Well, at least they didn’t pick Ben fucking Hilfenhaus. Gentle Ben’s exclusion aside, the Test squad selected for the two Test tour of the UAE (we don’t know if you actually ‘tour’ the UAE, insomuch as just sit in the one hotel and fly back and forth between Dubai and Abu Dhabi) was a fairly surprising one. It only really makes sense in the context that the Australian selectors see one day and Test form as pretty much the same thing these days. Even a dash in T20 cricket is enough to get you considered for Test honours. So with four limited overs fixtures before the Test stuff begins proper, there is still time for things to change. Especially If Shane Watson keeps tripping over cricket balls in training.
A little while ago we tried to predict the pace attack Australia would take to the UAE. Unsurprisingly, we got it pretty much completely wrong. Our prediction was that the selectors would go for an out and out quick to accompany Mitchell Johnson, with the possibility of an all-rounder playing alongside, or maybe instead of, Peter Siddle, with Starc remaining as a bench option if Johnson broke down. Instead it looks like they have gone for an attack of Johnson and Siddle, with the potential for A. N. Other to play alongside them.
Currently that person is either Starc or the most recent golden boy of Australian cricket, Mitchell Marsh. James Faulkner (the previous golden boy of Australian cricket. Or was that Glenn Maxwell? It gets hard to keep up) seems to have been pretty hard done by, dropped from the Test squad after being dragged around on tour for the past nine months without actually getting a game. He hasn’t really done anything wrong to deserve being overlooked; he hasn’t really had the chance to do anything at all (except be a left-handed quick in a team already full of them). But that Mitch Marsh, he’s just so hot right now. On paper, a pace attack of Johnson, Siddle and Marsh is probably the least threatening Australia has fielded since that time John Hastings got a gig against South Africa. Now let’s never talk of that game again.
The batting is the really interesting topic though, especially if Michael Clarke can’t play (as looks probable at this stage). That would potentially leave Australia with only one batsman who is halfway competent against spin (Steven Peter Devereux Smith), and the need to muck around with the batting order. Phil Hughes is the obvious replacement, but he is no number four, and has historically been about as competent against spin as Rolf Harris was at deleting his internet search history.
If Hughes is to play, it will probably be at number three, but Australia already has an incumbent number three, admittedly the least convincing incumbent since the 2004 American Presidential Election, but an incumbent nonetheless. We honestly have no idea if Alex Doolan is a decent player of spin, but given he is Australian (well, Tasmanian) we’re going to take a large stab in the dark and say no, probably not. But he deserves the chance to prove his case, which leaves Australia in a wee bit of a dilemma.
If, as looks likely, Marsh plays as the third pace option (nobody would ever describe Watson’s bowling as ‘pace’ these days), the batting looks extremely flimsy. Given Watson would probably take the number four spot if Clarke is out (he’d probably cry if they didn’t let him have it), numbers six, seven and eight would have to be occupied by Marsh, Haddin and probably a second spinner (either Maxwell or O’Keefe). Even if Clarke is fit to play, that lineup looks disturbingly like the one that failed so spectacularly in India 18 months ago, you just need to swap Marsh for Moises Henriques.
The inclusion of two all-rounders places a much greater emphasis on Watson to not bat like a complete moron as he did in India (where he averaged 16.5 across six innings). Given Marsh and whoever plays out of Maxwell and O’Keefe are unproven at Test level, the danger is Australia will be effectively playing one batsman short. In conditions they have historically massively struggled in. You can appreciate the potential for this to all go hilariously wrong. And if does, it will probably be Watson’s fault. As it nearly always is.
We haven’t said anything yet about the merits of either Maxwell or O’Keefe as Test spinners, mostly because there is not much to say. O’Keefe is infinitely the superior bowler (Maxwell is still largely resting his laurels on those five minutes he spent practicing in the nets before the Indian tour), but is massively out of match practice. He will effectively be pulled straight out of the offseason, with only the one game he played for Australia A, and potentially one tour game, to prepare for his long awaited Test debut. Sri Lanka may have proven that the Pakistanis are not the consummate players of spin you would have assumed them to be, but O’Keefe, even when he is at his peak, is no Herath.
This may appear an unnecessarily pessimistic evaluation of Australia’s chances, but truthfully this tour has the possibility of being as shambolic as the tour of India. When you’re reduced to relying on Watson not being a complete dick, you know you’re in trouble. In fairness, at least Australia have Devereux now, who was an unknown quantity before that Indian series, and after their series in Sri Lanka, Pakistan look to be in a bit of a mess. If Saaed Ajmal is ruled out, Australia will probably even be considered favourites. Whatever happens, we will know a hell of a lot more about Australia’s long term prospects in Test cricket when this series is over.