Australia keep their options open
Australia have named a 17-man Ashes squad, including potential debutants Xavier Doherty, Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson.
The selectors have named such a large squad because of concerns over the fitness of several players, including vice-captain Michael Clarke, who is battling back problems, and fast bowler Doug Bollinger, who only returned from an abdominal injury in grade cricket at the weekend.
However, with the selectors also keen to analyse form in this week's Sheffield Shield games and the tour match between Australia A and England in Hobart, the squad will be trimmed back to 12 or 13 over the weekend before the players assemble in Brisbane for the first Test at the Gabba, starting on November 25.
Leg-spinning all-rounder Steven Smith is also under consideration along with fast bowler Ryan Harris, who took nine wickets for Queensland last week in his comeback from knee surgery but will not play this week because of ongoing management of the joint which is still troubling him.
“The NSP considers it prudent and appropriate to look at the next round of Weet-Bix Sheffield Shield games and the Australia A clash before finalising the team for the first Test of the Vodafone Ashes Series in Brisbane," said national selection panel chairman Andrew Hilditch.
“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 NSP 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 (Australian) summer's matches."
The selectors have served notice to incumbent spinner Nathan Hauritz that his place in the team is far from assured by naming Doherty, the 27-year-old slow left-armer who recently made his Australia debut with 4-46 against Sri Lanka in the Commonwealth Bank Series.
“Nathan Hauritz has performed exceptionally well over the past 12 months for Australia and one of the biggest decisions we will need to make is whether we go into the first Test in Brisbane with a right-arm off spinner or with the variation of a left-arm orthodox bowler," Hilditch added.
“Xavier Doherty has been very impressive in both limited-overs and first-class cricket, in particular last season and the start of this season, and it will be a great opportunity for us to observe both of the spinning options in the Sheffield Shield clash between New South Wales and Tasmania at the SCG this week."
Hilditch believes Clarke's back injury could be a blessing in disguise as it will give the vice-captain a much-needed rest before the Ashes.
Clarke will miss NSW's clash this week as he continues to manage a chronic back injury that again flared up during the state match against Victoria at the weekend.
Clarke is Australia's busiest cricketer, playing in all three forms of the game, and Hilditch believes a breather is the perfect tonic for the demanding schedule ahead.
“To be perfectly frank I think it would have been a good idea (for Clarke) to miss this Shield game anyway," Hilditch said outside a damp Sydney Opera House shortly after naming the squad.
“He's played a lot of cricket. Michael doesn't have as many breaks as some of the other players. I would have liked him not to play this Shield game irrespective.”
Hilditch also explained the absence of opener Phil Hughes from the side, citing a simple lack of form.
“Phillip's playing for Australia A (against England in Hobart) this weekend and obviously I've spoken to Phil this morning and he's disappointed, but he needs to score runs," Hilditch added.
“On the other side of the coin we're really happy with our opening partnership (of Shane Watson and Simon Katich) and Phil's primarily trying to crack into that spot.
“We would consider him in a middle-order position but at the moment we think the two young players (Khawaja and Ferguson) from Australia A that we've picked are in a bit better form and ready to go."
Australia Ashes squad: Ricky Ponting (captain), Michael Clarke (vice-captain), Doug Bollinger, Xavier Doherty, Callum Ferguson, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Nathan Hauritz, Mike Hussey, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson, Simon Katich, Usman Khawaja, Marcus North, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith, Shane Watson.