Ashes opinion: Australia and Tim Paine search for selection solutions ahead of fourth Test at Old Trafford

Ashes Analysis: Australia selection issues assessed ahead of fourth Test at Old Trafford
Ashes Analysis: Australia selection issues assessed ahead of fourth Test at Old Trafford

Australia head to the County Ground for a tour game against Derbyshire on Thursday with places up for grabs in the starting XI for the fourth Ashes Test - Richard Mann considers Tim Paine's options.

Speedster Starc pushing for recall

Australia captain Tim Paine dropped one of the biggest bombshells of the summer prior to the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston when announcing that Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood wouldn't make the starting XI in Birmingham.

With Hazlewood working his way back from injury and having missed the World Cup, his omission was understandable but Starc's was harder for Australian and English fans to grasp on the back of terrific run of form in ODI cricket.

Nevertheless, a poor winter Down Under where Starc struggled for top order wickets in Test cricket and his propensity to leak runs has seen his stock fall dramatically in this form of the game and with Australia keen to field a four-man attack with the brief of discipline and containment, he has found himself surplus to requirements in the first three Ashes Test matches.

In fairness to the Australian think tank, victory at Edgbaston, followed by a draw at Lord's and a largely impressive showing with the ball in Leeds has probably justified their selection calls so far, but as Ben Stokes turned the Ashes on its head with his second innings Sunday spectacular, for the first time in the series, Starc was missed.

For all his faults, and he has a few, Starc is a terrific bowler when opposition batsmen are looking to find the boundary. His yorker possibly the best we've seen since Lasith Malinga's star began to wane, and he has always been a brilliant bowler to the lower order.

With Pat Cummins and Hazlewood, both weary from heavy workloads already in the series, struggling to extract any movement from a flat Headingley pitch, how Paine would have loved to called upon Starc's extra pace to try and keep Stokes in check, or test out Jack Leach's defences against a 90mph yorker delivered from a thunderbolt left arm.

Starc continues to say the right things off the field but he will be desperate to use this week's tour match against Derbyshire to remind the Australian selectors of his capabilities, especially with the final two Test matches to be played at Old Trafford and The Oval, historically quick and abrasive surfaces that should suit him ideally.

Starc took a while to warm to his task in Australia's earlier tour match against Worcestershire but he still finished with two wickets and he was reported to have bowled quickly in the nets prior to the third Test in Leeds.

Another who is set to enjoy a run out in Derby is Mitchell Marsh, a destructive all-rounder on his day who bowls at decent pace and knows coach Justin Langer well from their time together at Western Australia.

As yet, Australia have stuck with their plan of fielding six specialist batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four frontline bowlers, but Joe Root, Joe Denly and then Stokes stretched the stamina reserves of their bowling attack in Leeds and with Cummins, in particular, racking up plenty of overs already, the tourists could easily change tact should Marsh show up well in Derby.

Ironically enough, Marsh working his way into contention could actually help Starc's push for his own recall.

Australia have clearly been reluctant to trust Starc in a four-man attack but with five bowlers at his disposal, Paine could easily use Starc as a short-burst attacking weapon with the instruction to take wickets at any cost.

Paine could certainly have done with that option up his sleeve as the unstoppable Stokes powered England towards victory on Sunday.

Smith's return provides needed boost

If ever the Australian cricket team needed a boost, it is now, only days after a defeat in Leeds that will have cut deep and left many within the ranks regretting a number of missed opportunities in England's second innings, opportunities that could yet cost the tourists the Ashes.

Steve Smith's return to full fitness, having missed the third Test due to concussion, couldn't have come at a better time and assuming he comes through the match against Derbyshire unscathed, he will slot back in at number four with his replacement at Lord's and in Leeds, Marnus Labuschagne, certain to retain his place for Old Trafford following an impressive return to the side.

Ben Stokes
Click on the image to read Richard Mann's latest Ashes diary

What is less clear is who will miss out when Smith does return to the starting XI. Labuschagne is likely to bat just before or after Smith, depending on whether opener Marcus Harris gets another chance having displayed some promise last week when replacing a struggling Cameron Bancroft at the top of the order.

Another left-hander for England pacemen Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer to eye up isn't ideal but Australia have picked a squad loaded with left-handers and as it stands, Harris, Usman Khawaja and Travis Head might be competing for two batting spots in Manchester.

Khawaja is a fine player with a terrific record but scores of 13, 40, 36, 2, 8, 23 in the series so far leave him under a little bit of pressure if Australia feel they want a specialist to partner David Warner in the opening batsmen slots.

Moving up to open is something Khawaja has done with success before - the left-hander struck a brilliant century against South Africa back in 2016 when opening the batting - and with his place in the side on the line, he could hardly argue against it should Paine and Langer want to go down that route.

Of course, Australia could easily stick with the same top order from Leeds, not wanting to give the impression of emotional and impulsive selection, but Smith's return at number four and the need to find room for the excellent Labuschagne could also see Head and Matthew Wade come under the microscope.

With a century at Edgbaston to his name, Wade ought to be safe but less so Head, despite making two half-centuries in the first three Tests.

As mentioned already, with Marsh sure to push hard for a recall at number six this week, and offering a very useful fifth-bowling option, there will be plenty of Australia's batsmen wanting to spend some valuable time in the middle in Derby over a vitally important next few days for many in the touring party.

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