‘Blank page’ for Australia’s Test batting reserves and Ashton Agar’s strong World Cup chance

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Senior white-ball players dropping off the list, new allrounders and pace bowlers added, an injury-prone quick retained and what about the Test batting options? ESPNcricinfo looks at the talking points from the Australia men’s contract list

All to play for among Test batting reserves

When Matt Renshaw was recalled to the Test squad earlier this year it was made clear he was considered the next best batter in Australia. That no longer seems to be the case. By the time Renshaw toured New Zealand he was averaging 24.93 in the Sheffield Shield and has since not received a CA contract. It is highly likely that the XI that played in Christchurch will be the same which starts at Perth against India in November, but the spare batting position is now wide open which leaves much to play for early in next season’s Shield and a likely Australia A-India A red-ball series.

“Think it’s open for anyone to jump up and grab the opportunity,” George Bailey, the chair of selectors, said. “We were really clear with Matt, and not only Matt, the guys who missed out as well, it was a really close decision to take him on that New Zealand tour. I guess a blank page is a good way of describing it. I know Marcus Harris is one who has come off contract but he’s firmly in that mix as well, Cam Bancroft, Nathan McSweeney has had a wonderful season as well.”

It is not the first time Bailey has name-checked McSweeney, who averaged 40.10 for South Australia in a bowler-dominated season and also captained Australia A, while Aaron Hardie (a new inclusion on the contract list) was also given another mention along with Beau Webster and Josh Inglis‘ credentials as a specialist batter.

Next full-time opener will likely be an opener

The big selection call this season was to promote Steven Smith to open the batting so that Cameron Green could return at No. 4. Though it was an uncertain start for Smith, who averages 28.50 after four Tests in the position, a major shift would have to occur for him not to retain the role against India. But Bailey indicated that when a permanent opening vacancy next comes up it is highly likely to be a specialist who takes the role.

“Not saying it won’t happen [promoting a middle-order player] but think there’s probably less chance of that happening,” Bailey said. “That’s something I hope I’ve made clear in chatting to the opening batters who missed out, it’s not that we don’t value the position, it was a unique situation and I would say it’s probably likely that the next opportunity goes to a top-order player.

Horses for courses

But there are still times when Australia may get creative. Aside from the five-match series against India, the other Tests that fall in the next contract period are two games in Sri Lanka from late January 2025, which will be Australia’s final qualifying matches of the current WTC cycle.

Travis Head could be an option to open in those Tests, while Glenn Maxwell, who was close to playing on the 2022 tour of Sri Lanka, remains firmly in consideration having been ruled out of last year’s India series due to a broken leg. Inglis’ dexterity against spin is highly regarded and could work in his favour purely for a batting role.

“I think we’ve shown in the past that we have other options in terms of throwing guys up in subcontinent conditions if we think that suits,” Bailey said.

Agar a good chance for T20 World Cup

The omission of Ashton Agar and Marcus Stoinis from the list prior to the T20 World Cup was always set to grab attention but it is a case of looking at the fine print. The 2024-25 contracts do not come into effect until July 1 so the T20 World Cup falls in the current contracting period with both players a strong chance of featuring. Bailey indicated it was highly likely the squad would include a second frontline spinner.

“Those guys have both obviously got contracts this year and are firmly a part of our planning around that T20 World Cup,” Bailey said. “The balance of the squad think will probably lend itself to having that second spinner there…Glenn Maxwell is a pretty handy white-ball spinner and we don’t necessarily consider him a part-time option, so he’s one that we consider a frontline option in that space. Zamps [Adam Zampa] will clearly be there and I think there will be opportunities potentially for one more.”

What it means for the future of those two players beyond the World Cup is interesting. Agar is only 30, but he missed out on selection in the ODI World Cup last year due to injury having also missed out on the XI for the T20 World Cup win in the UAE in 2021. He has lost his way in red-ball cricket having slipped down the pecking order as the reserve Test spinner and was not selected as WA’s main Sheffield Shield spinner in the second half of the season due to Corey Rocchiccioli‘s rise. There is still a possibility he could be in the mix for the Sri Lanka Test tour but at present, he will head back onto WA’s list as a domestic white-ball player only.

Stoinis, 34, is in a different phase. He has already spoken with the selectors about where his international career is headed. A freelance career likely beckons beyond the T20 World Cup but he has not closed the door on ODI cricket and still has desires to play in the 2025 Champions Trophy. However, the elevation of Hardie and Matt Short as well as the continued development of Green in 50-over cricket, will make it hard for him to reach Pakistan.

Tim David is another who is in an interesting spot. He qualified for a contract upgrade in this 2023-24 period and is going to be a key member of the T20 World Cup side. Bailey noted there are only six T20Is in the next contract period, which is why David was omitted.

“Tim’s really enjoyed his time with the T20 side and hopefully he feels like a really important member of that team,” Bailey said.

Injury-prone Richardson remains a key investment along with Bartlett

Jhye Richardson has not played an international since June 2022 yet he remains on the contract list for a second straight year despite a horror domestic summer where he played in just two Marsh Cup games, one Sheffield Shield match and eight BBL matches due to another shoulder dislocation and a severe side strain.

He has gone to the IPL with Delhi Capitals after a long and deliberate rehabilitation period with WA but has yet to play. Bailey confirmed that despite all his issues, Richardson remains in the frame for the upcoming T20 World Cup.

“Some of those injuries have been incredibly unfortunate and there’s a few things we can continue to work with Jhye and with WA on how we try and map out Jhye’s next 12 months and hopefully see him on the park for longer,” Bailey said. “There’s a high skillset there and he doesn’t need a great deal of cricket to be able to get his skills back on track. We’re excited that he’s over in India. Hopefully he gets a couple of opportunities in the IPL and he’s another one who is in the mix for that T20 World Cup as well.”

The addition of Xavier Bartlett is a rapid rise given he was not playing for Queensland at the start of the recent home summer due to a back injury and seemed a long way off international selection. But a stand-out BBL saw him vault into the ODI and T20I sides. He has seemingly jumped Spencer Johnson. They are different bowlers in some ways but both are great white-ball prospects.

However, 2024-25 features a Champions Trophy and very little T20I cricket. Bartlett’s durability across the three formats, but particularly in 50-over cricket where he swings the new ball in a format that features two new white balls and a 10-over powerplay, has seen him contracted ahead of Johnson.

“We certainly like the skillset across all three formats.” Bailey said. “Ongoing it will just be that challenge of prioritising what he’s available for and when and keeping his body trending in the right direction. Hopefully another huge 12 months ahead for him.”

In terms of Test cricket, Bailey said that Michael Neser‘s omission from the list did not mean his standing in that format had reduced and remained in the mix alongside contracted duo Scott Boland and Lance Morris.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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