Australians in first-class cricket.
If Pucovski is to debut in Baggy Green in the series opener in Brisbane from January 24, he will be the youngest to do so since Renshaw, who was also 20 (though a couple of months younger) when he received a similarly unlikely call-up to take on Pakistan two summers ago.
Renshaw played the most recent of his 11 Tests in Johannesburg last March-April, when he was flown in as emergency cover following the Cape Town cheating scandal.
After a prolific back-end to the 2017-18 Shield season and an impressive showing with Somerset in the County Championship, the left-hander has had a lean run for Queensland so far this summer, scoring 199 runs at 19.90 with one fifty.
Burns meanwhile, has been in strong form, and sits fifth on the season’s Shield run-scorers list with 472 runs at 47.20 with four fifties.
The 29-year-old has three Test hundreds to his name in 14 matches, and after being endorsed by Ricky Ponting recently as the ‘next man in’ to Australia’s batting order, said he believed he was playing well enough to handle the demands of international cricket.
“I’m really happy with the way I’m batting,” Burns told cricket.com.au last month. “I feel like I’m batting well enough to not just make hundreds, but really big hundreds. That hasn’t happened for me yet but I feel like if I keep putting myself in the position, the big scores will come.”
Burns made four and then top-scored with 42 in that Johannesburg Test but was then a surprise omission from Australia’s Test squad for the tour of the UAE last September-October.
The omissions of Finch and Mitch Marsh from the squad come following their axings for the fourth Test against India, while a disappointing run of form for Shaun Marsh leaves the 35-year-old’s Test future clouded.
“Ultimately Aaron, Peter, Shaun and Mitch have not produced the performances expected of them with the bat at the Test level,” said Hohns. “They have been given good opportunity, but have not produced the scores we need.
“All four are very good players, and the door is by no means closed for them to return to play Test cricket for Australia.
“They will all feature in the ODI Series against India, and each of them forms an integral part of our white-ball strategy and set-up at the moment as we also focus on our journey to the 2019 Cricket World Cup.”
Despite having their workloads tested throughout some long bowling days against India, Australia have opted for the same pace attack of Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc and Josh Hazlewood, with Peter Siddle remaining the back-up.
Legendary quick Mitchell Johnson recently suggested the Sri Lanka series could be a chance to explore some other fast-bowling options ahead of the Ashes.
“Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins have excellent records over their careers, but have not been able to get the job done this summer,” Johnson wrote in his column for The Sunday Times.
“They now need to be pushed for their places and the Sri Lanka series provides an opportunity to look at some quicks who could be successful in English conditions.”
Domain Test Series v Sri Lanka
- Jan 24-28: First Test, Gabba (D/N)
- Feb 1-5: Second Test, Canberra