Australia's selectors may defy predictions and even domestic cricket custom by choosing the left-field middle-order duo of Marcus Stoinis and Tim Paine for the Ashes, in an effort to end a worrying trend of collapses that threatens their ability to regain the urn on home soil this summer.
Mark Waugh, the selector on duty for the Twenty20 series in India, mentioned Stoinis and Paine in addition to several more obvious candidates for the problematic Nos. 6 and 7 spots in the Australian batting order, after the incumbents Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Wade failed to make certainties of their places with performances in the recent Test tour of Bangladesh.
Stoinis has impressed the limited-overs touring team in India by showing composure and power with the bat, while his height and strength make his bowling a useful proposition on Australian pitches. "In an ideal world you'd want someone like a Ben Stokes who can give you the ideal balance, bat and bowl," Waugh told Sky Sports Radio.
"Especially if you get a long, hot summer in Australia, there's a lot of wear and tear on just the four specialists bowlers, especially when your batsmen don't bowl. If some of your batsmen bowl, a bit like myself and Steve [Waugh], I think we got about 150 Test wickets between us [Mark 59, Steve 92], you wouldn't really have to look for an allrounder.
"But I think your No. 6 as it stands is probably going to be a batsman and ideally he bowls a bit, someone like a Stoinis for example, even a Travis Head who bowls some offspin, Glenn Maxwell bowls a little bit. But the No.1 priority is batting. I'm not calling it an allrounder, probably more a batting allrounder. You're getting your best batsman at No. 6 and if they can bowl a bit that's a bonus.
"We've got a few options there, Hilton Cartwright, Glenn Maxwell's the incumbent No. 6 and guys like Travis Head and Marcus Stoinis. Every time he's played for Australia, he's really stepped up to the plate as well. So I don't think the out-and-out genuine allrounder is there, given Mitch Marsh is coming back from a shoulder injury, so it's probably going to be that sort of player, a batsman who bowls a little bit."
Paine, meanwhile, has the advantage of Test-match experience in four matches against Pakistan and India in 2010, including a valuable 92 in Mohali, before a series of finger fractures endangered his career. While he returned to the international scene via the T20 team earlier this year, there is the complication created by Wade's move home from Victoria to Tasmania. Waugh admitted that the presence of both glovemen in the same state was a problem.
"Matthew Wade did a pretty good job in the subcontinent, he's had some tough places to keep on in Bangladesh and India, he's done a pretty good job without scoring the runs," Waugh said. "He's disappointed with his scoring of runs since he's been back in, because that was one of the reasons we brought him back, to get some runs out of that middle to lower order.
"That hasn't happened, so he hasn't nailed that down, so that opens a spot up for conjecture. Peter Nevill's definitely there or thereabouts, we've got a young guy in Alex Carey who's making good inroads, and even someone like Tim Paine, his glove work's been excellent when he's been given the chance in the T20s, it's just that he's probably not going to be playing for Tasmania, so that makes it a bit difficult for him, but I think we've got the depth there.
"It's going to be a tricky one come selection time, and the first few Shield matches could well tell about a couple of spots there given some good performances. Those six and seven spots realistically there's going to be some talk about, the rest of the squad probably picks itself."
Waugh conceded that a lengthy tour of India was far from ideal preparation for the Ashes, noting that Smith's exit from the tour due to a shoulder problem was convenient for the captain to get a break between now and the start of the Sheffield Shield matches that precede the Gabba Test. "It's got to be said, it's not an ideal time to be away from Australia," Waugh said. "This series has been a bit spread out. It would have been better probably if it was a week or two shorter.
"Once they get home, they'll have a little break then they'll be back focused on red-ball cricket, then the Ashes. The players are pretty much used to it; it's probably more the travelling, flying around. This one-day tournament and T20 tournament has been to about eight different places, so there's been a lot of travel. But I think they're coping pretty well.
"Obviously Steve Smith going home might be a blessing in disguise, a bit of a freshen-up. He's got a heavy workload, as do a lot of the players. We'll be right. Those three Shield matches will have us in good stead for the Ashes."