The men's Ashes is nearly upon us, and there are a host of issues bedevilling the Australian and English teams in the lead-up to the oldest rivalry in world cricket.
In Part One of our Ashes Natter, Grandstand bloggers and cricketing tragics Dean Bilton and James Maasdorp cast their stern gaze on how things could pan out for Ashes hosts and tourists alike.
And despite several major reshuffles in the Australian batting line-up, we're still seeing the same problems in the middle order emerging.
DEAN: So I guess this "era" that we're in now, if you can call it that yet, started in Hobart last year, right? When Australia got rinsed so badly the selectors ripped the whole thing up and started again?
JAMES: What a seismic day that was. I don't think we've ever seen so much interest in the Sheffield Shield since that fateful Test (full disclosure in the interests of section 44: I'm South African by birth) — but in the year since we've seen a complete overhaul of the Australian Test team.
We really threw the baby out with the bath water in some ways, because while it has seen some players with real potential emerge from the fold (Peter Handscomb and Matt Renshaw, most prominently), we still have the same weakness that the Proteas exploited so well in 2016. That is, our middle order collapses still happen with bemusing regularity.
DEAN: Yeah, the Adelaide Test that followed felt like a brave new world at the time with all the fresh faces, but here we are 12 months on and of the three that debuted that day — Renshaw, Handscomb and poor old Nic Maddinson — only one seems to be guaranteed a spot for the first Ashes Test.
And then there's Matthew Wade, who everyone has an opinion on but nobody could claim with a straight face that he has shored up the middle order any better than Peter Nevill has. So I guess they're back to the drawing board again.
JAMES: Ah, Matty Wade. A penny for his thoughts right now in one of the most talked-about positions in the Test team. But there are a bunch of problems in that middle order, mostly being an inability to knuckle down when the going gets tough.
It's not like other parts of the line-up haven't learned the lesson. Renshaw is the shining light for fans of the Geoffrey Boycott school of batting (though his Shield form is miserable and will probably see him axed at the top of the order), and David Warner has made definite improvements in his temperament, game reading and concentration. At some point in a Test, the bowling attack will get on top of you, and it's the best batsmen that find a way to grind out the testing periods.
But now it's looking like Mr Reverse Sweep himself, Glenn Maxwell, may have done enough in recent Shield matches to at least build up some favouritism with men of influence around the selection table. His second round saw him chalk up two half-tons for Victoria, but he's failed with the bat with a 4 against Tasmania in the ongoing third-round match. Does he warrant a selection at number six for the Gabba Test? Has he learned his (many) lessons?
DEAN: Honestly, and I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'm on board with Maxwell. That century in Ranchi did things to me, man.
JAMES: One Test ton. I mean, fair play, it's more than I've ever done with my life, but you'd better hope that century was a career game changer.
DEAN: I know, I know. But I feel like it earned him a chance, he's never actually had a chance to play a Test on one of our trademark Aussie roads, where even Adam Voges can build a record comparable to Bradman's. And I still feel like any of the other number six candidates are just as risky. Hilton Cartwright? Jake Lehmann? SHAUN MARSH?!?
JAMES: *TRIGGERED* … except Shaun Marsh has been doing alright for himself lately, hasn't he?
DEAN: Yep. Sixty-odd in the first Shield match, then a very good 93 against the Aussie attack in the second. Not to mention that match-saving partnership with Handscomb in the third Test in India, and the fact he only lost his spot last summer due to injury.
There's no doubt he can bat, but if the ABC's Facebook comments are anything to go by, he would be anything but a popular selection. So then there's someone like
Cartwright — who got a pair of ducks for WA against the Blues — or Lehmann. Is it time for the Son of Boof?
JAMES: SON OF BOOF! Jake Lehmann is on FIRE at the moment — 103 and 93 for the Redbacks in the second round of the Shield, knowing there's a spot up for grabs. That's delivering if ever I've seen it. He's got that similar flair that the old man had. I think the only guy who can stop him from making his Test bow is one Cameron Bancroft, but more on him later.
The only thing I can't like about Lehmann is his moustache, and with any luck that will be gone by the time November bleeds into December.
DEAN: Wait, you don't like the mo?
JAMES: It's … disconcerting.
But maybe we should talk about Hilton Cartwright a bit more, because I think it's indicative of a wider problem the selectors have. It seems his name has been in the mix for a while because of this obsession with having an all-rounder.
Yes, we need someone to step in to ease the load on our fragile pace bowlers (which is also where Maxwell factors in), but is the difference between the seriously-in-form Lehmann, and the Maxwell-Cartwright cartel of doom really going to be the fact that the latter two can bowl some dibbly-dobblies?
Cartwright's bowling has barely been called upon since his debut — just NINE OVERS in his two Tests.
DEAN: Yeah, I'm yet to be convinced that Cartwright offers any sort of bowling option at all really. Those who know him well seem to suggest that he's a batsman through and through, and he certainly has talent, but two ducks in Hurstville makes him hard to pick when there are other batsmen in form.
Speaking of batsmen in form: Cameron Bancroft. Could they really mix it up and pick HIM as the keeper, ahead of Matthew Wade, Peter Nevill and Alex Carey? Personally I think it would be insane to pick a bloke who has only kept twice in the Shield as a Test keeper, but I'm learning not to be surprised by our selectors nowadays. It has to be Nevill or Carey, though. Has to be.
JAMES: The worst thing they could do to Bancroft is give him the Test gloves. We're talking about one of the genuine up-and-coming talents of Australian batting, and you want to take him from being a specialist bat to a part-time keeper. Here's a guy whose Sheffield Shield innings so far read as follows: 18, 17, 76, 86, 161* (and counting). Now you're going to make him a gloveman? Way to wreck a promising career. For the same reason, I hate talk of Handscomb taking over as keeper.
On the topic of keepers, I'll go into bat for Nevill. Of all the failures in the Hobart Test, you can't say Nevill was the root cause of it all. Sure, he got out cheaply twice, as did practically everyone else. But his replacement in Wade has failed spectacularly. Nevill remains a superior pick behind the stumps, and there's lots of promise with the bat if he's given another chance. But you've had a look at Carey and your verdict is ...?
DEAN: He's the business. It's hard to say if he is a better wicketkeeper than Nevill, because Nevill is an outstanding keeper himself, but Carey really is a sensational, technically-superb gloveman. But — and it's a big but — he's yet to score a first-class century. And if you're looking for something to split Nevill and Carey, that's probably all there is.
But you can't really go wrong with one of those two … which means Wade is definitely going to keep his spot, isn't he?
JAMES: I'm all for someone coming good when everyone's written him off, but I (and many others) think Wade's goose is cooked. But if the selectors know what's good for them and the game, they'll go with the Shield form as the decider, because interest in domestic cricket is seriously peaking.
If you had to make a call for number six and the gloveman, who'd you opt for, and who do you think the selectors will pick?
DEAN: I'd go Maxwell and Nevill. I think they'll go Maxwell and Wade.
JAMES: I'm boosting Lehmann and Nevill's claims to the throne, but I too think we'll see the Banter Era live on with The Big Show and Wade's World lighting up the Gabba's day-time offering. But — while it's technically nothing to do with the middle order — I have a suspicion Bancroft will get his call-up as well, replacing Renshaw.
Look out for Part Two, where we will debate whether this England team is good enough to avoid the sort of flogging it copped in 2013/14.