In doubt: Australia’s Shane Watson. Photo: Reuters
1. What is Australia’s main concern heading towards Brisbane?
Apart from the injury concerns over Shane Watson, Australia appear in far better health than England 10 days before the start of the Ashes. Watson will not play in NSW’s Shield game this week but is on track to play the first Test, though his withdrawal would leave selectors with a massive headache as it would leave a hole at No.3 and affect the balance of the team. Alex Doolan is the frontrunner to replace Watson, if required, while Shaun Marsh is also likely to come under serious consideration. Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes did themselves no favours with lean showings last week. Tasmanian James Faulkner will also enter the frame if selectors decide an all-rounder is required to fill the breach.
2. How are Australia’s bowling stocks faring?
Experienced: Ashes hopeful Ben Hilfenhaus. Photo: Getty Images
Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris are certainties to play in Brisbane and Mitchell Johnson is not far behind, but from there it gets a bit murky. Ben Hilfenhaus’s experience means he is considered favourite to be named as the fourth quick in the Test squad, though he will have to stave off late challenges from Ben Cutting and unheralded South Australian paceman Chadd Sayers, who both impressed on Saturday. West Australian quick Nathan Coulter-Nile is on the radar of national selectors, too. But there will be problems should Australia have any more injuries in the pace department. James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Jackson Bird and Josh Hazlewood are already in the casualty ward. Then we’re dipping into largely uncharted waters. On the spin front, Fawad Ahmed missed a golden opportunity to impress selectors, which means Nathan Lyon should remain as Australia’s No.1 tweaker.
3. Have Australia solved their batting woes?
The early indications are promising. The incumbents have started the summer strongly, albeit against domestic attacks on more batsman-friendly decks, but facing the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad at the Gabba will provide a sterner test of their skill. There are also positive signs from those on the fringe. George Bailey could not have done more for his Test chances with his form in India, though he would have liked more than scores of 34 and 41 in his final game before selectors name their Ashes squad. Alex Doolan is also tantalisingly close to a baggy green after a big century first up in the Shield while Test discards Ed Cowan and Rob Quiney have featured among the runs, though a ton eludes the pair.
4. Will England start the Ashes series underdone?
As of Wednesday night, England could not have been more pleased with their Ashes preparations – then it started raining and injuries struck. In the days since, England have had just 69 overs of play and been rocked by blows to key pair Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior. Prior’s injury, to his calf, is considered the more serious of the two. He will not play this week and must be under a huge cloud for the first Test. His replacement, Jonny Bairstow, averages 30 with the bat at Test level, which is serviceable, but at 24 years of age he cannot be relied upon to play the type of innings Prior has delivered to lift his team out of trouble. Pietersen desperately needs a decent hit after just 15 minutes at the crease in Hobart. England’s reserve batsman, the uncapped Gary Ballance, has made 0 and 4 so far this tour.
5. What are England’s selection issues?
Three years ago, it seemed England knew the pace attack they would carry into the first Test long before the start of the series, but there is more uncertainty this time round. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are locks but it appears a race in three between Steve Finn, Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin to be the third seamer. Tremlett appears to have his nose in front after getting the nod to play Australia A but had just eight overs to enhance his claims. Finn and Rankin were patchy in Perth but one of the pair is likely to get a chance to impress if Anderson is rested after playing the first two tour games. Broad will be looking for more match practice after bowling 10 relatively expensive overs on Saturday.