Australia's overblown squad smacks of concern, indecision and disarray

In a rare show of insecurity hosts name 17 players ahead of first Test as team struggles for form and fitness
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Australia picked their team for the Ashes yesterday. Or rather they named 17 players, enough to fill a squad for a packed three-month tour rather than one match, the first Test at Brisbane in nine days. Maybe they think that many will be needed to beat England.

Australia picked their team for the Ashes yesterday. Or rather they named 17 players, enough to fill a squad for a packed three-month tour rather than one match, the first Test at Brisbane in nine days. Maybe they think that many will be needed to beat England.

Whatever the reasoning, it smacked of indecision, concern and procrastination. The announcement, made in a specially convened event at Sydney Harbour, was less like selection than organising one of those competitions in nursery schools where everyone wins a prize.

At one point, it was possible to think every professional cricketer in the country was about to be given the selectorial nod. But they stopped at 17, the youngest at 21 years old being Steve Smith, a leg-spinning all-rounder, the eldest at nearly 36 the captain, Ricky Ponting.

Three of them, Callum Ferguson, Usman Khawaja and Xavier Doherty are uncapped at Test level, another, Ryan Harris, has played two matches. There is no chance that three debutants will play in Brisbane.

The caution has partly been enforced by injury doubts but the poor form of senior players allied to the recent 2-0 defeat in India after they made above 400 in the first innings of both matches has seriously taken the spring out of the Australia step (the swagger in the hips disappeared long ago). By prevarication and the picking of walking wounded they are turning into the England of not so long ago.

It means there are still places to play for in the final round of Sheffield Shield matches coming up this week and perhaps especially in the four-day encounter between Australia A and England in Hobart starting tomorrow.

Rumours had abounded for days that the showbiz event in the shadow of Sydney Opera House would be less than conclusive. So it proved, which made the exercise fairly meaningless. It was staged partly to add razzmatazz to the series, partly no doubt to satisfy sponsors but it did not fulfil expectations. The intended ostentation embraced a tent, a plucky Channel 9 commentator, a crowd of around 30, many of whom must have been disappointed not to be picked, and a wet morning in Sydney. There was the distinct feeling of a parade being rained on. It may as well have been in a dungeon.

At any other time over the past two decades, had such a carnival been felt necessary, make no mistake that the Aussies would have named 11 players and a 12th man and said something like: "Right mate, that's our team, beat it if you can. And by the way we don't think you've got a prayer." Then it might have worked.

Nothing of the sort accompanied Andrew Hilditch, Australia's chairman of selectors, yesterday as he read out the names. He was clearly not entirely comfortable with the proceedings but these days, as his counterpart Geoff Miller has found in England, such chaps are expected to be song-and-dance men as well as good judges of cricketers.

Hilditch and his fellow selectors have decided not to reveal their hand yet because they do not know what it is. There was an element of their being railroaded into yesterday's undignified little bash with the match of all matches not starting until next week.

Nonetheless, it sheds some light on the state of Australia. It does not mean that they will not compete as though their lives depended on it and it certainly does not mean that they will not win, but to be this close to a major series and to be so uncertain of what is your best XI is leaving it late at best and indicates disarray and disagreement at worst.

Hilditch said: "The national selection panel considers it prudent and appropriate to look at the next round of Sheffield Shield games and the Australia A clash before finalising the team for the first Test of the Vodafone Ashes Series in Brisbane. From a logistical point of view and with these important games yet to be completed we have named an extended squad of 17 with 10 days before the first Test begins.

"The national selection panel has been pleased with the performance of the Test side in India, however we were obviously disappointed in the result. With two losses in games where we felt the result could easily have been different we realise there are some important areas we need to improve on before this summer's matches." Shorthand for: "We haven't got much of a clue, we think we'd like to change but wonder if we dare."

Of the three uncapped players, Ferguson and Khawaja are probably about to be engaged in some form of bat-off in the match against England. Both are playing for Australia A, both have had formidable starts to the season. Ferguson, an upright right-hander, was impressive in the one-day series in England in 2009 when he made two fifties, and Khawaja, a left-hander, is reported to be exhilaratingly talented.

The men they have particularly in their sights are the West Australians, Mike Hussey and Marcus North. Hussey, who had an explosive start to his Test career with three hundreds in his first nine innings, has now gone 13 without, seven without a fifty. It is looking a harder game. As for North, doubts have frequently been cast about his ability to cut it at the highest level but he has continued to defy critics with runs in the nick of time and did so again in India with a second Test hundred.

But there is another batting concern about Michael Clarke, vice-captain, heir apparent. His Test form has not been supreme in recent matches but it is his back which is giving cause for concern. He has a chronic condition which affected him once more in his Shield match for New South Wales last week, when he made a hundred. The Australian medical team seems confident he will be fit but they also know that with dodgy backs nothing is certain.

Harris, one of five fast bowlers named, is suffering from the after-effects of a knee operation, with the joint still prone to swelling. Fellow fast bowler Doug Bollinger and opening batsman Simon Katich had to play club cricket at the weekend to test their fitness.

Two spin bowlers have been named, Nathan Hauritz and Doherty. Hilditch could hardly have made it clearer that the Tasmanian slow left-armer, Doherty, is well in the frame. Hauritz has performed with aplomb for Australia, not least considering the boots he has to fill belonging to Shane Warne, but he was deeply disappointing in India where the home batsmen had him for breakfast as six wickets, one every 90 balls, at 65 runs each testify.

Hilditch said: "Nathan Hauritz has bowled exceptionally well over the past 12 months for Australia and one of the biggest decisions we need to make is whether we go into the first Test with a right-arm off-spinner or with the variation of a left-arm orthodox bowler. Xavier Doherty has been very impressive, in particular last season and the start of this season." They, too, are involved in a bowl-off for their state sides this week as New South Wales take on Tasmania and it sounds as if Hauritz must bowl out of his skin.

Naturally, nothing has been given away about the dynamics of the selectors' deliberations. But there is a feeling that the addition of Greg Chappell to the panel has added a new impetus and that he is pushing for change of some sort. He will remember that he was given his chance at 22 and took it by scoring a hundred against England in his first innings.

Australia could have five men over 30 in the top seven. Or they may not. At present, with the first Test rushing upon them, they do not know.

Countdown to the Ashes: 9 days

9 Australia won the first official Ashes Test by nine wickets at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during England's tour in 1882-83. In August 1882, after England had lost at home to Australia for the first time, the match bails were burnt and placed in an urn – creating the Ashes. England went on to win the first Ashes series 2-1.

The baggy greens' 17-man Ashes squad

Ricky Ponting (captain)
Age Tests Test ave Best
35 148 Bat: 54.68 257
Bowl: 48.40 1-0
The Aussie skipper has won seven of 15 Tests as captain against England, five of which took place when England last visited Australia

Michael Clarke
Age Tests Test ave Best
29 64 Bat: 48.91 168
Bowl: 38.52 6-9
The 29-year-old has four centuries to his name against England in 15 Tests. In his last Ashes series in Australia he averaged 77.80 with two hundreds

Simon Katich
Age Tests Test ave Best
35 54 Bat: 45.96 157
Bowl: 30.326-65
The 35-year-old left-hander has only scored three half-centuries against England in 11 Tests

Mike Hussey
Age Tests Test ave Best
35 54 Bat: 49.75 182
Bowl: 51.50 1-3
Hussey averaged an outstanding 91.60 runs on England's last tour Down Under, which included one century and four fifties

Marcus North
Age Tests Test ave Best
31 19 Bat: 37.40 128
Bowl: 37.00 6-55
Scored 125 not out on his debut against England at Cardiff in 2009. He averaged a sumptuous 52.42 for the series

Usman Khawaja
Age Tests Test aveBest
23 - - -
Has scored six centuries in 23 first-class appearances, averaging 52.82 and has a highest score of 214

Callum Ferguson
Age Tests Test aveBest
25 - - -
Has a fine average of 46.07 in 26 ODI's for Australia that includes five half centuries

Brad Haddin (wkt)
Age Tests Test ave Best
33 27 Bat: 38.62 169
Was one of four to hit a century against England at Cardiff in 2009. The others were Katich (122), Ponting (150) and North (125*)

Shane Watson
Age Tests Test ave Best
29 22 Bat: 39.94 126
Bowl: 28.20 6-33
The burly opener scored two fifties on his debut against England at Edgbaston in 2009

Steven Smith
Age Tests Test aveBest
21 2 Bat: 25.00 77
Bowl: 27.33 3-51
Took 3-51 against Pakistan on his Test debut in July earlier this year

Xavier Doherty
Age Tests Test ave Best
27 - - -
Took 4-46 on his ODI debut against Sri Lanka, despite losing by one wicket

Mitchell Johnson
Age Tests Test aveBest
29 38 Bat: 22.88 123*
Bowl: 29.06 8-61
Johnson walked away with second innings figures of 5-69 as Australia blew England away to win by an innings and 80 runs at Headingley in 2009

Nathan Hauritz
Age Tests Test ave Best
29 17 Bat: 25.05 75
Bowl: 34.98 5-53
Broke a finger in the third Test at Edgbaston in 2009, ruling him out of the final two matches

Ben Hilfenhaus
Age Tests Test aveBest
27 13 Bat: 17.00 56*
Bowl: 31.06 4-57
Claimed the most wickets by either team in the 2009 Ashes series with 22, coming at an average of 27.45

Doug Bollinger
Age Tests Test aveBest
29 11 Bat: 6.71 21
Bowl: 23.79 5-28
In four of Bollinger's six Test series, his bowling has averaged less than 22

Ryan Harris
Age Tests Test ave Best
31 2 Bat: 28.00 18*
Bowl: 23.00 4-77
On his Test debut against New Zealand, Harris took match figures of 6 for 119

Peter Siddle
Age Tests Test aveBest
25 17 Bat: 16.00 38
Bowl: 31.53 5-21
The second of his two career five-wicket hauls came against England at Headingley where he picked up 5-21