Having scrambled to fill one opener position last summer, Australia selectors could soon be scrambling again with the news that the end is nigh for David Warner in red ball cricket.
Warner this week revealed that it could be his “last 12 months in Test” cricket as he plans to prioritise white ball formats in the final years of his international career.
“Test cricket will probably be the first one to fall off,” Warner said on Triple M’s Deadset Legends.
“Because that’s how it will pan out. The T20 World Cup is in 2024, (one-day) World Cup next year.
“Potentially it could be my last 12 months in Test cricket.
“But I love the white-ball game. It’s amazing.”
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With the possible exception of Nathan Lyon, there’s arguably no harder position in Australia’s Test XI to replace than Warner’s.
Australia is experiencing a dearth of Test-calibre openers with Warner going through eight different partners since 2019.
When Marcus Harris was replaced during last summer’s Ashes, it was 35-year-old Usman Khawaja who took his spot at the top of the order.
So where can selectors turn now if they suddenly have to find a new opening partner for Khawaja?
Here, we take a look at the exiled stars, the next generation and the bolters who could replace Warner next year.
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THE EXILED STARS
Top of this list, and also favourite to replace Warner if he was leaving right now, is Victorian opener and 14-Test player Marcus Harris. Of all the contenders mentioned in this article, only Harris is in Australia’s current squad and has played a Test in the past year. He’s far from an outstanding candidate given his Test average of 25.29 from plenty of opportunities. Nonetheless, there’s hope he took some positive steps in England this winter, where he made 726 runs at 42.70 in the County Championship for Gloucestershire. He’s also started this Sheffield Shield season well with 288 runs at 41.14.
Another former Test opener, Matt Renshaw, also impressed in the County Championship this year. Renshaw opened for Somerset and averaged 47.69 with two centuries from his eight matches. He’s taken that form back home this Shield season with an unbeaten double century against NSW last month. Renshaw — who played 11 Tests between 2016 and 2018 and made 184 in just his fourth match — is still only 26 and could be a strong contender if his form continues to trend upward.
Coming from further behind, albeit not completely out of the running, is Cameron Bancroft. The 29-year-old hasn’t been part of a Test squad since the 2019 Ashes, where he was dropped after just two Tests. In hindsight, it was a harsh axing considering his series wasn’t the same abject failure of Warner or Harris. Bancroft at least stuck around to face 40 balls on average, compared to 20.2 for Harris and 18.4 for Warner. Bancroft has two centuries in the first four matches of the domestic season, and made 141 in last season’s final against Victoria.
THE NEXT GEN
If selectors could pick anyone to replace Warner, then it would likely be Will Pucovski. Considered a talent of Ricky Ponting proportions, even his Test debut at 22 years old felt a long time in the making. If Pucovski can truly get his career back on track, then he will be at the front of the queue. Although, several concussions and another indefinite leave of absence taken in October due to personal reasons creates plenty of doubt.
Elsewhere, South Australia’s Henry Hunt was among the best openers last domestic season. The 25-year-old right-hander was the fourth-highest scorer with 601 runs at 42.92, and he was the only batter to score three centuries for the season. That earnt him selection for the Australia A tour of Sri Lanka in June when he recovered from a pair in the first match to make 107. He’s averaging 39.00 after four rounds this Shield season.
Queensland’s Bryce Street has also opened the batting for Australia A in the past 12 months, making an unbeaten 119 against the England Lions last December. The second-half of the summer wasn’t as successful, however, while the availability of Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne has meant the 24-year-old hasn’t played a game for the Bulls so far this season.
Meanwhile, Tasmania’s two openers, Tim Ward and Caleb Jewell, have hit the ground running this season and jumped ahead of Street in the Test selection queue. Ward is averaging 60.83 and has been a remarkably consistent performer with four half centuries from seven innings, although no triple-figure score. Jewell, who at 25 is one year Ward’s senior, made an unbeaten 108 against South Australia and has 285 runs at 47.50.
Considering the numbers, it’s strange that Sam Whiteman’s name hasn’t been mentioned more when discussing opening contenders. Only Peter Handscomb scored more runs last Shield season than 30-year-old Whiteman, who piled on 641 at 58.27 for Western Australia, including 85 and 123 in the final. His recent form isn’t bad either with the opener making 193 against South Australia last week. Whiteman is a bolter at best but with 78 first class matches behind him, selectors could do worse than take a closer look at the left-hander.
Two other batters who likely aren’t in the mix yet, but are worth mentioning, are young guns Teague Wyllie (18) and Ashley Chandrasinghe. Few cricket fans knew these names a month ago but excitement spreads fast when a young player scores a century in the Sheffield Shield.
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Eighteen-year-old Wyllie scored 104, against an attack including Nathan Lyon, in just his third match to announce his arrival. Chandrasinghe, 20, replaced Pucovski in Victoria’s XI and made 119 not out off a staggering 333 balls against Tasmania in Hobart. Both are batting at first-drop and have a long way to go, but they are worth keeping an eye on. Furthermore, Wyllie was among three names dropped by former selector Mark Waugh as players he believes could step up “in the next couple of years”. The other two were Ward and Hunt.
THE LEFT-FIELD OPTIONS
Selectors George Bailey, Tony Dodemaide and Andrew McDonald have a way of thinking outside the box. As such, there’s a possibility Australia won’t be looking for an opener at all.
An option with some merit is having dashing left-hander Travis Head promoted to open the batting, and finding a replacement at No.5 instead. Head is a similar batter to Warner with both being aggressive left-handers who like to put the pressure back on the bowler early. Like Warner, he’s struggled away from home, but he was named player-of-the-Ashes last summer for his 357 runs at 59.50. He doesn’t open the batting for South Australia, but has done so 15 times for Australia in ODI cricket with great success. That will become 16 on Thursday.
If there was a spot to fill at No.5, it opens things up to a new wave of contenders. Last year’s topscorer in the Shield, Peter Handscomb is one. He made 697 runs at 49.78 and is off with a bang this season, too, with 544 runs at 108.8.
Renshaw could also be an option at No.5 having batted there previously for both state and country. Then there’s Kurtis Patterson, whose two Test innings includes an unbeaten 114 batting at No.6. The 29-year-old is averaging 53.80 this season and feels deserving of another crack if an opportunity was to arise.
And don’t forget Mitch Marsh. He hasn’t played red ball cricket in almost a year but, at 31-years-old, he feels like he’s better prepared than ever to play Test cricket again.
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