The first serious salvo of this summer may still be a month away, but Australia have declared their squad of combatants. Once more they are to be led by their thoughtful and inspirational captain, Mark Taylor, ending speculation that he would be left behind to groove his golf swing. Seventeen players have been named, including the opening batsman Michael Slater, Yorkshire's overseas signing until the call of more glorious matters beckoned.
It is barmy that some of us even entertained the possibility that Taylor's job was under threat. He is comfortably the best Test captain around and, although his personal form is the scratchiest of his career - he has not reached 50 in his last 20 innings - he keeps leading his side to victory.
Taylor, speaking in Sydney yesterday, said: "It is a relief. It's just nice to be on another Australian team. Going as captain is something very special."
However, the appointment of Steve Waugh as vice-captain over Ian Healy, the previous holder, will clearly indicate to Taylor that a long-term replacement is being lined up should his bad trot continue.
The appointment of Waugh, now 31, has not pleased Healy, who said he considered the move to be "a minor personal blow". But if England are hoping to make any currency out of the situation, Healy, who was banned for two one-day matches in South Africa for throwing his bat, quickly closed ranks, saying: "In good teams the personal never gets in the way of team goals." His understudy will be Adam Gilchrist, a young keeper himself being touted as a future leader of his country.
The only other surprise is the omission of Paul Reiffel, who bowled so well here four years ago. The Victorian seam and swing bowler has been suffering from injury. In his absence, the selectors have been impressed by Andrew Bichel, a stocky, bustling 26-year-old paceman from Queensland.
He, along with Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, will form the front- line seam attack, while Brendon Julian and Michael Kasprowicz, with county cricket experience at Surrey and Essex respectively, will provide the support.
Shane Warne will bowl the bulk of the spin, with Michael Bevan offering a less reliable mirror image of the blond Victorian's stupendous talents. Mark Waugh can bowl either off-spin or seam whenever the situation dictates and is the stylish end of a batting line-up chock-a-block with runs. With Healy coming in as low as No 8, England's bowlers can ill-afford to have the kind of off-day they had at Headingley in 1989, when Australia notched up 601.
Presuming Taylor continues to open, the tourists may pair him with the re-instated Slater, while the left-handed Matthew Elliott comes in at No 3. Elliott, who began his Test career nervously, has expanded his strokeplay to the extent that he was last seen bashing Allan Donald and co all over the Wanderers.
If the front end has its flaws, however, the middle-order more than covers the cracks. Waugh, Waugh, Bevan and Blewett may sound like a firm of accountants, but England's bowlers will have to get through them time after time if their batsmen do not want to be facing a large deficit on the balance sheet by the time the second innings starts.
AUSTRALIA SQUAD (England tour): M A Taylor (New South Wales, captain, age 32, Tests 81)); S R Waugh (NSW, vice-captain, 31, 89); M J Slater (NSW, 27, 34); M T G Elliott (Victoria, 25, 5); J L Langer (Western Australia, 26, 8); R T Ponting (Tasmania, 22, 6); M E Waugh (NSW, 31, 63); G S Blewett (South Australia, 25, 16); M G Bevan (NSW, 26, 14); I A Healy (Queenland, wicketkeeper, 32, 88); S K Warne (Victoria, 27, 52); A J Bichel (Queensland, 26, 2); G D McGrath (NSW, 27, 28); J N Gillespie (NSW, 21, 5); B P Julian (WA, 26, 7); A C Gilchrist (WA, wicketkeeper, 24, 0); M S Kasprowicz (Queensland, 25, 2).Reuse content