AFTER a winter headlined by the defections of Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, NSW are set to give wicketkeeper Peter Nevill a shock promotion to the top of the batting order.
The bold move will enable the Blues to play glovemen Nevill and Brad Haddin in the same XI while also adding vital experience to a top order decimated by retirements and player movements. Youngsters Nic Maddinson and Scott Henry, who has played two first-class matches, are also in contention for top-order berths for the season-opening Sheffield Shield game against Western Australia starting Tuesday week.
NSW and the Warriors have been handed an unusually early start to their season, especially considering the bulk of their squads will be representing Sydney Sixers and Perth Scorchers in the Champions League Twenty20 tournament next month. Although asking Nevill to open the batting seems on paper an unorthodox strategy, the Melbourne-born player topped NSW’s run-scoring last summer with 570 at an average of 50 and was one of few Blues to emerge from the season with his reputation enhanced. Nevill toured the West Indies as the Test back-up keeper to Matthew Wade earlier this year and is highly rated within the NSW dressing room.
”When he bats in the middle order he’s had to face the second new ball a lot,” said Stephen O’Keefe, who will skipper the side when Michael Clarke is unavailable. ”He was probably our best batter last year. Technically he’s very sound. I’d like to think of him as a bloke that could bat anywhere from one to six and I’d like to think we can fit him into our batting line-up, even with Brad Haddin in the side.”
The Blues begin their domestic campaign next Sunday in Perth – where last season, despite fielding eight players with international experience, they posted one of the worst performances in the state’s history. ”It really ripped the band-aid off last year,” O’Keefe said. ”It exposed a few issues that we had to address as a squad.”
Stalwarts Simon Katich and Phil Jaques called time on their illustrious careers shortly after and there was more upheaval in the winter when Khawaja and Hughes also departed, for Queensland and South Australia respectively. The Blues will be led in Perth by Clarke, who takes over a side that has done much retrospection after their disappointing campaign last summer. Anthony Stuart remains coach despite much speculation he had lost support within the dressing room and would not see out the full term of his two-year deal.
O’Keefe said it was unfair Stuart had taken the brunt of the blame for NSW’s failure. ”Ultimately the players have to point the fingers at themselves,” O’Keefe said. ”If we look back at everything a lot of the responsibility comes back to us as a player and a group. If we’ve got issues there’s nothing wrong with voicing them or getting out and speaking our mind as opposed to having conversations in alleyways and not expressing our thoughts. This year we have the ability to have that tough conversation and bring up areas we feel like we needed to improve on. Credit to Anthony, he’s worked bloody hard with the squad.”
Shane Watson and David Warner are unavailable for the start of the Blues’ season due to international commitments, as are young guns Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc. The Blues will still field a strong pace attack likely to include rising star Josh Hazlewood, Trent Copeland and Doug Bollinger.
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