Australia’s selectors face their most important decision since the recall of Mitchell Johnson, as they mull the best response to Shane Watson’s late scratching.
Unchanged throughout a clinical 5-0 Ashes sweep of England, Australia will have two new faces in their XI on Wednesday when the three-test series against South Africa starts in Centurion.
George Bailey was omitted from the 15-man touring party, and Watson will miss the clash because of a calf injury. Potential debutant Alex Doolan had been tipped to take Bailey’s spot since Shaun Marsh left the squad with a calf injury. But Marsh was reinstated late on Saturday night and will battle jetlag and Doolan for the right to bat at first drop in Watson’s absence.
From there, it gets even more complicated for coach Darren Lehmann and chief selector John Inverarity.
Moises Henriques is the closest Australia has to a like-for-like replacement for Watson.
Henriques was another of the squad’s late call-ups when James Faulkner succumbed to a knee injury on the eve of the tour.
Before leaving Australia, Lehmann declared the 27-year-old allrounder was not on the trip to make up numbers. “We’re confident in him and he obviously played test cricket last year. So he knows what it’s about and that’s a good thing.”
Phillip Hughes, the man who benefited from Marsh’s initial misfortune, scored 83 and was a clear standout in Friday’s intra-squad game in Johannesburg.
Doolan, Hughes and Marsh would all be batting out of their preferred position if chosen at No. 6, and such a move would put a heavier workload on Australia’s pacemen.
Dropping Nathan Lyon and adding a fourth quick to the attack would be one way to make up Watson’s reliable overs that are valued so highly by Lehmann and captain Michael Clarke.
It would be hugely unfair on Lyon, who is in career-best form after snaring 19 wickets in the recent Ashes series, but Centurion has a reputation of being unhelpful for spinners.
Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird bowled in tandem at the start of Australia’s centre-wicket training session on Saturday.
Presuming the opening contest reaches a fifth day, Australia have only three days of rest before the clash at Port Elizabeth starts.